What Is ‘Privacy?’
by JOHN M. GRONDELSKI
The Right to Privacy
By Janet E. Smith
Ignatius Press/National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2008
105 pages, $14.95
To order: ncbcenter.org
The Obama administration will likely try to bring taxpayer-subsidized abortion and civilly protected sodomy under the aegis of the “right to privacy.” Expect Vice President-elect Joseph Biden to declaim how the administration will protect the “right to privacy” by packing the Supreme Court with pro-abortion justices.
Just don’t expect anybody to tell you where in the Constitution this talisman is found, nor what exactly its scope encompasses. As Robert Bork (whose Supreme Court nomination Biden killed) notes in his preface to Janet Smith’s new book, The Right to Privacy, it is to the “genre of the indecipherable and the incoherent that the right of privacy belongs. No one can say, in advance of a court ruling, what the right includes.”
Smith ably sketches the emergence of the “right to privacy” in American constitutional practice, its philosophical underpinnings and implications, its significance as regards legal regulation of contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, euthanasia and the political and national outcomes of the current “privacy” trajectory in American law.
Much of what Smith reports about the state of the law is not new. Bork traveled the road linking the right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (contraceptives for married people) to Eisenstadt v. Baird (the birth-control pill for singles) to Roe v. Wade (abortion on demand) back during his 1987 confirmation hearings. “Privacy” momentarily went off-track in 1986 with Bowers v. Hardwick (which upheld state anti-sodomy laws), but by 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the court resumed its privacy juggernaut by reversing Bowers. The value of Smith’s book lies in showing the cumulative depravity wrought by the court’s ersatz “right to privacy,” undermining any social preferences for marriage, or even life.
The first and last chapters are most valuable, because they examine what’s at stake, not through the cramped perspective of how a particular case fits into the court’s overall “privacy” jurisprudence, but what that overall jurisprudence means in terms of the contemporary culture war in America against the family and life.
The author diagnoses the war as one between the cultures of life and death, so that by understanding what cultural phenomena and philosophies drive the culture of death, we should be better prepared to be advocates for the culture of life. As Smith notes, the dispute over “privacy” is, at its root, a dispute between “those who believe the primary goal of government should be to protect radical individualism and others who think government should primarily seek to promote virtue and the common good.” It is a dispute between moral relativists and those who maintain that there are knowable moral absolutes that should be socially enforceable.
Smith also notes that the “right to privacy” provides a smokescreen for certain socio-cultural choices that have been accepted, at least by the elites: If a contraceptive lifestyle is acceptable, abortion is a necessary backup. If sex has nothing inherently to do with life, then marital intercourse and sodomy are but variations on a theme. If “it’s my life,” then it’s also mine to dispose of.
This short book would have benefited from a Catholic anthropology of privacy, not just critiquing the errors spawned by the bogus “right to privacy,” but also articulating what a Catholic perspective can and cannot accept by the term. Such a vision has to begin with the premise that “you are not your own” (I Corinthians 6:19), that conscience is a “private” sanctum for moral decision-making but not for inventing moral norms out of whole cloth, and that man is a social being, with society responsible for safeguarding life and other basic human goods.
That said, Professor Smith has given us a handy summary of a principle unfortunately likely to be used to bludgeon public moral values in the immediate future. Catholic citizens serious about their faith playing a role in the public square need to bone up on these issues now. This book is a good place to start.
John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.
Abortion and Eugenics
by BRIAN WELTER
By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign By Ann Farmer
Catholic University of America Press, 2008
421 pages, $79.95
To order: cuapress.cua.edu
Ann Farmer’s By Their Fruits testifies to the uncomfortably close relationship — philosophically, spiritually and ideologically — between the Nazis and American and British eugenics supporters. Feminists had little to do with the decades-long fight that eugenics supporters raged against society from the 1930s onward to incrementally increase population control and to put final control of family life in the hands of the states.
Not surprisingly, eugenics supporters in Britain began to talk about euthanasia soon after abortion’s legalization.
Farmer well understands modern philosophy’s contribution to this spiritual and ethical debacle, especially espoused by utilitarianism. Utilitarians focus on the usefulness, especially economical, of a person or thing. Eugenics, hiding behind abortion “rights,” focuses on the potentially enormous financial costs to society over the lifetime of a disabled person. The Nazis had the same concern, wondering why the old and disabled were allowed to eat the bread that should have been going to soldiers.
Farmer also points out that, in addition to the changed values from Judeo-Christian to utilitarian, the meaning of compassion has changed for the worse. Abortion of the disabled saves society money and the disabled person decades of suffering. The person is “compassionately” put out of his misery.
Perhaps one shortcoming of the book is Farmer’s avoidance of stronger outright condemnation of eugenics campaigners. They linked themselves to the Nazis, yet she seems almost understanding in the Anglo-American’s failure to predict “Hitler’s later actions.” Hitler pretty much stated his full program in Mein Kampf, and the mounting evil of his regime in the 1930s should have left no one surprised, least of all eugenics supporters who shared much of his ideals and who read a great deal of National Socialist literature.
Farmer details the lies that form the basis of the culture of death. Abortion campaigners lied by portraying backstreet abortionists as warm-hearted grandmothers who were trying to help their sisters. The police and others had experienced backstreet abortionists as being “not the heroines of our area, they were the pariahs; the bloodsuckers who bled our people dry physically and metaphorically.”
The evil nature and anti-Christian values of eugenics supporters pushed them to use questionable logic, such as the following, discussed in By Their Fruits: “Like early campaigners, [United Nations population control official Nafis] Sadik assumed that because poor people do not use birth control, and thus have not consciously ‘chosen’ to have children, any children they do have must be unwanted. Despite her emphasis on women’s rights, Sadik has lauded China’s population program, with its overt compulsion, claiming that women were dying worldwide because of ‘lack of access’ to abortion.”
Farmer concludes that “abuse of language has run parallel to the abuse of women under such programs. ... In the feminized language of population control, ‘elevating the status of women’ means increasing their workload in order to get them to have fewer children, by making children a burden instead of a blessing.”
Brian Welter writes from
Burnaby, British Columbia.
A Prophet for a Culture of Life
by STEPHEN MIRARCHI
Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace By George Weigel
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008
339 pages, $24.95
To order: cpcbooks.com
No matter what your political inclination, mentioning the name George W. without sufficient rancor could make you unpopular. While few remove their sandals for the outgoing president, a similarly initialed public figure continues to command sacred ground: George Weigel.
The biographer of Pope John Paul II has been intercepting the bobbled passes of American politics for decades now. Another fellow George W., Will, the widely syndicated columnist, popularized the metaphor of American politics as football played between the 40-yard lines, and the phrase has been tossed around as a pundits’ pigskin for years. Penetrating party lines and forcing fumbles, however, has been Weigel, who has run ball after ball deep into Catholic territory, taking few timeouts.
Nineteen books, dozens of articles and countless speeches later, Weigel, who holds that life issues engage “the moral foundation of the free and virtuous society,” finds himself less often the scampering quarterback and more often the burly defensive end of Catholic social policy, intent on tackling those mired in midfield mediocrity.
Aptly titled, Against the Grain is a collection of Weigel’s greatest essays over the past decade. Here are thick, robust renderings of encyclicals such as Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) and Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus on the dignity of workers. Weigel offers razor-sharp analyses of the deficiencies of William of Ockham’s homo voluntatis (willful mankind) and debunks the will to power.
The triad of “just war” essays near the end of the volume attract particular attention. Taking the side neither of the tradition’s custodians, whom the author asserts have lost moral clarity, nor of the naysayers, who shirk from moral responsibility, Weigel suggests the formidable “retrieve and develop” strategy in addressing the post-9/11 warscape, drawing from classic Augustine to scholastic Aquinas to contemporary James Turner Johnson.
In his synthesis here and throughout the volume, Weigel rightly emphasizes the Christian formation of conscience: “I do know that democrats — like Christians — are made, not born,” he writes. “And I believe that Christian personalism and a Christian optic on the human condition can be a powerful and positive influence in shaping the attitudes toward ‘the other’ that are essential to the democratic experiment.”
A word of caution, though. Since Weigel frequently addresses crowds whose doctorates outnumber their persons, the essays ripple with muscular historicity and often hoist great measures of jargon. To his credit, Weigel writes lucid paragraph summaries and cogent closings — but expect brawny flexing between the rest periods.
But readers will be keenly aware that the long-term benefits of tackling essays such as these include instruction of the mind, persuasion of the will, and delight of the heart, as if Augustine himself were featured on their favorite political tantrum shows.
Mentioning George W. may gain readers a buzz-saw response, but learning George Weigel’s pertinacious politics assures them of cross-cutting retorts — and maybe even some reconstruction.
Stephen Mirarchi writes
from Tampa, Florida.