The War Over Life, Liberty and Privacy Rights: From Abortion to COVID-19 and Beyond

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by John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute:

“Abortion on demand is the ultimate State tyranny; the State simply declares that certain classes of human beings are not persons, and therefore not entitled to the protection of the law. The State protects the ‘right’ of some people to kill others, just as the courts protected the ‘property rights’ of slave masters in their slaves. Moreover, by this method the State achieves a goal common to all totalitarian regimes: it sets us against each other, so that our energies are spent in the struggle between State-created classes, rather than in freeing all individuals from the State. Unlike Nazi Germany, which forcibly sent millions to the gas chambers (as well as forcing abortion and sterilization upon many more), the new regime has enlisted the assistance of millions of people to act as its agents in carrying out a program of mass murder.”—Ron Paul

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Who gets to decide when it comes to bodily autonomy?

Where does one draw the line over whose rights are worthy of protecting? And how do present-day legal debates over bodily autonomy, privacy, vaccine mandates, the death penalty and abortion play into future discussions about singularity, artificial intelligence, cloning, and the privacy rights of the individual in the face of increasingly invasive, intrusive and unavoidable government technologies?

Caught up in the heated debate over the legality of abortion, we’ve failed to think about what’s coming next. Get ready, because it could get scary, ugly and overwhelming really fast.

Thus far, abortion politics have largely revolved around who has the right to decide—the government or the individual—when it comes to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy in one’s body, sexual freedom, and the rights of the unborn.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides for a “right to privacy” that assures a woman’s right to abort her pregnancy within the first two trimesters.

Since that landmark ruling, abortion has been so politicized, polarized and propagandized as to render it a major frontline in the culture wars.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier ruling in Roe  when it prohibited states from imposing an “undue burden” or “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

Thirty years later, in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court is poised to revisit whether the Constitution—namely, the Fourteenth Amendment—truly provides for the right to an abortion.

At a time when abortion is globally accessible (approximately 73 million abortions are carried out every year), legally expedient form of birth control (it is used to end more than 60% of unplanned pregnancies), and considered a societal norm (according to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans continue to believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases), it’s debatable whether it will ever be truly possible to criminalize abortion altogether.

No matter how the Supreme Court rules in Dobbs, it will not resolve the problem of a culture that values life based on a sliding scale. Nor will it help us navigate the moral, ethical and scientific minefields that await us as technology and humanity move ever closer to a point of singularity.

Here’s what I know.

Life is an inalienable right. By allowing the government to decide who or what is deserving of rights, it shifts the entire discussion from one in which we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” (that of life, liberty property and the pursuit of happiness) to one in which only those favored by the government get to enjoy such rights. The abortion debate—a tug-of-war over when an unborn child is considered a human being with rights—lays the groundwork for discussions about who else may or may not be deserving of rights: the disabled, the aged, the infirm, the immoral, the criminal, etc. The death penalty is just one aspect of this debate. As theologian Francis Schaeffer warned early on: “The acceptance of death of human life in babies born or unborn opens the door to the arbitrary taking of any human life. From then on, it’s purely arbitrary.

If all people are created equal, then all lives should be equally worthy of protection. There’s an idea embraced by both the Right and the Left according to their biases that there is a hierarchy to life, with some lives worthier of protection than others. Out of that mindset is born the seeds of eugenics, genocide, slavery and war.

There is no hierarchy of freedoms. All freedoms hang together. Freedom cannot be a piece-meal venture. My good friend Nat Hentoff (1925-2017), a longtime champion of civil liberties and a staunch pro-lifer, often cited Cardinal Bernardin, who believed that a “consistent ethic of life” viewed all threats to life as immoral: “[N]uclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale. Abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale. Public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history, and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality. They cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.”

Beware slippery slopes. To suggest that the end justifies the means (for example, that abortion is justified in order to ensure a better quality of life for women and children) is to encourage a slippery slope mindset that could just as reasonably justify ending a life in order for the great good of preventing war, thwarting disease, defeating poverty, preserving national security, etc. Such arguments have been used in the past to justify such dubious propositions as subjecting segments of the population to secret scientific experiments, unleashing nuclear weapons on innocent civilians, and enslaving fellow humans.

Beware double standards. As the furor surrounding COVID-19 vaccine mandates make clear, the debate over bodily autonomy and privacy goes beyond the singular right to abortion. Indeed, as vaccine mandates have been rolled out, long-held positions have been reversed: many of those who historically opposed the government usurping a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and privacy have no qualms about supporting vaccine mandates that trample upon those very same rights. Similarly, those who historically looked to the government to police what a woman does with her body believe the government should have no authority to dictate whether or not one opts to get vaccinated.

What’s next? Up until now, we have largely focused the privacy debate in the physical realm as it relates to abortion rights, physical searches of our persons and property, and our communications. Yet humanity is being propelled at warp speed into a whole new frontier when it comes to privacy, bodily autonomy, and what it means to be a human being.

We haven’t even begun to understand how to talk about these new realms, let alone establish safeguards to protect against abuses.

Humanity itself hangs in the balance.

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