(A Comment on the A.C. Barret Nomination)
It was a really staggering experience in the midst of a pandemic to listen to the arguments put forth by right wing GOP senators as they recklessly pushed forward the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. Rarely have both hypocritical faces of the GOP been so fully on view.
From the GOP perspective, clearly announced by President Trump, the Barret nomination had three main aims: to pack the court so it could throw a close election Trump’s way, to mollify his base by trying to eradicate the ACA, and to put a judge on the court who would surely find a legal excuse to strike down Row v. Wade, which is simply a bone he can toss to all the misguided evangelicals who support him precisely because he can appoint judges to make that decision.
I rank them in order of their impact on the American people as a whole because overturning the popular will of the American people is an outright attack of the spirit of the constitution and Democracy. That takes priority over the idea that the GOP wants to strip millions of Americans of their healthcare. That, because of the vast number of people negatively affected, takes precedence over the abortion issue—which in reality affects very few people
(although when it does, it admittedly affects them very seriously). But some will think of Roe v. Wade as the most important issue, so I will make this argument in reverse order—Roe, the ACA, and the election.
It is the Roe v. Wade issue—the “right to life”—that throws the hypocrisy of the GOP into the starkest relief. This confirmation hearing is not happening in a vacuum: the context is essential. The context in this case is a global pandemic which continues to kill almost 1,000 Americans a day. As the court’s confirmation hearings took place, that number was rising seriously. There were actually very serious reasons that the hearings should not have taken place at all—a number of GOP senators had been exposed to Covid-19, or had actually been infected with it, and yet, without any clear standard of testing, these senators were allowed to appear in open hearings.
But clearly, the greater travesty was the behavior of the Trump campaign itself, which that same day and the next held huge rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania where neither masks, nor social distancing (let alone testing) were observed. Against this backdrop, the idea that the GOP base really values LIFE is a travesty. In the case of Covid-19, wearing a mask, getting tested, and observing the rules of social distancing are the three most important tools we have in our fight against the deadly virus. By flaunting all of them, Trump and his supporters signal an absolute contempt for real, existing human lives. In fact, Trump’s actions put thousands of real lives in jeopardy every day. All of the GOP’s talk about the theoretical “rights” of the unborn are absurd and pathetic in the light of their contempt for real lives.
The GOP’s claims that they are for “small, unintrusive government,” “against government regulation,” and for the “rights of the individual” all become equally absurd. When the government intrudes into one of the most private and intimate and possibly painful choices a woman can make, it is not “small” or “unintrusive.” When the government tries to regulate reproduction, it is the most intrusive kind of regulation possible. When the government tries to take away the right of a woman to terminate an unwanted or dangerous or emotionally unbearable pregnancy (because of rape, medical danger to the mother or child, or incest, for example) and to dictate the course of her real, fully formed life on the basis of their own religious ideas, the idea that that government respects the “rights of individuals” is simply untenable.
But again, we need to remind the reader of the context. Trump supporters claim they have a right to not wear a mask, and to ignore other sensible medical advice they simply don’t like. In this, they assert the primacy of their own whimsical preference over the right to life of the people around them. Certainly, if you are deprived of life, you are also deprived of liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well…
It is no accident that most of those who demand an end to legal abortion (Roe v. Wade) also complain loudly about their constitutional right to freedom of religion. I am all for freedom of religion, yet these same people often deny the massive body of evidence that supports the science of evolution, the science of climate change, and basic medical science. Some of them even still believe that the world is flat. They have an individual right to hold such beliefs. But these ideas are basically a matter of pure belief—that is, they are essentially religious ideas. And the people who hold such beliefs don’t have the right to impose them on others. One religious belief that is held by most of the most strident opponents of abortion at any time, is that “life begins at conception.”
Let’s be clear. We can talk about unknowns in climate and medical science, and some anomalies in evolutionary science, but they still remain science. There is, however, no science at all demonstrating the existence of the soul at all—let alone proof that it enters a single cell that results at the very moment when a sperm and egg collide. The belief that life begins at conception is a religious belief. People are free to hold it, but not to impose it on others—at least if you truly believe in religious freedom.
I think everyone acknowledges that an unwanted pregnancy imposes an enormous burden on any woman and her family. There are certainly ways to help people avoid this crisis. Good sex education is one, good family planning is another, the availability of universal healthcare is a third, and free contraception a fourth. All four have been proven to work—to seriously reduce the need for abortions. How strange it is that the GOP has almost universally opposed all of these so fiercely over the years. It is very much like their current rejection of mask wearing and social distancing in response to Covid-19. Both a mask and a condom are prophylactics designed to prevent problems in the future. Sex education and free condoms are the equivalent of good medical information and masks. The GOP doesn’t like any of them.
The GOP constantly puts the issue of late term abortions out as the usual practice. In fact, late term abortions are about 1.3% of all abortions—that means there are about 5,000 of these per year. Few women carry such pregnancies so long unless they really want the child—or perhaps if their access to an earlier procedure was delayed or denied. I would guess that most involve serious problems with the viability of the child or a direct threat to the health of the mother. In these sad cases the choice to terminate the pregnancy is especially tragic. That is just a further reason why it should be the choice of the mother, the family, and their doctor—not the state enforcing a dogmatic “one size fits all” standard set by a religious minority.
It is important to recognize that the about 5,000 deaths attributable to late term abortion each year are less than the number of real lives being lost to Covid-19 every week these days. To put it another way, at the current rate of death, Covid-19 will kill more real, living Americans in a single year than late-term abortions will kill in 54 years. Trump and the GOP don’t really seem to care.
The imbalance in priorities about “life” become more striking when one remembers that by eradicating the 5,000 late term abortions you would not really save 5,000 lives—you might merely trade the real life of the mother (who has a history, relationships, responsibilities—maybe for other children) for the hypothetical life of a person who doesn’t really yet exist (except in the minds of true believers). Many people involved in that calculus would still die—or live on, damaged in various ways. We should think of most late-terms abortions as a form of triage. Triage is the most brutal choice that can confront a doctor—yet that choice is usually made to get the best possible outcome from a basically impossible situation.
As the comparison to the death toll from Covid-19 (to which evangelical Trump supporters are willing to turn a blind eye), the math and the moral deficiency of the conservative argument becomes markedly worse when we go on to the next concern about the Amy Coney Barrett nomination—the fate of the Affordable Care Act or ACA.
In spite of her fairly lame assertions to the contrary, Barrett is clearly opposed to the ACA. I don’t know why. Her obvious willingness to overturn it is one reason she was chosen to join the court at this time—a reason (along with deciding the election) which was cited by Trump as he made the nomination. Overturning the ACA means throwing 20-30 million Americans off of healthcare coverage in the midst of a global pandemic. This hardly seems like a serious “pro-life” stance.
Wikipedia, citing statistics from the World Health Organization, ranks the US as 38th in the world in terms of life expectancy and 47th in terms of infant mortality. That is in spite of the fact that Americans pay more for healthcare than any other country on earth. These are truly damning numbers. Numbers don’t evoke the kind of passion that horror stories about “partial birth” abortions do, but they represent far more personal tragedy, nonetheless. Universal healthcare, which would include preventative care, pre-natal care, sex education and family planning, would do far more to improve life and the quality of life in America than anything the GOP has on their agenda.
There is no doubt that people will die from a decision to overturn the ACA. That decision will also undercut the protection the ACA gives for “pre-existing conditions” a choice which will jeopardize affordable coverage for about 130 million more Americans. Being a woman is one such “pre-existing condition,” being pregnant is another, having Covid-19 or perhaps even having survived it may be another. This is catastrophic for many Americans. Earlier in the year, when he was eager to re-open the economy, Trump protested loudly that poverty kills people just as surely as the virus. There is some truth in that, but we have rarely seen the GOP supporting programs for the poor, the food insecure, or the medically challenged. Part of Trump’s reopening strategy included sending children back to school too soon. So much for the being “pro-children,” “pro-family,” or “pro-life.” His suit to overturn the ACA makes a mockery of his words.
But finally, there is the lurking possibility that, in the case of a contested election, Barret will bail Trump out, help overturn the decision of the American electorate, and maintain Trump in office for another four years. In the face of this possibility, all the GOP lies about their support of individual rights could not be more absurd. Our right to choose our leaders through a free election is the very foundation of our Democracy and Republic. The right to cast a vote that counts is the most basic right that US citizenship confers.
I won’t even go into the hypocrisy of the Republicans forcing this choice on our country at this time—especially in the wake of stalling the last Obama appointment of Merrick Garland without even giving the nominee a hearing.
All in all, the Amy Coney Barrett nomination, the rush to confirm her, and the reasons behind it, lay bare the complete moral poverty of the GOP agenda. All the crapulous, sterile, theoretical arguments about “originalism” and “textualism” count for nothing when weighed against the obvious welfare of real Americans. If Biden should decide to add a justice or four to the court, it won’t be “packing the court.” It will merely be a restoration of proper balance and order.
Postscript: After I wrote this article, I found a piece published in Salon on October 16, 2020. For those who believe the arguments I presented above don’t reflect the better side of Judge Barret, I will simply quote the opening of that article.
Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has been accused of “unconscionable cruelty” by a watchdog group over her role in an appellate court decision overturning a district court which found a Wisconsin county liable for millions in damages to a woman who alleged she had been repeatedly raped by a jail guard.
“After a 19-year old pregnant prison inmate was repeatedly raped by a prison guard, Amy Coney Barrett ruled that the county responsible for the prison could not be held liable because the sexual assaults fell outside of the guard’s official duties. Her judgment demonstrates a level of unconscionable cruelty that has no place on the high court,” Kyle Herrig, president of the progressive watchdog group Accountable.US, told Salon. “The only thing more concerning than the rush to confirm by Senate Republicans is what we are learning about Amy Coney Barrett’s extremist record. It is hardly surprising that she has dodged question after question during her testimony.”https://www.salon.com/2020/10/16/watchdog-group-accuses-amy-coney-barrett-of-unconscionable-cruelty-in-teen-rape-case/