The US Supreme Court's rulings on abortion and guns could unleash a firestorm

The decisions are tantamount to pouring petrol over political, religious and racial brushfires

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Two massive earthquakes rocked the US last week. Sweeping rulings by the Supreme Court on guns and abortion widened already yawning crevices along two great national fault-lines: race and religion.

The abortion ruling, although no surprise, was still a shocking blow to American women. On Friday morning at 9.59, and for 50 years before that, they had the right to decide whether to give birth. By 10.01, that freedom vanished.

The Court had never before eliminated an individual constitutional right and handed the power to state governments. About half will severely restrict or virtually eliminate reproductive freedom.

But the ruling goes much further, eliminating the constitutional right to privacy. Chief Justice John Roberts failed to secure a compromise to save it. Now basic rights such as contraception and marriage equality have no established constitutional basis.

Mr Roberts is a political conservative, not a religious extremist. So, the new majority of hardline Roman Catholic judges on his bench breezily ignores him while imposing its fundamentalist agenda on constitutional law, now eyeing those "sinful" privacy rights.

Extremism is hardly typical of Catholic Americans. Justices Roberts and Sonia Sotomayor are moderate Catholics. So is President Joe Biden and countless leading liberals and conservatives. The newly extremist Court is implementing a broad-based Christian radical, not specifically Catholic, agenda. Decades of fundamentalist Protestant activism powered its creation.

The manifest content of the abortion ruling addresses state prerogatives in the federal system. But its latent, and real, significance rests on an article of faith beyond reason and impervious to evidence, debate or refutation (and therefore above and beyond courts). This decisive doctrine holds that, as a manifestation of divine will, human beings come fully into existence at conception.

This insistence that human life is, in all meaningful senses, fully realised at the moment of conception is indispensable, because if there is transformative development as a fertilised zygote becomes a baby about to be born, the issue inevitably becomes what stage of development demands government protection, returning from a metaphysical register to a legal and political one. That question informed the previous rulings that the current Court is trying to permanently obliterate entirely. So, the "life begins at conception" absolutism is essential.

Where one side sees health care, the other sees homicide. One side sees hypocrisy, the other honour

Millions of other Americans (many also devout) in the majority who support regulated reproductive rights just don’t believe that a human being with operative legal personhood materialises the moment fertilisation creates a single-celled zygote.

It's symptomatic that the rulings themselves, and most media coverage, treat the abortion question as entirely or mainly legal and political, not religious. That's either calculated subterfuge or neurotic repression. The religious context and subtext of this definitive national rift often appears literally unspeakable. The resulting mental landscapes are completely irreconcilable.

The left sees a culmination of minority rule by hyper-empowered rural and suburban Christian fundamentalist constituencies over a much larger liberal and moderate, but in the American system often disempowered, urban and coastal majority. The right is celebrating a textbook example of morality trumping all other values, with half of the states now prohibiting what, since they consider human life to be effectively realised at conception, is a form of murder.

The left visualises suffering young women forced into reproductive servitude, while the right imagines rescued "babies", as they consider foetuses at every stage of gestation.

Where one side sees health care, the other sees homicide. One side sees hypocrisy, the other honour. One side sees faith, the other fanaticism.

On the losing liberal side, outrage has congealed into gooey, glutenous layers of ever-increasing indignation.

It's galling enough for them that simple good luck and ruthless Senate chicanery got previous president Donald Trump three Court appointments, the core of the new extremist majority, in a mere four years.

From lucky system-gaming, we move to historically noteworthy heights of hypocrisy. The abortion ruling completely contradicts the supposedly "conservative" principle of "stare decisis", which holds that established precedent should generally prevail. Obviously terrible rulings demand correction. But nothing changed, and there’s no Court unanimity for this extraordinary reversal, let alone majority public support. It’s just a raw, opportunistic use of cynically acquired power that has enraged liberals.

Beyond such hypocrisy lies a thick and viscous layer of lying, which generates incandescent liberal rage. Republican Senator Susan Collins has released detailed notes of a 2018 private meeting with then nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who vehemently pledged not to overturn abortion rights. She says she was "misled", and she excels at euphemisms. Other senators say he also inundated them with extravagant dishonesty.

Moreover, most of the Court majority during their confirmations called abortion rights "settled law" or "important precedent", or both, and vowed to uphold "stare decisis" and reject “judicial activism” that might impose their personal beliefs. But now, they've jumped at the first opportunity to do exactly that.

Both liberal and conservative justices have protested that they aren't sanctimonious black-robed political "hacks", but growing public disdain for the Court won't be helped by the other major ruling last week, when it prohibited states from preventing individuals carrying firearms in most public places.

But don't worry: courts were on the tiny list of explicitly protected exceptions.

The Court was in the news for another major ruling last week, when it prohibited states from preventing individuals carrying firearms in most public places.

It came weeks after massacres at a Buffalo supermarket and Texas elementary school reminded us of the inconceivable US average rate of more than one mass shooting a day this year. With the American majority in favour of gun regulation, a modest bill finally passed the Senate. Yet, employing "originalism" and "textualism", the Court doubled down on a misreading of the Second Amendment. It sanctifies the passage about not infringing “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” while pretending such rights are not specifically framed in the context of "a well-regulated militia".

The “militias” that are the actual subject of the Amendment evolved into state National Guards. The idea that any of this guarantees individual gun rights was unknown before the 1960s.

If the defining subtext of abortion is religion, on guns it is race.

The "well-regulated militia", and hence the Second Amendment, was partly about fear of slave rebellions. White supremacy motivates many of today’s worst bloodbaths. Black men with guns are viewed and treated very differently than white men with guns. Imagine how this Court would rule on people flaunting firearms in public if the January 6 insurrection had been led by Black Panthers rather than Proud Boys?

With the FBI warning about the growing threat of right-wing violence, the Court is either intentionally encouraging domestic terrorists or simply doesn't care. In its America, states have no power to stop thugs menacing folk with assault rifles, but they are now free to force a raped woman to carry and deliver her assailant’s child.

The Court must know that it is playing with fire. The January 6 hearings, with their damning revelations, have provoked an intensifying atmosphere of political violence. Escalating threats are the spitting embers smouldering under the American landscape. Yet the Supreme Court is splashing around petrol.

No American institution is doing more to fan the flames of fear and hatred. And none will face and deserve a harsher historical indictment if the country, as seems increasingly plausible, endures a sustained paroxysm of political violence.

Published: June 26, 2022, 8:00 AM
Updated: June 27, 2022, 9:22 AM