Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage As None of the Government's Business

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 19 2008 1:03 PM

Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage As None of the Government's Business

responding to

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on the Fox News Channel nicely illustrates an overlooked means by which Sen. Obama—seeking as our next president to build bridges and unbuild walls (disclosure:

the senator and give him lots of advice which I hope is helpful to him)—might defuse some of the acrimony that exists surrounding topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage. 

While it was Kelly's thesis that it is activist and not in keeping with principles of federalism for state judges to trump the people, it was professor Weisberg's nice counterpoint that as in many claims of activism, whether one favors the state court over the people ( Gov. Schwarzenegger's position in opposition to an anticipated November initiative that would overturn the same-sex marriage case) or vice versa depends on whose ox is being gored. It is not really possible to say that one is more in keeping with federalism than another.

But that is not to say that the distinction between the state and the people is unimportant. The phrasing in the 10 th Amendment speaks of the "reserved [unenumerated power] to the states respectively, or to the people" for a reason. The phraseology illustrates that while the concept of federalism is typically associated with what is federal  (viz. national) vs. what is local, the separate reservation in the 10 th Amendment allows the people of a state to deny a delegation of their unenumerated reserved power to their state legislature. Indeed, the people may decide that no government entity—including themselves by initiative or referendum—should take a position on a given subject that has been so reserved.

This avenue for complete neutrality presents a possible common ground to defuse some of the rancor over abortion and same-sex marriage. Theoretically, it would be possible to declare both subjects as presently beyond the competence of government.

The California Supreme Court catches a bit of a glimmer of the potential for using neutrality as a reconciling device when it suggests that the California assembly might decide not to ascribe the sacred word marriage to any state license whether given to a heterosexual or homosexual couple. Rather, California state licenses might be called "civil unions" or "enduring unions," with the sacred affirmation of marriage being entirely reserved to nongovernmental actors to allocate in accordance with particular their religious traditions. Were California to follow that course, religious bodies would presumably then have less basis to argue that the civil law was affirming or honoring a relationship that cuts deeply against the revealed beliefs of those religions.

The same could be true with regard to abortion. Here, the formulation would mean that if Roe were overturned, the matter would not be returned to the states or to the people in their initiative/referenda legislative capacity but would be reserved to the people solely within their own church and family structures. It would be within those nongovernmental communities that the people would decide whether abortion is a matter of individual liberty or the taking of human life. Obviously, as a practical matter, this would leave the abortion decision to a woman and her doctor as Roe itself does, but critically, the law would not then be giving any civil-law approval or constitutional edge favoring one side over the other. 

Would such reallocation of authority to the people outside of government be more accommodating of those who presently raise religious objection to abortion? Obviously, it does not put the full force of law behind stopping or curtailing the practice, but then it does not endorse it, either. The law would be entirely silent, leaving the people in their individually and voluntarily chosen communities to decide matters for themselves in accordance with their respective beliefs. That this would not be mere window dressing may be illustrated in the Catholic Church's own teaching, which, of course, is strongly against abortion. While the most preferred Catholic position is a construction of the Constitution that affirms the unalienable right to life for all persons from conception onward in the Declaration of Independence, the specific instruction of the church merely calls for the practice not to be "recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority," and admonishes its own believers to not exercise their free will to procure (or aid the procurement) of abortion.

The possibility of reserving sensitive questions over which the culture is deeply divided, and indeed, with respect to which there is insufficient consensus to justify either a positive law or judicial determination has more salience and potential for bridging even profound disagreement than the obscure 1791 formulation of states rights in the 10th Amendment may at first reveal.

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