Last week, the US Supreme Court agreed to tackle a case from Mississippi which has the potential to strip away a nearly 50-year precedent established by the 1973 US Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. The Mississippi law, passed in 2018, prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, two months earlier than the timeline established in Roe. This new case, challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi’s restrictive law, is about far more than a woman’s right to choose. It is about the “right to privacy,” which the Supreme Court held, was guaranteed in the liberty clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
Constitutional law defines privacy as “the right to make certain fundamental decisions concerning deeply personal matters free from government coercion, intimidation, or regulation.” Do we, as a nation, want the Judicial branch of the United States Government making medical decisions for us? I do not. Many may feel strongly about restricting abortion. But do they feel the same way about restricting privacy when it comes to vaccination or end-of-life decisions?
I may be a bit of an anomaly when it comes to abortion: I am pro-life with regard to my own uterus, yet I believe every woman deserves freedom—to make her own choice, in her own situation, for her own body. I recognize my perspective on this subject comes from a place of privilege. While I have been assaulted, I have never been raped. While I have been hungry, I have never been homeless. And while I have found myself unexpectedly pregnant, I have never been unable to care for that child. That is my perspective. And my opinion. And my uterus. Which is inside my body.
While my stance may sound conflicted, I do not see it that way. I believe the right to privacy and to make medical decisions for my body, belongs to me. I do not have the right to choose for another woman. Nor should anyone.
Politicians should uphold individual liberty rather than trying to legislate morality. Legislators often have little understanding of basic science. For instance, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves was delighted to hear that the Supreme Court agreed to evaluate the new abortion law. He tweeted: “We know and can detect when the heartbeat begins. We know the rate at which the brain develops. We know when the lungs have their main airways and when babies begin to practice breathing.”
His comments are nonsensical. While a fetus may have a heartbeat, that heart cannot beat on its own. The brain is developing; however, it will not finish the job for another 25 years. Babies certainly do not practice breathing. That is a lie. The lungs are one of the last organs to develop, concluding around 37 weeks—just three before delivery. Until birth, they remain completely filled with amniotic fluid. Babies obtain oxygen through their connection to the placenta, inside the uterus, which is inside a mother. Babies do not take their first breath until they are born. And while politicians may not understand, every physician knows that very first breath is often fraught with peril.
Who should determine when life begins? Is it Supreme Court Justices, State Governors, physicians, or the patients themselves? This debate is arbitrary. Does life begin with the first heartbeat, the first kick, or when a newborn takes their first breath? Neither the Supreme Court nor the Governor of Mississippi knows. Even as a physician, I don’t know. I have held a dying 22-week-old infant in my arms who only managed to take 1 or 2 breaths in their short lifetime. And when parents have been too heartbroken to hold their dying infant, I have rocked them until their hearts beat for the last time. Despite heartbeats, kicks, or breaths, I had to carry those babies to the morgue and leave them there. It makes no difference when I think life begins or when you think life begins. Simply put, life and death punch their own timecards.
Which brings me to my point. The state of Mississippi is playing with fire. A single Supreme Court ruling on abortion law could have unanticipated consequences for the nation. In the Mississippi case, the new six-justice conservative majority will not determine when life begins. They will only evaluate where the ‘right to privacy’ for an individual ends and the health and safety of another begins. This line between privacy and safety has swung wildly over the last 100 years, including rulings on forcible sterilization of the mentally disabled, mandating smallpox vaccinations in cities during disease outbreaks, and arbitrarily defining fetal “viability.” Many precedents, both good and bad, still stand today. In the coming months, I would like to explore some controversial Supreme Court rulings and share their stories with you. I hope to show you why a woman’s choice is not the only issue at hand in the Mississippi case. In fact, I believe choice itself—the foundation of privacy and liberty—may actually be at stake.
I hope you will join me.