Public v. Private Reason: Women’s Healthcare

Public v. Private Reason: Women’s Healthcare

Emotion is a driving force for many of us.  Historically, people vote their conscience, following their  own personal morals instead of  public reason.  Nonpublic values are often found within religious doctrines or private organizations.  John Rawls doctrine of public reason states: “Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.”1 When the Constitution is used as a guide, it becomes clear why it is important to uphold reciprocity while actively keeping church and state separate.  Public reason is the act of justifying a particular position in a way that those of varying moral or political backgrounds can accept.  As a democracy, we may vote as we choose but our votes still have consequences.  By allowing religious or personal beliefs to solely guide our voting, we infringe upon the very foundation our ancestors set for us to follow.  Legislation which prohibits or limits access to women’s reproductive healthcare violates personal autonomy as defined by the Constitution.  Any law which seeks to prohibit access to abortions or contraception places an undue burden on women because it limits their social, political and economic equality.

The First Amendment of the Constitution ensures freedom of religion and freedom of expression.  We, as a people, are guaranteed the ability to practice our religious beliefs free from persecution and government interference.  The ability to practice a chosen religion beyond the walls of a church, synagogue or temple; it allows us the right to exercise our religious beliefs openly in society.  To further protect the rights of the people the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution as protecting the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment provides the freedom for people to practice their religion without fear.  It also includes the establishment clause which “prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another.”2  Any law which seeks to promote the beliefs of one religion over another would violate the establishment clause.  Any law which seeks to prohibit or restrict access to women’s reproductive health care, abortion included, would create an albatross for women.  Restricting access to reproductive health care because of a religious belief held by the powerful unfairly limits those who do not hold the same beliefs.  This act not only violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution but it violates public reason.  Politicians must put aside private reason, or personal beliefs, while they are in office.  It is the duty of politicians and citizens to make decisions which would not violate the Constitution while maintaining the theory of neutrality,  the model the state follows in respect to personal value.

As a society, we are bound to each other by our government and its laws. on a deeper level, we are also bound to each other through our social values.  The goal of Public reason is to craft policies empathetically; we must think of others when we make decisions that affect us all.  We set aside our personal beliefs because we understand the importance of reciprocity.  We affirm each other’s right to personal beliefs while being certain not to impose those beliefs on others, thereby ensuring the greatest benefit for society.  Through the use of public reason and reciprocity, a society affirms the foundation of a democracy.

Personal autonomy, when exercised with the right to privacy, guarantees the freedom of women to choose whether or not to access reproductive healthcare services.  The ability to choose to have an abortion is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and further recognized by the SCOTUS in cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. For any governmental agency to infringe upon the right to privacy, a compelling state interest must be shown.  In Roe v. Wade, the SCOTUS deemed that the viability of the fetus was the only compelling interest for the state in regards to reproductive rights.   Therefore limiting  access to birth control and early term abortions because of religious beliefs is in direct conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause as well as the First Amendment’s guarantee to not favor one religion over another.

Restrictions on access to women’s healthcare also violate the doctrine of substantive due process stated in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments requirement that all governmental intrusions into fundamental rights and liberties be fair and reasonable while holding a legitimate governmental interest.  An interpretation of this is that a law that is enacted to protect the health and safety of a woman would not violate the Constitution.   However, if a law is enacted based solely on religious beliefs and does not include a compelling state interest to protect either the mother or the fetus it is in violation of the Fifth, Fourteenth, and First Amendments.  Proposed legislation which seeks to prohibit abortion and access to birth control for no other reason than religious beliefs and which have no proof of a compelling state interest must be struck down before they become law because they violate the Amendments of the Constitution.

If a law serves a legitimate state purpose, then it cannot be called unjust or unconstitutional.   However, if the law poses an excessive burden on a group disproportionately, it then becomes an undue burden and must be undergo judicial review.  Laws allowing access to reproductive healthcare don’t impose a burden if it goes against the moral beliefs of one group since they may still exercise their personal autonomy and choose not to access the care provided to the citizens as a whole.  Conversely, a law which prohibits access to reproductive care does place an undue burden on one group because it limits personal autonomy, the right to privacy and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Robert Audi advocated the separation of church and state when he upheld the neutrality principle.   He wrote that the “state should give no preference to religion (or the religious) as such, that is, to institutions or persons simply because they are religious.”3  One’s conscience should not become the law of the land.  Politicians should not be asked to interpret and substantiate claims based on theology while performing their legal duties as elected officials of the people.

John Rawls formulated from political liberalism the theory of liberal principles of legitimacy.  Richard Arneson illustrates this theory in his writing. Arneson states “Even if a policy is enacted via a fair procedure; this fact always seems to leave open the question, whether the substance of policy is fair.”4  Legislators should only support legislation which is fully justified because they appeal to reasons we, as a society, can share and are independent of any biases.  Legislation which becomes law should be judged by a level of neutrality when citizens and politicians are voting on them, and if the proposed law does not meet this level, it should be voted down.  Legislation influenced by religious views must be held to the same standard as any other proposed law for two reasons: 1. it can create an undue burden and be viewed as unconstitutional and 2.  Religion is controversial and can create feelings of passion on both sides.  For a law to be neutral, it should not infringe upon the rights of one side or another while favoring another.

Is it possible for a politician to put aside their personal beliefs in favor for the good of society when drafting legislation?  It is only possible if, as citizens, we agree upon a comprehensive doctrine as outlined by Rawls.  We would have to put aside our agendas, beliefs, and stake in an outcome, refuse to force one another to live by our personal beliefs, and find mutually acceptable terms.  Citizens must justify their decisions based on public values, not personal belief.  Will a society vote based upon the good of others and not their personal beliefs?  John Rawls believes this is possible.  He believes there is an opportunity for a society and its citizens to abide by and adhere to the principles of political cooperation.

Many would argue it is impossible to hold a citizenry to one form of reason, but I disagree.  A reasonable person would not subject another to harm based solely upon their beliefs.  Those who are reasonable exercise a certain amount of restraint when exercising their power to vote by considering how the proposed law or the candidate would affect the whole rather than an individual.  Citizens may have an objection to the law as a whole, but those who exercise reason understand the need to morally and ethically put aside their personal and religious beliefs for society and upholding the Constitution.

As citizens of this country, we share a common public culture.  This culture has helped us form our beliefs, morals, and standards and as such, we cannot deny the need to uphold the beliefs of our society.  Access to reproductive healthcare is not a subject that should be burdened with religious dogma.  If we are to uphold the tenets of our society, we must uphold the Amendments to the Constitution regardless of our personal and religious beliefs.  Exercising neutrality, relying upon public values and find mutually acceptable terms is a necessity if we are to move forward politically and socially.


1.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “John Rawls,” accessed November 10, 2016,

2.   U.S. Constitution amendment I.  Accessed November 10,

3.   Audi, Robert.   Religious Commitment and Secular Reason.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

4.  Arneson, Richard.   “Against Freedom of Conscience,”  San Diego Law Review, 47(4),: 1015-1040, 2010.

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