The right to privacy, as defined by the historic Roe v. Wade decision, ought to be something that conservatives could get behind.
Okay, not when it comes to abortion, marriage equality, transgender persons in bathrooms, and other sex-loaded topics. There conservatives appear solidly anti-privacy. As they so often point out, the right to privacy is never mentioned in the Constitution. (Neither is education, which leads some to say that the Department of Education is not legitimate.)
But think about other issues near and dear to conservatives’ hearts and minds. At least to some degree, many of them can be framed as privacy issues.
Gun Ownership. Certainly the main argument here rests on the Second Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. But if you look past the basic right to bear arms, matters of privacy begin to be involved.
Take gun registration. Many gun owners fear that registration of firearms is a prelude to confiscation of guns at some future date. Opposition to gun registration can be seen as a right to privacy in that context – gun owners want to have privacy regarding the number and kinds of firearms they own, and they believe the government has no business knowing that information.
Property Rights. Land owners, particularly in the Western states, feel they are entitled to make their own decisions about land use privately, without government interference and regulation. Water use, mineral rights, livestock conditions, and other factors, they feel, should be up to the individual farmer or rancher. In these days of drought, for example, why should anyone else get a say in how much water (that exists on his or her own land) the family farmer should be able to use? Who has the right to put restrictions on that and other practices? Aren’t those private decisions?
Medical Decisions. Leaving abortion aside for the moment, conservatives had major problems with “Obamacare” (aka the Affordable Care Act) because they believed that the government should not come between a patient and his or her physician. Of particular concern were the so-called “death panels,” which, if any had been implemented, might have led to government personnel having a say in “when to pull the plug on grandma,” or whether a disabled child was ever going to be a “productive citizen.”
Surely end-of-life decisions and those regarding the amount of treatment a person receives are sacrosanct, the ultimate in discussions that should occur privately between physician and patient.
Looking at topics on which conservatives might wish for a right to privacy, many are usually framed as “freedom from government regulation,” or “freedom from government.” In other words, the conservative position is that government should have no say in private decisions made by private citizens. In these and other cases, freedom from government interference is basically a variation on the right to privacy.
Some religious families, for example, believe that they have the right to privacy when it comes to how – or whether – to treat their children with conventional medicine. Is that freedom of religion? Or is it also freedom from government interference – that is, privacy – in decision-making?
Education, corporal punishment, divorce, and even Social Security numbers and other forms of ID are also seen by some as matters of privacy, and calls for freedom from government intrusion are heard.
Matters get murky, however, when we turn to issues of sex and family. You’d think that what happens in the bedroom (or motel or wherever) ought to be the most private moments there are. But until recently, specific sex acts and even the use of contraceptives were matters in which the government had its say.
Now complicated modern sexual issues are under discussion. The line between public and private behavior is less clear when you think about marriage equality, public bathrooms, HIV status, and gender identity.
The problem is, of course, that the reproductive rights movement has already laid claim to the phrase “right to privacy,” and it has become the basis of their political and social position. The doctor and patient, according to Roe, have the right to privacy when making decisions about the medical procedure of terminating a pregnancy.
And, however much they value privacy, that’s something that conservatives can’t or won’t include in their definition.