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What's Left?: When the right to privacy unravels

Last week's ruling by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade could just be the start.

101321.O.DG.EMMA MCNAMEE
Emma McNamee
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I wrote this column several times, going back and forth on how best to express myself over the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade. I’ve swung a lot between anger and fear and feeling sick to my stomach over the last few days. Over the last few weeks, honestly, since the draft first leaked and I became cemented in my certainty that the right to safe abortions was about to be turned over to states, leaving people all over the country horribly, frightfully vulnerable.

But this isn’t a column talking about abortion. Not really. This is a column about the right to privacy.

In an age of unprecedented digital surveillance, it's a right I wish was explicitly detailed, but the founding fathers were more occupied with keeping soldiers out of their homes than they ever could be with concepts like in-app data harvesting. They had no way of predicting the world we would inherit, so while privacy was an understood right attached to things like being able to practice religion as you choose, or protecting personal information in the court of law, it remained unstated in the Constitution. While the Bill of Rights does a little more to outline this concept, the right to privacy has remained controversial, but critical, to many landmark Supreme Court cases decided in the last 60 years.

When the draft leaked, I wasn’t surprised by its contents. I’d been following the Dobbs case already; I’d listened to arguments. I knew after the first round of questions proposed by SCOTUS that this didn’t look good for Roe and Casey.

I was horrified when the draft came out, however, at the way they were going about dismantling this nearly 50 years of precedent. I read excerpts of the draft, with its language about lacking an historical basis in this country, and calling into question the validity of what the right to privacy truly protects. I saw those same implications echoed in the final decision released last week.

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This ruling is a step backward, one that treads on the rights of millions of people across this country — and I fear it is just the start. To pull at the right to privacy is to unravel the rulings and subsequent protections determined by cases like Obergefell v. Hodges, Lawrence v. Texas, Loving v. Virginia, and Griswold v. Connecticut.   

Now, more than ever, it’s important to understand your rights. Examine your resources and available options on a secured web browser. Research what is protected in your state and take into account what is being proposed by your legislature.

I’ve spoken to friends and family over this last week who are shocked by the outcome of the SCOTUS decision. I ask, if you have not been paying attention to the matter, that you try to do so now. Do not be caught off guard again.

For those of you out there who cheered on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I encourage you to sit back and examine just how comfortable you are with the notion of millions of people having their bodily autonomy revoked, their right to privacy invaded, their choices undermined by a court of nine people — nine people, so far removed from public opinion that they’d overturn a decision nearly two-thirds of the country supported.

Ask yourself, if you are at ease in a country where the constitutional interpretation of privacy and the inalienable rights once ensured by that concept — applicable to access to medical care, who you can marry, the type of relationships you can have — are now called into question.

I know I’m not.

And if the violation of these rights, particularly for those in our society who are most vulnerable, still does not bother you — if the loss, and fear, and deaths made inevitable by this decision that will impact millions still does not inspire empathy and action in you — then think of your friends and family, all of the people you hold most dear. Would you advocate for a world where they no longer have the right to make their own decisions? Would you rob your daughter of choice? Would you turn your back on a friend?

Because even if you, personally, don’t believe you have to fear what the erosion of the right to privacy means, it is just about statistically impossible that everyone in your life comes out completely unscathed. It’s unacceptable to me to allow any one person to live with the loss of their rights, their personal freedoms. To consider the millions left vulnerable now — and the potential for further loss, should the Supreme Court continue this assault on the right to privacy — is horrific.

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King said that, and it is those words that I offer up now to those who are scared about what the future holds. You are not in this fight alone. I offer those same words to those who are not frightened at all, but this time as a precautionary measure. The right to privacy — despite never being explicitly stated on the constitution — covers a great many things. If its new uncertainty doesn’t scare you, perhaps it should.

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Opinion by Emma McNamee
Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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