Senate Bill 8 became law as of September 1. Not because the Supreme Court voted on it, but because they passively chose not to prevent it from becoming a law, hiding behind the “shadow docket”. Some would say they took the coward’s way out. Indeed, I wonder if this would have happened had Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lion of the Supreme Court, still been alive today. “The Supreme Court knew the law was going into effect Wednesday, was asked to intervene by reproductive rights supporters, and chose not to.” Can the overturn of Roe v Wade now be far behind?
This Senate Bill 8 on abortion is by far the most restrictive to date: it bans abortion after only the sixth week, a period when most women may not even know that they’re pregnant, and it makes no exception even in the case of incest or rape.
Abortion is and always has been, a bitterly divisive subject involving both legality and morality: laws and religion; personal health and the collective welfare; individual conscience and collective expectations. S.B. 8 is therefore noteworthy even just for that reason, but there is more.
I’m not going to dwell on the women’s rights issue, although I will say that S.B. 8 is as bad as it gets for women’s rights and health—and ominous for future legislation as well—but in my opinion there is an even a worse aspect to it that sets us back centuries in human rights and relations. Furthermore, it is another example of the growing conservatism in Texas that pits liberalizing calls for humanitarian inclusion on the global level against Texas’ alignment with a small group of ultra-conservatives beating the drum of populism and revenge politics.
In the Venetian Republic “lion’s mouth” receptacles were to be found all over the island. These were meant for citizens to denounce fellow citizens (and even family), anonymously, accusing them of any infringement against public health or laws.
The Spanish Inquisition also relied on denunciations to root out heretics and apostates. As has been noted, “Denunciations within families were definitely encouraged, with records of husbands denouncing wives and vice versa, children their parents, and so on. It may have been a convenient way to end a bad marriage or remove a hated father with a large estate… And denouncing your work colleague? Way to get a promotion! Your neighbor? Sweet, that extra lot will come in handy when it’s at city auction. Many royal officials and private citizens got rich off the Inquisition.”
In Nazi Germany, some citizens snitched on neighbors, family and friends to the Gestapo. Contrary to popular belief, the Gestapo only counted one secret police officer for approximately every 10,000 citizens of Nazi Germany. They therefore relied heavily on the “cooperation” of citizens, and the Hitler Youth were indoctrinated into the belief that to inform on mom and dad was patriotic and law abiding.
But this is America in the 21st century, where we pay lip service to equality, respect and transparency. In addition to the actual banning of abortion and its many consequences– some intended and others incidental–the truly frightening feature of S. B. 8 is the provision that allows, “anyone, anywhere to act as deputies to file suits against so-called abettors of S.B. 8 violations, even based on mere speculation”.
This is truly a Nazi-like provision that sets family member against family member, neighbor against neighbor, parents against children. Anybody, from the cab driver who takes the woman to the clinic, to the snooping neighbor, can sue.
What makes S.B. 8 even more despicable is that not only can the denunciations be anonymous, but informers are rewarded with a $10,000 monetary bounty for a successful case. As was true in Venice, Spain, and Germany, although people may hesitate to inform on their family or their neighbors only on ideological convictions, once you inject personal gain in the mix the situation becomes radically different. They become much more willing if there is something to gain. What’s more, just think of what this encouragement to inform means from a moral perspective. It constitutes carte blanche to lie or take personal vengeance in order to destroy another human being.
We may downplay the gravity of this by claiming that in those previous societies denunciation meant a question of life and death– sometimes after prolonged torture–while here it’s only a matter of being sued in courts and possibly getting a prison sentence. But here too there is a question of life and death since if an abortion cannot be obtained legally and therefore safely, a woman may have to resort to back-alley quacks or other unsafe methods to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Laws are made in a society in order to ensure the collective safety and to prevent aggression of one against the other. It is part of the social contract by which the individual gives up a measure of freedom in order to enjoy the advantages of communal life: companionship, shelter, safety against food deprivation and violence. But abortion is one of the very complex issues that lead us to ask some very tough questions even about the very origin of life: When does life actually begin? When does the fetus become an individual with rights? Senate Bill 8 prohibits abortion from the time that a fetal heartbeat is detected, at about six weeks’ gestation. That’s the most conservative of all definitions.
But just because the fetus has a heartbeat does that mean it has the same rights as the mother who may not be in a position to give life to it? And what if this fetus is the product of violence or the unspeakable act of incest?
Most of these questions involve philosophy or religion, but the one that is most in the realm of legality and legislation is this: Who owns my body? Is it the state, God, or myself? There are laws against murder that we can all agree on. Murder violates all these imperatives. But there are also laws against suicide, for example, that do not involve anyone else’s life but one’s own. In the US it is only in 4 states that physician-assisted suicide is allowed. Formerly, if you attempted suicide but lived you could find yourself in jail for attempted murder. Even today you may be forcibly committed to a mental health facility.
The question of why the government has the right to legislate whether or not I give birth has been debated for more than a century and still remains as murky as ever. In the absence of clear and rational reasons that both the religious and non-religious, the liberal and the conservative can agree on, we have to ask, is it ethical to pay a bounty to all and sundry to inform on a woman who may be in a desperate situation?