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A chat with Janet Smith about her new book — and how a rethinking of the “right to privacy” may especially impact abortion laws.
BY Nicole Callahan
Janet Smith holds the Father Michael J.
McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and is
professor of moral theology at the seminary.
Her new book from Ignatius Press, The
Right to Privacy, provides a critical examination of “the right to
privacy” as used by the Supreme Court to justify actions that were once
considered immoral and criminal.
This fall, Smith is a visiting
scholar at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Register correspondent Nicole
Callahan spoke with her just before the elections.
What are your views on some of
the things being said by the candidates about privacy, access to abortion, and
life issues during this election?
Barack Obama is the most pro-abortion
senator in the country, and he’s made it very clear that he will do everything
he can to advance abortion rights. He even voted against legislation that
protects infants born alive during the course of abortion. He has promised to
sign the Freedom of Choice Act, overturning any existing state restrictions on
John McCain, on the other hand, has
a pro-life voting record. He is wrong about embryonic stem-cell research,
though his running mate is right about both abortion and embryo research. One
can hope that Sen. McCain will come around. I also hope that before long, other
advances in adult stem-cell research and in the reprogramming of cells will
make it clear that we do not need embryonic stem-cell research.
What do you think about some prominent
pro-life Catholics who have voiced their support for pro-abortion candidate
I am unbelievably surprised and
disappointed. It’s very hard for me to understand how anyone can vote for
someone who has made clear his intentions to continue to make it possible for
babies to be killed in the womb. I just can’t see any other political or social
issue that can trump that issue.
I try to talk to Catholics I know
who support Sen. Obama, and they have all these foggy answers for why they like
him. They like his intelligence, his manners, his way of speaking, but none of
that adds up to policy or character or a commitment to support life.
Certainly, I’m disappointed in their
reasoning and also in their lack of willingness to be guided in conscience by
their Church. The bishops have made it clear that there is a real problem with
Catholics voting for someone who is so militant in wanting to promote abortion
— Sen. Obama is not just content to leave things the way they are; he has made
it very clear he wants to advance the abortion agenda. If I were so opposed to
Sen. McCain that I felt I just could not vote for him, I would sit this one
out. Just because you can’t stand McCain doesn’t mean that you should vote for
Do you expect any of your
arguments to influence readers as they consider their votes this November, and
if so, how?
What I generally think I’m doing is
arming the troops, providing ammunition to people who know the truth but need a
deeper understanding of the positions they advocate in favor of life and
morality — so that when they are speaking to their coworkers and family about
decisions and voting, they will be more articulate, more convincing, about the
positions they support. I hope that
people will read my book and be able to give better reasons for the truths they
already know and believe.
What Catholic understanding of
“rights” do you hope readers will take from your book?
John Paul II notes in Evangelium
Vitae [The Value and Inviolability of Human Life], which I hope readers
of my book will read, if they haven’t already, that too many people today have
abandoned the understanding that God is the source of all rights. When people
talk about human rights, too often they just slap the word “right” in front of
anything they want to do. But human rights are more than that; they are meant
to bind all mankind to an objective, fundamental truth we should abide by.
I also hope that people who read my
book will read some of these Supreme Court cases, as it’s a real education in how
people reason in our society. You can see what happens when even the most
intelligent, educated people attempt to reason about rights without God. I hope
that my readers will come away with more faith in their own intelligence, their
own intellect and judgment, which they have allowed to be formed by God.
In your book you don’t discuss
what laws should exist in reference to contraception and the other issues you
treat. Why not?
The purpose of my book was not to
discuss what laws are appropriate in reference to various actions. That would
involve a whole discussion of the purpose of government and an analysis of what
we can hope to achieve in as diverse a culture as ours. What I wanted to
demonstrate is that the reverence given to the “right to privacy” over all
other rights is creating a culture in which true fundamental rights, such as
the right to life, are discarded. Objective truth is sacrificed to subjective
whims and preferences.
Why did you write The
Right to Privacy? Why is it timely now?
It would have been timely at any
point during the last 40 years, as well as in too many decades to come, most
likely. Today people are having a hard time figuring out how to insist that
there are certain actions nobody should ever perform. We used to have laws
against contraception, abortion, assisted suicide, same-sex unions — laws based
on people’s understanding of the truth.
Since then, there has been no “new”
truth presented; these laws were not overturned because new truths emerged. For
instance, we didn’t come into possession of evidence that life doesn’t begin at
conception. At the time of Roe v. Wade we knew
clearly that life begins at conception — we had known it for some decades. But
by then, abortion had become a kind of “necessity” because of failed
contraception; it was something we “needed,” so we didn’t want to acknowledge
the truth about the unborn child.
As for contraception, the initial
laws against it were on the books because legislators, largely Protestant,
thought it led to vice. The Supreme Court decided women should have access to
it whether it was good or bad, and invented the right to privacy.
The right to privacy never appears
in the Constitution, but they say it must be there somewhere. The [Supreme]
Court invented a false constitutional right to allow people to make the choices
they want to make, as opposed to honoring laws meant to defend what is good and
guide people to the truth.
This article is the first
of two parts.
Nicole Callahan is based in
Durham, North Carolina.