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Sotomayor: Abortion as a Public Health Issue

I no longer listen or watch raptly as Supreme Court nomination hearings proceed. They’re mostly for show, and a little goes a long way.

In Judge Sotomayor’s case, the little I’ve seen —¬† except for the moving sight of her mother in the audience, fighting back tears of joy and pride — has been as scripted as have been recent hearings. Republicans are cautiously on the attack, recycling the few pieces of ordnance they have (will anyone ever again refer to herself as “a wise Latina”?) and at times revealing their embarrassing ignorance of all things judicial. Democrats work on the hagiography while pre-emptively blocking any efforts to suggest that the nominee might actually have a heart. (Chuck Schumer’s references to cases where Sotomayor had ruled against sympathetic plaintiffs were noteworthy in this regard, if a little…odd.) And the nominee herself, determined to give them nothing (especially since she’s reputedly such a Latina hothead!), is plodding along in a performance that is measured — at times even boring — by design.

But I did stop what I was doing and listen attentively to a brief exchange between Judge Sotomayor and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The discussion concerned the nominee’s work as a Board member for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (“PRLDF”). Having served on the board of a legal advocacy group my own self, I can tell you that even the lawyers among us had approximately zero input on the cases the organization chose to take, and even less on the legal arguments and strategy the organization pursued.

Nonetheless, there’s something to Sen. Graham’s line of questioning, because Board members are generally committed to the goals and philosophy of the organization, even if they might have quibbles about details. If Equality Advocates, on whose board I sat, had suddenly decided, for example, not to take cases involving transgender rights, I would have known about that decision, and protested it. Sotomayor said as much, noting that Board members did care about fidelity to the organization’s broad mission statement.

So Graham pressed Sotomayor on briefs that the PRLDF had filed arguing that denying poor women the right to a government-funded abortion was the moral equivalent of slavery. Sotomayor claimed, quite plausibly, to have known nothing of this, but then she did speak to the overall goals of the organization in the same way I would have felt comfortable describing the work of Equality Advocates. She said that the Fund (which contains the word “Education” in its title) was interested in issues of “public health,” as were other advocacy groups.

Aha! Graham had what he perceived as an opening. “So you think abortion is a public health issue?” he asked.

Somehow, she managed to avoid answering the question directly — but she shouldn’t have. Here’s the exchange (beginning shortly before 4:00):

Abortion is a public health issue, and this description of it shouldn’t be seen as controversial. Graham was doubtless proceeding from the presumption that those who see abortion as a matter of public health are on the extreme end of the pro-choice side.

It’s true that one argument in favor of abortion rights has been that, on a population-wide basis, safe and legal abortions lead to better health outcomes; illegality and the lack of regulation predictably compromise women’s health. But that doesn’t mean that the argument is decisive from a public health point of view, nor does it mean that the public health perspective is the only perspective from which to consider the issue.

Recently, those opposing abortion rights have argued that abortions have their own public health consequences, including increased incidence of breast cancer and adverse mental health outcomes for women who terminate their pregnancies. There’s not a lot of evidence in support of these theories, but that didn’t stop Justice Kennedy, in his 2007 Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v.¬† Carhart, from reciting supposed psychological consequences in support of his ruling that a law restricting late-term abortions was constitutional.

And public health, properly understood, isn’t a purely utilitarian calculus, anyway: Properly understood, it incorporates a respect for persons and autonomy that has both long- and short-term effects on health and well-being. In short, to recognize the issue as one with a public health dimension is to add a useful prism through which to view this complex and probably irresolvable issue.

But not the only prism. Saying that an issue has an important public health dimension isn’t ruling other perspectives out of order. Questions of rights and morality can’t and shouldn’t be read out of the issue. The challenge is to hold all of these perspectives before us as we strive for some kind of legal and social rules that we can live with, if not totally embrace. That goal sometimes¬† seems impossible to achieve, but I’m optimistic that public health talk can take some of the heat out of the discussion and enable sensible compromise.

Repeat: Abortion is a public health issue.

  1. Deanene
    July 16th, 2009 at 17:35 | #1

    Is abortion still legal in the United States? If it is, then Judge Sotomayor’s personal opinion of abortion should not be questioned because she must abide by the law.
    Pro Choice does not mean Pro Abortion. Pro Choice means that every woman is allowed the decision to choose what is best for her and her family.

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