The Fallacy of Our “Right to Privacy”

It is noteworthy that the first recorded question in Scripture was by man’s first murderer. After lying to God about his brother’s whereabouts, Cain shrugs “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To get a sense of the chutzpah, think of the modern slack-jawed youth who rolls his eyes at his parents and sneers, “Whatever.” 

Cain’s reaction to a probing God stands in dramatic contrast with that of his parents. Whereas Adam and Eve tried to cover their guilt with fig leaves, pleading they were victims of deceit, Cain tried to cover his with deceit pleading ignorance of his guilt. His whole posture suggests a staggering level of arrogance.

But annoyance with a watchful God is something we saw coming. Earlier, when God counseled him about his sacrifice and attitude, Cain seethed with anger at being reminded of his creatureliness. And things are no different today.

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The mere mention of government interest in the private sphere is enough to bring on vapors for people who, in their moral imagination, believe that what goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults should be protected by an absolute “right to privacy.” 

However, it surprises many to learn that although the U.S. Constitution contains certain protections from unreasonable searches and seizures, it includes no explicit right of privacy.  

Nevertheless, 1965 marked the birth of this socially-constructed right with Griswold v. Connecticut. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that marital privacy was a liberty guaranteed under the “penumbra” of the Bill of Rights, making laws that banned contraception unconstitutional.  

By 1973 (Roe v. Wade), the Court ruled, “This right of privacy…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Then, in 1992 (Planned Parenthood v. Casey), the Court declared the right so sacred that a woman was not compelled to even inform the baby’s father of her intent. 

As appalling as that decision was, more troubling was the majority opinion rendered by Justice Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Although no one but Big Brother would suggest we shouldn’t have the freedom to hold our own understandings about life, Kennedy’s implication is that actions derived from those understandings should be exempt from governmental interference. 

Taken to its logical end, Kennedy’s opinion is moral chaos. Little wonder that his “sweet mystery of life,” as it’s been called, led to our next descent. 

In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Court broadened the right of privacy to include the sexual activities of consenting adults, regardless of gender or marital status. Ruling that a Texas law forbidding sexual intimacy between same-sex persons was unconstitutional, the Court stated, “[The] Petitioners’ right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in private conduct without government intervention.” 

In a span of less than forty years, the enumerated protections in the Constitution swelled into an absolute right of private conduct. In effect, the Courts declared that what happens between consenting adults and what one does with one’s body and the life growing inside it is nobody’s business. Or is it?

According to the World Health Organization, AIDS claims the lives of up to one million people a year. Since male homosexual sex is responsible for most AIDS cases, how is it in the best interest of the homosexual community, or society at large, for government to overturn homosexual sodomy laws? 

Although such laws would likely have little effect on the activities of existing homosexuals, they would be a reproof to those considering the gay lifestyle. Alternatively, the absence of law, with the declaration that such acts are constitutionally protected, is a de facto endorsement of practices proven to be a detriment to individual and public health. 

In like manner, the “private morality” of heterosexual promiscuity and homosexual sex has exacted an enormous cost on society. These behaviors, besides contributing to the same social conditions above, are responsible for 19 million cases of STDs per year at a medical cost of over $12 billion per year.

The millions of lives lost because of the growing cultural acceptance of homosexual behavior and the erosion of governmental deterrents should grieve us, as should the 62 million unborn children whose explicit right to life has been overridden by an invented “right of privacy.” 

Then there is “no-fault” divorce—celebrated by men as a triumph of moral autonomy and by women as a victory over patriarchal marriage laws. Initiated in 1969, no-fault divorce made it easier to get out of a 25-year marriage than to get out of a cell phone contract. As a result, within 15 years the divorce rate soared to 250% of its 1960 value with the majority of divorces involving minor children headed by a single-parent woman. The tragedy is that these women and their children are three times more likely to end up in poverty and become dependents of a new patriarch, Uncle Sam.

Similarly, legalized abortion results in both personal and social costs. Beyond the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children per year who might have been poets, educators, inventors, entrepreneurs, etc., abortive women exhibit significantly higher incidences of suicide, substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, violent behavior, child abuse, and relationship problems including divorce. These women also risk falling prey to men who see them as sex objects. As comedian Chris Rock once quipped, “I like to go to abortion rallies, because the women there do it!”

Yet, if the right to privacy is absolute, why are seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws constitutional while abortion bans are not. Both exist to save lives. Also, if homosexual sodomy is legal, why not prostitution, if done privately and by mutual consent? What about a husband who intervenes in his wife’s suicide attempt? Shouldn’t it be unlawful for him to interfere with her understanding of the “mystery of life?”

For the Christian, the “right of privacy” is a strange notion indeed. Anyone thinking otherwise is sure to be offended by Jesus. Jesus meddled, Jesus intruded, and Jesus pried into the inner sanctum of people’s lives.

In an age of “going along to get along,” Jesus’ confrontation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well stands as a matchless example of downright rudeness. Not only did Jesus challenge the morality of her licentious life but, reminiscent of Yahweh’s reproach of Cain, He had the nerve of criticizing her beliefs about worship. Talk about arrogance and invasion of privacy! 

If that weren’t enough, Jesus instructed His disciples to do likewise: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Missing is any stated or implied exemption for acts committed in private or between consenting adults. 

If we are tempted to consider this an oversight, we need to recall that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who tried to cover their corrupt interior with a patina of piety. He even had the insensitivity to refer to them as “yeast.” His point was that, whether public or private, our actions have a corporate impact and, thus, are of Christian concern. 

For example, independent psychological studies show that significant exposure to pornography dramatically affects how one views women and sexual abuse, including the tendency to trivialize rape. As a consequence, exposure to porn has been demonstrated to lead to a greater involvement in deviant sex, primarily rape and child molestation. Alarmingly, in a study of convicted child molesters, over 80 percent identified themselves as habitual porn users.

So, what does all of this tell us? It tells us that there is no such thing as private morality. The morals I adopt shape my character which determines how I fulfill my duty as a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good steward.

It also tells us that as we have looked to blame our social ills on underfunded social programs, lack of government involvement, inadequate public education, bad genes, and the like, we’ve ignored the root cause: the loss of the Church’s effectiveness—and, perhaps, will—in shaping our collective moral conscience.

So, like Cain, we chafe at the idea of being our brother’s keeper and bearing some responsibility for his conduct—for admitting such suggests the similar duty of others for us. It’s a troubling suggestion that conjures up visions of meddlers wanting to pry open doors we want locked. 

And yet the truth that “there is not any thing secret that shall not be made manifest, nor hidden, that shall not be known and come abroad,” stands as a reminder that our demands for absolute privacy and moral autonomy are both illusionary and impermanent. It’s a truth we ignore at our peril.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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