Monday 27 June, 2022

Consider the Lily

Cycling home the other day, I noticed an intriguing white spot that had suddenly appeared in the roadside hedge.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a glorious lily

We fell to wondering how it got there. It was certainly not planted by a human. A bird-dropping, perhaps? But what a glorious thing to see on one’s way home.

Quote of the Day

“History teaches, but has no pupils.”

  • Antonio Gramsci

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fauré | Requiem | Introit et Kyrie | John Rutter | The Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia


The only thing that came to mind after reading the SCOTUS judgment below.

What the Supremes decided

From a useful summary by the Jurist site…

Basically that there is no constitutional right to abortion, overturning the epochal decisions Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The case that triggered the decision involved the state of Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act that had been passed in 2018 and outlaws abortions after 15 weeks with few exceptions (except when the mother’s life is threatened).

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, upheld Mississippi’s law and found that the US Constitution does not protect a right to abortion:

We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” The right to abortion does not fall within this category.

The implication of the decision is that abortion law is up to individual states, which is deeply worrying since many of them are controlled by the Republicans, and some already have ‘trigger laws’ that could come into force soon or even immediately. Since some states (like California), permit abortion, anti-abortion states might try to make it illegal for women to cross state lines in search of an abortion. If they do, then I guess that that would get aggressive states into constitutional trouble.

But I’m no lawyer.

Alito’s point about the the Roe and Casey cases succeeding by relying on the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is interesting. The Amendment (according to Wikipedia) addressed “citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War” and — says Alito — has been held to guarantee some rights not mentioned in the Constitution — but only rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” But then he asserts that “the right to abortion “does not fall within this category”.

Eh? Roe v. Wade was decided 50 years ago. So for half a century the idea that a woman had a constitutional right to abortion has been a fixed element in the US legal and jurisdictional system. If that doesn’t make it “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” what does?

Looming over this, though, is an even darker prospect. SCOTUS has decided that states are free to do whatever they want to in this area. But if the Republicans win control of both houses in November, then they may attempt to pass a Federal law outlawing abortion. In which case the Taliban will really be in control.


From the Economist, Sunday evening…

In 13 states (Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming) trigger bans now follow the court’s decision. This means laws are coming into force to ban abortion there. And other bans will surely follow soon, as America develops a patchwork of differing legal regimes around abortion. Expect schemes to get under way that help women to get abortions elsewhere if they live in abortion-hostile states, for example through special funding to pay for travel and medical expenses. After the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision, America will be more dangerously divided.

Long Read of the Day

We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe v. Wade. We’re Going Somewhere Worse

We are now watching the disintegration of the American Republic in real time. The SCOTUS decision may ostensibly about abortion, but what it really highlights is the way a new kind of Taliban is in the process of taking over the society. This fine New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino outlines a future in which a country that used to pride itself as being a beacon for democracy across the world morphs into something like an affluent version of Afghanistan.

“We won’t go back” — it’s an inadequate rallying cry, prompted only by events that belie its message. But it is true in at least one sense. The future that we now inhabit will not resemble the past before Roe, when women sought out illegal abortions and not infrequently found death. The principal danger now lies elsewhere, and arguably reaches further. We have entered an era not of unsafe abortion but of widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members, of anyone who comes into meaningful contact with a pregnancy that does not end in a healthy birth. Those who argue that this decision won’t actually change things much—an instinct you’ll find on both sides of the political divide—are blind to the ways in which state-level anti-abortion crusades have already turned pregnancy into punishment, and the ways in which the situation is poised to become much worse.

In the states where abortion has been or will soon be banned, any pregnancy loss past an early cutoff can now potentially be investigated as a crime. Search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data, payment data, information from period-tracking apps—prosecutors can examine all of it if they believe that the loss of a pregnancy may have been deliberate. Even if prosecutors fail to prove that an abortion took place, those who are investigated will be punished by the process, liable for whatever might be found…

How many weeks will elapse, one wonders before Google searches for information about abortion will start to be subpoenaed in Mississippi and elsewhere?

And what about those poor little frozen embryos?

An excerpt from the Editorial in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, June 24, 2022, brings up a thought that may not have troubled the justices who reversed the precedent. This is how it goes:

New laws in a post-Roe America declaring that life begins at conception may have additional ramifications. In vitro fertilization (IVF) did not exist before Roe. Since its development in 1978, use of IVF has grown, and 2% of all U.S. births now result from assisted reproductive technology, IVF procedures usually result in numerous oocytes ovulated per cycle, and fertilization frequently creates numerous embryos. Because modern IVF practice favors single-embryo transfers whenever possible, to reduce risks of multiple gestation and attendant complications, unused embryos are generally frozen for potential future transfer. Nationwide, there are tens of thousands of human embryos cryopreserved in IVF laboratories. While “adoption” programs exist to allow persons to donate their unused embryos to others who would like to implant them, many people are uncomfortable with this option, and unused embryos are often destroyed. If these embryos are declared human lives by the stroke of a governor’s pen, their destruction may be outlawed. What will be the fate of abandoned embryos, of the people who “abandon” them, and more broadly of IVF centers in these jurisdictions?

The NJEM is, I guess, the premier medical journal in the US, and the Editorial is worth reading in full.

Thanks to Andrew Arends for alerting me to it.

Why Facebook et al are so worried by TikTok

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Over the last couple of years it’s been taking over the social media world, and all the other big platforms – and especially Facebook – seem hypnotised by it, much as rabbits are by the headlights of an oncoming lorry.

Why is this? It’s partly a matter of demographics: 57% of TikTok users are female; 43% are aged between 18 and 24; and only 3.4% are over 55 (and possibly wandered in to TikTok by mistake when they were looking for their true online home, which is now Facebook). You can tell that this hurts because in August 2020 Instagram (which is owned by Facebook/Meta) launched Reels, an editing tool that allowed users to create 15-second video clips and set them to music. Just like TikTok, in fact, only feebler.

The existential threat that TikTok poses to the social media giants, though, is not demographic: it’s about attention.

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Dave Winer (Whom God Preserve) proposed this nice metaphor for what’s happening to a US governed by people who think that a constitution written in the 1780s and ratified in 1788 is still a useful guide to governance of a complex industrial society.

The Constitution is like an operating system. The one we have was designed for slavery. But then a few decades after the Bill of Rights we changed our mind, and decided not to have slavery. It’s like going from character-based to GUI. but we never wrote a new OS.

On that metaphor, SCOTUS is still in the MS-DOS era. And just as the Constitution doesn’t mention abortion, MS-DOS didn’t mention TCP/IP, the Web or social-media.

This Blog is also available as a daily email. If you think that might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, Monday through Friday, delivered to your inbox. It’s free, and you can always unsubscribe if you conclude your inbox is full enough already!