Sunday, November 06, 2005

Oh, *That* Privacy Right

I have written here and here, for example, about the "right to privacy" conjured in Roe v. Wade and its precedents. Of course, judge-made rights can be overturned as quickly as judges want to overturn them. Tom Smith of The Right Coast explains:
Skeptics about Roe v. Wade have long railed about the invention of a right of sexual privacy by the US Supreme Court in that controversial case. Where was that controversial right supposed to come from? Sex, let alone abortion, is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. Yet find such a right the Court did. Legal scholars wondered, as well they might, where such a right, once invented, would find its limit. Does the right of sexual privacy imply a right to gay marriage? To any form of sexual conduct, no matter how alarming?

Now, in a bold decision positively reeking of integrity, Judge Stephen Reinhardt has laid down the law, finally proclaiming that this murky right goes so far, but no further. Strict constructionists everywhere may breathe a sigh of relief. How ironic, and indeed inspirational, it is that this paradoxical opinion comes from a judge some brand as among the most liberal and activist on the ever amusing Ninth Circuit.

The case arose when irate parents objected to the Palmdale School District's giving their children, including first graders, a questionaire including sexually explicit questions, along the lines of whether the children played with their "private parts", had sexual feelings, and so on. Parents asserted a constitutional right not to have the school introduce young children, many of whom do not yet know where babies come from, to concepts such as masturbation, sexual abuse, and sex generally. However foolish the notion may be that parents should want to shield first graders from intrusive sexual investigation, one can understand how, in a world of expansive conceptions of sexual privacy, they could have imagined they had such a ridiculous privilege. But no more. They have been educated, as harshly as their children, by the Ninth Circuit. . . .

This is really an important lesson for everyone interested in constitutional law. We frequently jump to the conclusion that words like "privacy" mean what they mean in ordinary contexts. But this is not so. "Privacy" does not mean such things as a family exercising control over whether state employees ask their six year olds about their private parts and whether they ever touch them. (After all, what possible motive could a teacher have for posing such a question, other than a benign one? What possible dangers could such questions pose?) It means something much more complicated than that. Thus, the right to privacy includes the right to choose to terminate the life-like process of an otherwise about-to-be-born non-person person-like post-fetal entity, but not to control the early education of such entity in its early stages of personhood, once that small person or near-person has been put into the hands of the state educational system. That is, to strip the point of its many deeply intriguing nuances, you may kill the thing, but not control its education; the former is privacy, the latter is not.
The lesson is this: Judges will find rights where it's convenient to find rights and they will repudiate rights where such rights might get in the way of the outcomes they want to achieve.

If only Judge Reinhardt's "principled" view of privacy had been understood by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965 (Griswold v. Connecticut) and 1973 (Roe v. Wade).