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Byron Williams: Rendering sovereignty rights obsolete
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Byron Williams: Rendering sovereignty rights obsolete

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What if I told you the central issue in Texas’ controversial law that prohibits abortion as early as six weeks was ultimately not about abortion?

The irony is palpable. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who champions the liberty of those who do not want to wear a mask during a public health crisis, signed legislation that would constrict a woman’s right to choose an abortion after six weeks.

Though there will be legal challenges, it is currently the law. In denying the injunction, the unsigned majority on the Supreme Court opined: “Although the Court denies the applicants’ request for emergency relief today, the Court’s order is emphatic in making clear that it cannot be understood as sustaining the constitutionality of the law at issue.”

This latter proviso is meaningless for many abortion rights advocates, given the court reached its decision without full briefing and arguments. Many view the court’s decision as the strongest argument to date that the landmark decision Roe v. Wade stands on tenuous ground.

Abortion rights has been a hot-button issue since the court ruled 7-2 supporting a woman’s right to choose an abortion without excessive government restriction. For nearly a half century, Roe has become synonymous with its outcome — abortion rights.

Roe was decided as a privacy issue that came on heels of the landmark decision of Griswold v. Connecticut that affirmed the constitutional right of women to use contraceptives without government restrictions. But the Texas law is not a push against the 1973 Supreme Court decision, but rather the 1776 decision that the people could govern themselves.

As much as abortion stands at the forefront of public discourse, that conversation minimizes the threat the Texas law poses to the ethos of the republic; it tests our commitment to American sovereignty.

There is no issue more fundamental to the American project than sovereignty. We are, as Lincoln declared at Gettysburg, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Abortion is often portrayed as a moral issue. For many that is the case. But individual notions of morality are subjective; they risk becoming immoral the moment they breach the public square portraying itself as endowed with objective certainty.

The pursuit of one’s preferred private moral outcome, in this case, severely derailing the self-determination of women’s reproductive rights in the state of Texas, can only be achieved by circumventing the nation’s public morality.

The unstated outcome of the Texas law is that, after six weeks, the sovereignty of the pregnant woman is temporarily leased to the unborn. At the point the child is born, sovereignty reverts back to the mother. Moreover, the $10,000 bounty to identify those in violation of the Texas law potentially incentivizes the infringement of the constitutionally protected right to privacy.

That appears to be a lot of First, Ninth and 14th amendment abridgement to reach one’s moral outcome.

A democratic-republican form of government can only thrive when the public morality is deemed superior to one’s privately held view of morality. Otherwise, it risks becoming a theocracy by a different name.

The Texas abortion law is another illustration that the journey can be more important than the destination. Sometimes the American experiment demands that we support issues based on the congruence with the country’s overarching values that we might otherwise oppose. No cause can be so moral that it is achieved by immoral methods.

It is not enough to support the Texas law because one opposes abortion. To do so is to support the radical manner that sovereignty is being altered. In spite of the cacophony emanating from public discourse, the issue is not how one feels about the efficacy of abortion, but, rather, can subjective morality trump sovereignty?

The uniqueness of the American narrative demands at times on public support for issues with which one may personally disagree. Recent polling demonstrates there is support not only for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, but specifically upholding Roe. What might a poll look like if it were instead framed in terms of the erosion of individual sovereignty?

This is the concern raised when the court gave aid and comfort to the Texas abortion law by denying the injunction. For some, it meant the sovereignty of women of child-bearing age was on the table for debate.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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