Friday, December 4, 2015
The Poverty of Privacy Rights, by Khiara M. Bridges, Professor of Law, Boston University
For the past year, I have been writing a book, titled The Poverty of Privacy Rights. The punch line of the book is poor mothers do not have privacy rights.
Most people who have examined poor mothers’ experiences with the state agree that they do not enjoy any privacy in any real sense of the word. The state is all around them. It is in their homes, it is in their decision making processes around whether or not to bear a child, it is monitoring them as they parent their children, it is collecting the most intimate information from them, etc. It is everywhere. In light of the fact that the state is all around poor mothers – and in light of the fact that poor mothers can not keep the state out of their lives in the way that wealthier mothers can – most scholars have argued that poor mothers have privacy rights, but their rights are weak, meaningless, or constantly violated. The book that I am writing seeks to shift the discourse. It disputes that poor mothers have privacy rights that are weak or meaningless or constantly violated. Instead, it argues that poor mothers do not have privacy rights at all.
The book proposes that poor mothers have been “informally disenfranchised” of their privacy rights. The concept of informal disenfranchisement refers to the process by which a group that has been formally bestowed with a right is stripped of that very right by techniques that the Court holds to be consistent with the Constitution. The best precedent for informal disenfranchisement is black people’s experience with voting rights. While the Fifteenth Amendment formally enfranchised black men, white supremacists in the South employed methods—poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and white primaries—that made it impossible for black men to actually vote in the South for a century after their formal enfranchisement. Moreover, the Court held that each of these techniques of racial exclusion from the polls was constitutional. This is informal disenfranchisement: the status of formally bearing a right, yet being unable to exercise that right because laws that the Court have found to be constitutional make it impossible to do so. As such, my book proposes that poor mothers have been informally disenfranchised of privacy rights.
Now, those who are committed to the belief that everyone enjoys the same rights in the U.S.—even poor mothers—might argue that the government’s interest in protecting poor mothers’ children and children-to-be from abuse and neglect overrides their rights. So, they suggest that the reason why it appears that the government can act as it would act if poor mothers’ privacy rights did not exist at all is because the government interest in protecting children invariably justifies overriding these mothers’ privacy rights.
But, we have to ask: why does the state presume that poor mothers are at risk of abusing or neglecting their children? Now, one might respond: a mother’s poverty yields the possibility that she will be unable to meet the material needs of her child. One might respond: all that the state is doing is ensuring that the indigent woman is able to meet the material needs of her child. But, the Court has authorized states to ask questions that go beyond an inquiry into whether a woman will be able to provide food, clothing, and shelter for her child. The Court has authorized states to enter poor women’s homes just to make sure that they are not lying about their eligibility for public assistance benefits. The Court has authorized states to coerce women to avoid motherhood via family caps on public benefits. The Court has authorized states to coerce women into motherhood via prohibitions on the spending of Medicaid funds on abortion. The state’s surveillance goes beyond ensuring that poor mothers are able to meet the basic needs of their child. Instead, it amounts to a blanket surveillance of poor mothers.
It is worth noting, early and often, that wealthier women engage in the same behaviors in which poor women engage. Wealthier women cohabit with men to whom they are not married. Wealthier women smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol while pregnant. They, too, have histories of sexual and domestic violence. They, too, have unplanned pregnancies. They, too, find themselves pregnant after being in relatively short relationships with the fathers of their babies. Yet, no state has erected an extravagant bureaucratic tool with which it can take an accounting of every non-poor pregnant woman. And the point of my new book is to argue that, if a state did erect this extravagant bureaucratic tool with which it can take an accounting of non-poor pregnant women, it would be struck down as a violation of their privacy rights.
Now, the fact that no state has attempted to erect this bureaucratic tool is telling. It suggests that the state is not really interested in protecting children from abuse and neglect. Instead, it is only interested in protecting some children from abuse and neglect. That is, the state assumes that only some children need to be protected from their mothers. And those children are the ones that are born to poor women. Now, why does the state make this assumption about poor women? It cannot be because poor women engage in problematic behaviors and have problematic histories; wealthier women do, too. It has to be because of something else. My new book argues that that “something else” is poor women’s poverty and the fact that we largely believe that most poverty in this country is a consequence of individual, bad character. We have informally disenfranchised poor mothers of privacy rights because we, as a society, do not trust individuals with bad characters – poor women, presumptively – to competently parent their children.