The Politics of Autonomy

The wonderful thing about a democracy is the simple principle that if you can get 50 percent of the people to agree with you, then you can have whatever you want. The terrible thing about a democracy is, of course, the same exact thing—which is why pure democracies (whose political volatility makes them so rare in the world) quickly burn out and fade away.

John Lesch

John Lesch

This is also why the writers of the US Constitution gave Americans a republic—not a democracy. In a republic, mob rule, or the passion of the majority, is restricted by the rule of law—through statutes passed by elected leaders and, in turn, the words of the Constitution. Nonetheless, these enduring principles do not stop some groups, such as antiabortion activists, from appealing to the passions of the majority to circumvent freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

My state of Minnesota is no stranger to proposals that restrict access to abortion services. Just this past legislative session, the Minnesota legislature heard several proposals that would roll back reproductive freedoms in the state and restore the Dark Ages—or make us more like Mississippi, whichever you prefer. The proponents of these laws never couch their reasoning in such honest terms as “restricting reproductive freedoms.” Instead, it is sold with perfume and mints as “protecting women’s health.” Such reframing is nothing new. Even the Confederacy claimed they never went to war to “preserve slavery” but instead for “states’ rights.” Jim Crow laws restricting black autonomy were proposed under the banner of states’ rights, or, in the case of lynching laws, “protecting the dignity of white women.”

Legislatures across the country are familiar with proposals to restrict conscience and autonomy in the name of the popular phobia du jour. American politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were riddled with screeds against “the evils of drink” (coded language maligning the morals of those European immigrants for whom teetotalism was no virtue). This period also saddled us with 15 years of Prohibition—one of America’s more notable social blunders.

Contemporary national anxieties often result from unfamiliarity with new products or technologies: privacy vs. surveillance technology, parental rights vs. vaccination science, smoking/drinking vs. public health policy. Sometimes, public perception of an old vice (e.g., smoking, drinking, sex, pornography) may alter public policy as a result of new trends in public behavior. As rates of smokers plummeted throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a lawsuit against Big Tobacco (and its accordant legislation re-regulating smoking behavior) became inevitable, as there weren’t enough smokers around anymore to care about the right to smoke. Any objective consideration of an adult’s autonomy in burning a cigarette without interfering with anyone else faded with the decreasing number of smokers in the population, and restrictive national policy followed.

The wonderful thing about a democracy is the simple principle that if you can get 50 percent of the people to agree with you, then you can have whatever you want. The terrible thing about a democracy is, of course, the same exact thing…

Public officials are keenly aware of these trends, and they respond in kind. In late 2001, still reeling from the attacks of September 11, a grieving and angry Congress readily acceded to a body of law that radically altered previous interpretations of individual rights of conscience and autonomy under the US Constitution. Called the USA PATRIOT Act, it authorized broad warrantless wiretaps and indefinite detentions of immigrants, among other sweeping changes to long-settled constitutional doctrine. The law passed the House of Representatives 357–66 and the Senate 98–1. In later years, many of the law’s supporters repudiated their prior positions, switching to “no” votes and refusing to extend key provisions that were due to expire if further action were not taken.

These sunset expirations, coupled with judicial rulings on constitutionality, slowly repealed the act’s most controversial policies over the next 15 years. This roughly correlated with national exhaustion over prolonged foreign military action, which depleted the public anger that was so evident in late 2001. Conscience and individual autonomy were trending again, but few would soon forget how readily those freedoms were dispatched in the wake of 9/11.

Public passions typically run roughshod over individual conscience and autonomy, especially in the immediate aftermath of a highly publicized event. For instance, the so-called Planned Parenthood sting videos of 2015, while later proven to be fraudulently edited to support antiabortion activists’ aims, fueled new congressional and state efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Previous TRAP (Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers) legislation, which would have closed most abortion providers in Minnesota, was predicated on “advances in the scientific understanding of public health and contagion risks”—so said the information distributed to my legislative office. The language was remarkably similar to language used to regulate electronic cigarettes, tattoos, tanning beds and seat belts. There were scant mentions of the activity itself, but instead ginned up public fear over supposed corollary effects, usually citing official-sounding but weak evidence to support their claims.

This absurd logic becomes necessary to overcome the average person’s intuition, which suggests that government should leave people alone unless they’re hurting someone else. Digging up weak evidence of hurting someone else becomes a game to antiabortion advocates, but it convinces a fair number of voters and lawmakers. These advocates even strain to turn conscience and autonomy on their heads, suggesting religious freedom is vested solely in the religious institution itself, rather than the individual. These antiabortion activists, who fancy themselves crusaders for conscience like pilgrims on the Mayflower, fail to see that, in reassigning religious conscience from the individual to the institution, they unwittingly become the oppressors of the faithful, just as the Church of England was to the pilgrims who fled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

When polled, Americans overwhelmingly express their belief in the sanctity of a woman’s conscience and, accordingly, support a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body. But if the issue can be reframed to one of public health or public safety, and floated into shore on a wave of sentiment resulting from a dramatic public event (real or fabricated), then you can tell your pollster to go home, because all bets are off. This is why threats to reproductive freedom are especially important at the state level, where novice legislators can more easily be ambushed with appeals to passion or current events. The downside of democracy is that, unless one keeps an eye on the ball and remains grounded by values honoring individual conscience and autonomy, our hard-fought freedoms will disappear next Election Day.

John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Catholics for Choice Board of Directors.

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