Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Framing The Abortion Debate

As the Alito nomination hearings roll on, it becomes more and more clear that perhaps I was wrong about the intentions of the GOP. I've long held that Roe vs. Wade was probably safe from the Supreme Court, if for no other reason than because it makes for such a great "get out the vote" issue for the Right. However, Alito's unwillingness to acknowledge Roe as "settled law" is rather, well, unsettling.

The abortion issue is a tough nut to crack because it repeatedly gets misconstrued by both sides into areas that have little to do with the established law. Arguments about when life begins, trimester restrictions, fetal viability and so forth, are relevant questions when discussing the moral implications of abortion. But they don't have much impact on the legal debate.

In spite of what conservatives claim, the central question that Roe vs. Wade answers isn't whether or not American women should be allowed to have abortions. Rather, the question it answers is "who shall be allowed to decide whether or not American women may have abortions". That's a key distinction and I think it has gotten lost so far in the Alito hearings.

Roe vs. Wade protects the right of women to be free from government interference in their personal medical and reproductive decisions. The freedom of choice is the key, not the act itself. The issue that makes Alito such a dangerous nominee to the Supreme Court is not his moral objections to the act of abortion. Nearly all conservatives have some range of moral objection about the act of abortion itself, ranging from a general unease that abortion is not limited enough to a visceral hatred of the act that defies all attempts at reasoned discourse. The problem with Alito is his apparent belief in the need for greater limitations on civil rights. The legal issue of how far the rights of the individual go is what strikes at the heart of Roe vs. Wade. It's clear from his writings and his legal decisions that Alito supports a more powerful government role and seems unlikely to support Roe vs. Wade as a matter of individual rights trumping government control.

Roe vs. Wade is predicated on a right to individual privacy; a right, I might add, that many conservatives don't believe Americans have. Thus far, the Supreme Court has maintained the position that Americans do, in fact, have a right to personal privacy. However, a swing rightward by the Court could bring the existence of that right into doubt, which would radically change the face of American culture in very short order. Such a weakening of civil liberties fits hand-in-glove with an assertion of strong executive power, another Alito position. Both are characteristics shared by fascist nations, an authoritative (and perhaps authoritarian) government able to strip the power of personal choice from its citizens. The right to make a persona choice about abortion speaks to the progressive civil liberties that make the United States a free country. There can be no liberty without personal liberty.

The morality of the act of abortion is moot in a discussion of Roe vs. Wade; it's a red herring tossed in by religious conservatives to poison the well. The reality is that if you don't support the right of an individual to choose whether or not to have an abortion, then you believe that the government has more power than the governed. Such an America shares nothing with the ideals upon which the country was founded.

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