American Puritanism and Government Regulation of Sexual Activity
A streak of Puritanism and moral certitude has influenced politics in America since the landing of the first colonists. While these attitudes have ebbed and flowed at various times, they have always affected public discourse and legislation. Over the years, politicians have passed laws trying to outlaw contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and miscegenation because these activities were considered immoral. At the same time, citizens’ belief in individual rights and the limited role of government has fostered an expectation that government will stay out of people’s bedrooms and respect their privacy, in conflict with these Puritanical laws.
In 1873 Congress passed the Comstock Act which made it illegal to send contraceptive materials through the mail, with instruction about contraception deemed obscene. When Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916, she was arrested and sent to prison for providing information about contraception. In 1965, in Griswold v Connecticut, the Supreme Court voided a Connecticut law that outlawed the use of contraceptives, ruling that the Constitution protected a right to privacy. Since then, women’s right to contraception has been generally accepted until conflict over coverage by religious institutions recently emerged.
In Roe V Wade in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to decisions between a woman and her physician, allowing her to legally have an abortion. State and federal laws prohibiting abortion were swept away. However, the Hyde amendment passed by Congress in 1976 prevented the utilization of federal funds for abortion. Multiple laws have been since passed in different states to try and restrict abortion, with provisions that included forcing women to have vaginal or abdominal ultrasounds prior to the procedure, viewing the ultrasounds, counseling about abortion, having a 24 hour waiting period, and so forth. The legality and status of these laws, supposedly to protect women’s health, remains in flux.
Homosexual behavior, specifically sodomy or anal intercourse, has been a criminal offense from pre-revolutionary times, considered a crime against nature. Until 1962, all states criminalized sodomy, though some subsequently eliminated the offense. To the present, the Supreme Court has still not ruled that homosexual acts in private have constitutional protection, though most states believe this is so. Yet there are states where anti-sodomy statutes are still on the books. Anti-sodomy laws, if enforced, are by local police agencies that set up stings for solicitation for gay sex. However, it is the solicitation of sex that is the criminal act, rather than the sexual activity itself. Government authorities generally stay out of people’s bedrooms today, though homosexual behavior remains illegal in many states.
Anti-miscegenation laws were also operative in America in Colonial times and continued afterwards, prohibiting interracial marriage and sexual activity. These were state, rather than federal laws, and breaking them were considered felonies. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, states actively enforced these laws, mainly in the South. However, in 1967, the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia ruled unanimously that these laws were unconstitutional.
The laws regulating people’s sexual behavior originated in the interpretation of the Bible and religious texts by some citizens, providing the rationale for government intrusion in other citizens’ private lives. Issues like contraception and abortion continue to be debated today, with some Americans wanting to use government to force their moral viewpoints on other Americans. Unfortunately, the politicians in Washington still spend an inordinate amount of time and effort on these issues, rather than addressing the nation’s budget deficit, unemployment and pressing economic problems.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.