Issues of life and death, liberty, justice and freedom call for citizen involvement. We should have strong opinions about such topics. Apathy destroys more democracies than tanks do. But while civic participation is necessary, the U.S. has become more polarized, more confrontational and less able to reach consensus on major policy questions. Even simple respect for one another is getting hard to come by.
A perfect example is the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
To many, the Supreme Court has become a malignant danger to America now that its majority leans toward originalism, though many of the same people thought the court was perfectly principled when it sided with progressives.
While some Americans believe that sending the issue of abortion back to each state’s legislators — women and men elected by the citizens of each district in their state — ought to be celebrated as a victory for democracy and the rule of law, others think that overturning Roe is an attack on women, on privacy rights and, as President Biden called it, “a tragic error.”
Some of the most furious critics of the court’s ruling believe that “birthing people” have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. To argue otherwise, they say, is a patronizing, misogynistic assault on women. Six unelected judges shouldn’t interfere with a woman’s “right to choose,” they say, though it was fine to have a majority of unelected judges side with the far left in Roe, Casey (a later, related case) and other decisions for decades.
Because the justices ruled against her preference, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, claims the court has “lost legitimacy.” She wants to “pack” it with additional Biden-nominated justices. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, promised that women would “defy” the ruling.
The reversal of Roe is just the most recent cause for extreme reactions. The House of Representatives’ prejudiced Jan. 6 committee, operating without cross-examination of witnesses, has roused hyper reactions on the right. Covid vaccination and mask requirements provoked folks on both sides to confront others, sometimes even physically. Many Americans are angry over social media censorship, while others are mad that the social media don’t limit speech more aggressively. The Biden administration’s implicit invitation and acceptance of millions of migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico with no effective controls, notwithstanding strict immigration laws, drives many citizens nuts. Others welcome this border breakdown, whether in the name of hospitality, charity, cheap labor or potential political advantage.
So there are a lot of important issues currently provoking extreme reactions. And there are more ways than ever to proclaim our opinions. Social media triggers the brilliant and the intellectually immature alike, and enables self-expression, including radical opinions, incitement, the intentional or ignorant spreading of misinformation, political and organizational propaganda, or just wacky, narcissistic stupidity.
There is, of course, a big difference between the enthusiastic exercise of our constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and assembly and the violent assaults, looting and arson that marked recent “mostly peaceful protests.” Marching in solidarity for legitimate rights isn’t the same as throwing fake blood on adoption- and pregnancy-counseling centers and setting one on fire. There’s a distinction between opinions based on sincerely held beliefs and radical acts of violence designed to crush those who hold those beliefs. There’s a world of difference between disagreeing with court opinions and attempting to assassinate a justice.
Courts aren’t legislatures. The three dissenting justices “do not make a serious effort to dispute the points the majority makes about the legal basis for Roe in the first instance,” wrote Carrie Campbell Severino, the president of the Judicial Crisis Network. “Their argument amounts to an appeal to uphold the court’s protracted acts of judicial fiat on the subject of abortion because they like the outcome of those precedents as a matter of policy. Such brazen melding of policy preferences with constitutional interpretation undermines the rule of law.”
I think the court actually agrees with those who say the justices have no right to decide what women may do with their bodies. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said: “Roe was on a collision course with the Constitution from the day it was decided, Casey perpetuated its errors, and those errors do not concern some arcane corner of the law of little importance to the American people. Rather, wielding nothing but raw judicial power . . . the Court usurped the power to address a question of profound moral and social importance that the Constitution unequivocally leaves for the people.”
John O’Connell is a former executive editor of the Herald Community Newspapers. Comments? OConnell11001@yahoo.com.