A statement like this should not be taken out of context

Michael Gerson worries about taking Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg out of context, merely in order to take her out of context.  Here's what he says:

There was a scandal this week concerning the Supreme Court, though it didn't concern the nomination of its newest member.

The New York Times Magazine printed a candid interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including this portion:

Q: "Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid abortions for poor women?"

Clearly that question refers to some amount of previous discussion, so Gerson writes:

Justice Ginsburg: "Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion."

A statement like this should not be taken out of context. The context surrounding this passage is a simplistic, pro-choice rant. Abortion, in Ginsburg's view, is an essential part of sexual equality, thus ending all ethical debate. "There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to be so obvious," she explains. "So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don't know why this hasn't been said more often." Of pro-lifers, she declares, "They're fighting a losing battle" — which must come as discouraging news to litigants in future abortion cases that come before the high court.

Given this context, can it be argued that Ginsburg — referring to "populations that we don't want to have too many of" — was merely summarizing the views of others and describing the attitudes of the country when Roe v. Wade was decided? It can be argued — but it is not bloody likely. Who, in Ginsburg's statement, is the "we"? And who, in 1973, was arguing for the eugenic purposes of abortion?

No, it's obvious from the actual context (which is actually linked in the online version of this article) that this is what Ginsburg is talking about.  Here is what she says.  

Q: Let me ask you about the fight you waged for the courts to understand that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: I wrote about it a number of times. I litigated Captain Struck’s case about reproductive choice. [In 1972, Ginsburg represented Capt. Susan Struck, who became pregnant during her service in the Air Force. At the time, the Air Force automatically discharged any woman who became pregnant and told Captain Struck that she should have an abortion if she wanted to keep her job. The government changed the regulation before the Supreme Court could decide the case.] If the court could have seen Susan Struck’s case — this was the U.S. government, a U.S. Air Force post, offering abortions, in 1971, two years before Roe.

Q: And suggesting an abortion as the solution to Struck’s problem.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. Not only that, but it was available to her on the base.

Q: The case ties together themes of women’s equality and reproductive freedom. The court split those themes apart in Roe v. Wade. Do you see, as part of a future feminist legal wish list, repositioning Roe so that the right to abortion is rooted in the constitutional promise of sex equality?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Oh, yes. I think it will be.

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

It's clear that Ginsburg is not talking about her own personal position, as Gerson suggests, but rather the position of public opinion and the court at that time.  She even admits that her perception of that was wrong, not her personal view. 

Her argument, as is obvious, is that abortion law (as it stands) discriminates against women who cannot afford it.  And she makes the observation, not the assertion of an ethical absolute as Gerson dishonestly suggests, that rich women will always have the choice, since they have the means to travel or to afford that choice.  

Gerson's dishonest version of Ginsburg's interview isn't even close–perhaps the sign of that is the odd formulation: a statement like this should not be taken out of context.  I wonder, which statements should be taken out of context?

5 thoughts on “A statement like this should not be taken out of context”

  1. I’m not sure that Gerson attributes that position to her necessarily: “It is more likely that Ginsburg is describing the attitude of some of her own social class — that abortion is economically important to a “woman of means” and useful in reducing the number of social undesirables. Neither judge nor journalist apparently found this attitude exceptional; there was no follow-up question.
    I did find that quote at least worthy of a follow-up question. The social undesirables argument is not a new one. It’s been promoted and used quite often.
    Anyway, John, maybe we should discuss more serious issues … like “Perry Mason” 🙂

  2. So, if I follow Ginsburg’s weird formulation her thought seems to have been: “At the time that Roe was decided, there was a lot of concern with overpopulation, especially birth rates among the impoverished or less economically stable. Therefore, I was surprised in 1980 when the court upheld congress’ refusal to fund abortion for poor people, since that seemed to be one motivation for allowing access to family planning procedures and abortion.”

    Now it does seem a bit odd–and it would be interesting to know what sort of connection she saw at the time between eugenics and roe v. wade. I don’t recall any hint of that in Roe. Do I have a revisionist conception of the abortion debate leading up to Roe?

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