‘Privacy Rights’ Election

A chat with Janet Smith about her new book — and how a rethinking of the “right to privacy” may especially impact abortion laws.

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 abortion.

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 Barack Obama?

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 Obama.

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.

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