Must privacy and sexual equality conflict? A philosophical examination of some legal evidence

Social Research: An International Quarterly 67 (4):1137-1171 (2001)
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Are rights to privacy consistent with sexual equality? In a brief, but influential, article Catherine MacKinnon trenchantly laid out feminist criticisms of the right to privacy. In “Privacy v. Equality: Beyond Roe v. Wade” she linked familiar objections to the right to privacy and connected them to the fate of abortion rights in the U.S.A. (MacKinnon, 1983, 93-102). For many feminists, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) had suggested that, notwithstanding a dubious past, legal rights to privacy might serve feminist objectives, and prove consistent with sexual equality. By arguing that Roe’s privacy justification of abortion rights was directly responsible for the weakness and vulnerability of abortion rights in America, MacKinnon took aim at feminist hopes for the right to privacy at their strongest point. Maintaining that Roe’s privacy justification of abortion is intimately, and not contingently, related to the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Harris v. McRae, (1980) MacKinnon concluded that privacy rights cannot be reconciled with the freedom and equality of women, and so can have no place in a democracy.1 In Harris, the Supreme Court held that the State need not provide Medicaid coverage for abortions that are necessary to preserve the health, but not the life, of a pregnant woman, effectively depriving poor women of almost all state aid for abortions.2 Moreover, the Court’s subsequent decision in Bowers v . Hardwick (1986) appeared to confirm the truth of MacKinnon’s observation – though this case concerned gay rights, rather than abortion rights, and occurred several years after MacKinnon’s condemnation of Harris. This paper examines MacKinnon’s claims about the relationship of rights to privacy and equality in light of the reasoning in Harris and Bowers. When we contrast the Majority and Minority decisions in these cases, it shows, we can distinguish interpretations of the right to privacy that are consistent with sexual equality from those that are not. This is not simply because the two differ in their consequences – though they do - but because the former, unlike the latter, rely on empirical and normative assumptions that would justify sexual inequality whatever right they were used to interpret. So while I agree with MacKinnon that the Majority’s interpretation of the right to privacy in Harris is inconsistent with the equality of men and women, I show that there is no inherent inconsistency in valuing both privacy and equality, and no reason why we must chose to protect the one, rather than the other. Indeed, an examination of MacKinnon’s article, I suggest, can help us to see why rights to privacy can be part of a scheme of democratic rights, and how we might go about democratising the right to privacy in future. To avoid confusion I should emphasise that my arguments are of a philosophical, not a legal, nature. Thus, I will be ignoring the specifically legal and constitutional aspects of MacKinnon’s article, and of the Supreme Court decisions, in order to bring their philosophical significance into focus.

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Annabelle Lever
SciencesPo, Paris


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