The NSA, Planned Parenthood and Your Right to Privacy
Not a week seems to go by without more revelations about how the NSA (or recently the UK’s GCHQ) monitors our electronic communications. Who knew that all the time I waste watching old movie clips on YouTube was so interesting to the guardians of our national security.
And not a week goes by it seems without some state legislature in some Republican-controlled state considering yet another bill to intrude on and harass women who need to get abortions. Indeed, to judge by the sheer number of such bills since 2011 you might conclude that women’s pregnancies constitute the biggest problem that the nation faces. There is apparently no need to regulate the financial industry, or toxic chemicals that spill into rivers or the shale drilling business, whose rail cars keep blowing up — those things will sort themselves out. But pregnant women gone wild… they’re the ones the state needs to restrict.
On the face of it these two phenomena don’t have much in common with each other. But they are, in fact, connected by a crucial Constitutional conundrum: Is there a “right to privacy?”
The privacy question has come up mostly in our discussions of the NSA and the new digital world we all inhabit. Beyond the problem of whether our surveillance laws, written during the age of rotary phones, are hopelessly outdated, we have discussed what kind of privacy any of us can now expect when virtually everything we do (or is that everything we virtually do?) leaves an electronic footprint.
But privacy, at least as a legal matter, is also at the center of the debate over abortion and family planning more broadly.
In the 1965 case “Griswold v. Connecticut” which overturned that state’s ban on the sale of contraceptives, the Supreme Court found that there was a basic right to privacy in the “penumbras” of the Constitution. Those “penumbras” included the 9th amendment’s language that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and in the definition of personal liberty found in the 14th amendment.
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