On midnight September 1st the United States supreme court has, in a 5 to 4 decision, effectively overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark case which legalized abortions in the US. What prompted the supreme court decision was a Texas legislation called the “heartbeat bill” or SB8, which prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Republicans lawmakers have been trying to ban abortions ever since they where first made legal. The problem they faced was that Roe vs. Wade is a supreme court case, and therefore states cannot directly contradict it. The new bill manages to work around this limitation by prohibiting abortions without making them illegal. SB8 deputizes private citizens giving them the right to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. This places a bounty on everyone from the abortion clinic staff who perform the abortion, through family, friends and counselors who provide support, to the Uber driver who drives a woman to the clinic.
SB8 is an airtight legislation. It applies to abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, before most people know that hey are pregnant. It applies to any person who “intends” to aid or abet an abortion, even if they do not follow through. It mandates a $10,000 fine for each abortion performed, plus attorney’s fees, while if the suit is lost there is no requirement to pay these fees. The law also allows the plaintiff to demand litigation in a county of their choice, forcing their target to travel.
In other words SB8 effectively dismantles Roe vs. Wade making abortions illegal in US states who chose to do so, and indeed they do. In addition to Texas 9 other states have passed laws banning abortions either from conception or at six weeks.
Having attended high school in the US in the early 90’s I remember the passionate shouting match which was the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. Those against legalized abortions, the pro-life camp, valued the sanctity of life above the right to self determination over your own body. The unborn baby, they explained, deserves to live more than the mother deserves to choose. Those in favor of legalized abortions, the pro-choice camp, valued freedom of choice above the sanctity life. They explained that the mother’s right to decide with regards to her body and her future outweighs the right of the unborn baby to live. To a first approximation we can say that traditionally pro-lifers were conservatives and pro-choicers were democrats.
Regardless of any particular moral point of view on abortions, I’d like to recognize that the pro-life / pro-choice debate is worthwhile, because it brings to the forefront in a practical way interesting questions regarding our moral choices and values which otherwise would have remained theoretical. I’d also like to recognize that this is an extremely divisive issue, one which hardly leaves room for any middle ground. Pro-life vs. pro-choice is a moral dilemma, much wider in implication than abortions alone.
With that in mind I’d like to consider another debate, one which I am sure you are well familiar with, unless you’ve just woken up after being cryogenically frozen for the past two years, or are just returning from an expedition to the far side of the moon. I am referring to the question of whether the state should mandate certain public health measures, such as vaccinations and lockdowns, in light of the corona pandemic. More specifically, do people get the right to choose whether or not to get vaccinated (and take other protective measures), even if by choosing not to they risk the lives of others, or does the state get to mandate what we must all do for the better good? Its our old friend, the pro-life / pro-choice debate, rearing it’s ugly head again. The choice of not taking protective measures, such as getting vaccinated or maintaining social distancing, is akin to the choice of getting an abortion. It has the potential of putting other lives at risk.
When examining the two discussions we can observe an interesting shift in the views of many liberals, who generally speaking where pro-choice with regards to abortions and have adopted pro-life views with regards to pandemic related public health measures. A similar but opposite shift can be observed with regards to the position of conservatives. Pro-life and pro-choice are just labels, self assigned by the two sides of the abortion debate. There’s no heavenly law mandating that we should be consistent in applying them. One can be pro-choice on abortions and pro-life on vaccinations. Human rights on the other hand are not just a label, they are one of modern civilisation greatest achievements.
We are about to enter the 3rd year of the pandemic and I strongly believe that this period will go down in the history of the human rights movement as a period of severe degradation in civil liberty. A time where our freedom of movement, our freedom of assembly and our right to self determination were eroded to a degree unimaginable in the west a mere 3 years prior. This is not only a matter of public health policy, it is a matter of principle which should concern all of us regardless of our point of view on the pandemic, vaccinations, and abortion. In other words, when human rights are being put on hold we should take stock, even if it’s done for what we believe are good reasons.
What I’m suggesting is that maybe the fact that we are seeing Roe vs. Wade being challenged now is not a coincidence but a consequence. A consequence brought about, at least in part, by the shift in the public opinion of liberals who have chosen life over choice. Liberals have traditionally been the guardians of Human Rights, and it is these rights which are the collateral damage of their shifting worldview. It is a mistake to think that we can choose when to have human rights and when not to. When we suspend human rights in one place, even if it’s for a good reason, those who oppose human rights in another place take notice.
Protection of human rights is a relatively new invention which only came about after centuries of struggle. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is called Universal for a reason, as there really shouldn’t be a good enough reason to suspend these rights. We are better off spending our time finding other ways of promoting our agenda, be it with regards to public health measures or to other matters, by educating our fellow citizens, investing in better science, or finding alternative solutions to the problem at hand. We should be wary of the desire to limit other peoples’ choices for the sake of the greater good, as it is an act driven by fear which will, and already has, come back to bite us. It is terribly hard to put this particular genie back in the box.