Rights and Independence

I’m still a bit confused over the recent Supreme Court ruling. The rationale behind Roe vs. Wade was privacy — the Supreme Court held that the constitutional right to privacy includes a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion. In overturning the Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court said that “there is no inherent right to privacy or personal autonomy in various provisions of the Constitution.”

That’s spooky. No right to privacy? No right to personal autonomy? (Personal autonomy means having the right to act on our own values and interests.)

Instead of addressing that issue, most of the talk about the rationale for overturning Roe vs. Wade was about returning the power to make the decision about abortion to the individual states.

States rights has always been touchy issue because they’ve become associated with racism, but the truth is, this country was founded on the idea of a loose confederation of states —with most of the power residing in the individual states but overseen by a Congress that represented all the states. The federal government was to ensure that there would be enough checks and balances, with enough power to operate on a national level but not so powerful that fundamental rights would be at risk. At the beginning, there was no need for a federal income tax because federal power was limited, but over the centuries, the federal government usurped the power of the states to become the most powerful governing body in the country. Because of that growth of power, the tariffs, excise taxes, and bonds that funded the original federal government no longer was enough. The first year the 1040 form was required to be filed was 1914.

But still, with all that power, the Supreme Court has decided in this one peculiar instance, to give the power back to the states, many of which are now or soon will be banning abortion, which seems such a step back into a darker time. The ban, no matter what side of the issue you are on, makes women de facto wards of the state because women have no right to choose, only the state does.

For centuries, there has been a concept called coverture, a doctrine which says that females have no legal existence. First, her existence is covered by her father’s status, and when he turns her over to her husband-to-be in the marriage ceremony, her existence is then covered by her husband’s legal status. It wasn’t until about 1870 that most states passed married women’s property acts placing married women on equal footing with their husbands when it came to contracts, earnings and ownership of property. (Single women were still out of luck.)

Although that was a big step forward, it wasn’t until 1974 that women were granted the right to sign loans and contracts without a male co-signer, and could buy a house on their own. So, basically, that was the year women became truly independent.

The year before that, women were given autonomy over their own bodies as well as the right to privacy, both of which seem to have been taken away.

There are still interpretations of the constitution saying that no one is allowed to put their life over another person’s by taking their organs or blood or marrow or whatever without written consent, but when it comes to pregnancy, the fetus now in many states has more rights than the mother.

It’s odd, too, how most people point to pictures of fetuses at nineteen weeks or even more to show the humanness of the fetus, when during the first couple of months of pregnancy, the fetus hasn’t even grown to the size of a peanut. Even odder, despite the claim that the uterus is to protect the baby, it’s true function is to protect the mother from incursions into the rest of her body by this peanut. According to Suzanne Sadedinis, an evolutionary biologist, pregnancy is a war in the womb, with the fetus demanding more and more of the mother’s resources, and the mother’s body trying to protect itself. There have been instances where the fetus eats its way through the placenta, and in fact, a fetus can pretty much live anywhere in the body (fetal cells have even been found in women’s brains). The uterus is meant to keep it in its place.

That “war” is a far cry from the lovely mother/child image that is used to grant more rights to the fetus than to the host mother. It’s also no wonder that despite so-called modern medicine, too many women lose that war. (800 women die in childbirth every day.)

Not that any of this helps matters in any way; these are just some of the things I am thinking about on the day before the 246th birthday of the USA.


Pat Bertram is the author of intriguing fiction and insightful works of grief.