Editor’s note: This commentary is by state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.
If one hangs around motorcyclists for any length of time you will eventually see one wearing a t-shirt that says: “If I have to explain, you’ll never understand.” This rather snarky expression embodies the frustration of a motorcyclist confronted by those who don’t ride and have little tolerance for those that do. It is not unlike the term Thomas Jefferson once scratched with quill pen into the immortal parchment that begins with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident” as he skillfully articulated the attitude by which a new nation was being formed. Both are premised on the right to be left alone.
That right to privacy surfaced as the Vermont Senate debated Proposition 5. Emotions are apt to override civic debate, so it is important to begin by focusing on what the language actually says. Narrowly tailored to address reproductive rights, it is centered on a right to privacy that should otherwise be self evident. It says: “An individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”
Vermont is historically positioned for a discussion about the proper dividing line between government intrusion and the extent to which one may control one’s own affairs. Ethan Allen once pounded his fist on a table in Bennington’s Catamount Tavern and proclaimed: “The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills!” Calvin Coolidge’s fountain pen proudly noted how the spirit of liberty, if vanished from the Union, could all be restored by the generous store held by the people within these borders. With clanking keys of a typewriter, Dorothy Canfield Fisher labeled our energetic grappling with “how to reconcile the needs of the group … against the craving for individual freedom” as the “Vermont Tradition.”
So how should Vermonters consider Proposition 5? It should be immediately obvious that the proposal is gender neutral, embracing privacy rights as universal. Every Vermonter should be able to determine their life course and, if faced with a proposed restriction, the burden should always be on the state to justify a compelling need. Supposing the State could so justify, any restriction should be limited to only that needed to achieve the objective. That is a proper balance in the “Vermont Tradition.”
Proposition 5 also accounts for the state’s interest in protecting a perfectly viable fetus by balancing it against a woman’s right to choose. Similar to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, its “compelling interest” balancing test declares first the privacy of the mother but reserves the possibility of state intervention to preserve the life of a fetus as it grows capable of surviving outside the womb. Contrary to the opinion of some, it would not automatically enshrine infanticide.
I decided to vote for Proposition 5 for three reasons. First, it is gender neutral, demonstrating that the right to privacy is not limited to just one issue. Second, in the case of abortion it preserves a balancing test between a woman’s right to privacy and a state’s interest in protecting a viable fetus. Third, since it is a proposal to amend our state’s constitution, it must be presented to the populace for a vote.
All of us have the right to make decisions about our own life’s course. Absent a compelling state interest, that right should never be infringed upon. In the presence of such an interest, the state should still be required to use the least restrictive means necessary. Proposition 5 is self evident in the Vermont Tradition. Hopefully a day will come when none of us should have to explain why that is.