Jane Doe, Navy wife, and her abortion

After a court ordered the Navy to provide an abortion for a sailor’s wife carrying an anencephalic fetus, the Justice Department successfully sued the sailor to make him pay the $3000 cost out of his $20,000 salary. The new Democratic Congressional majority ought to force a vote in each chamber on a bill to refund that money to the sailor.

One of the nice things about having a majority in Congress is that your side gets to set the agenda, and in particular to force the other side to take votes that will be tough for them. Another nice thing about having a majority in Congress is that sometimes you have the ability to right an outrageous wrong.

So it would be doubly nice if Congressional Democrats took up the case of the Navy wife carrying an anencephalic fetus who was denied an abortion under the Hyde Amendment. Terrified of giving birth to a child who would certainly die almost immediately after being born, she went to court, and the district court ordered the Navy to go through with the procedure, which it did. But then the low-life, heartless $%@*%@*$ers at John Ashcroft’s Justice Department went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and got a decision that the sailor would have to pay the Navy $3000 for the abortion out of his Navy wages of $20,000 per year. No, really. I’m not making this up.

The courts have spoken, do I hear you say? Too late to do anything about it? By no means. Congress has a long (and not entirely honorable) tradition of passing what are known as “private bills,” or “relief bills,” typically headed “An Act for the Relief of X,” where X is a named individual. Procedures have been tightened, but a private relief bill is perfectly Constitutional. In this case, since the woman (naturally) doesn’t want publicity, the bill would have to be artfully written to conceal her name, but she could be identified as the “Jane Doe” in “Jane Doe v. U.S.” and whatever the docket number was.

First things first. The bill might well pass, and the President might well sign it. That would be an excellent result, both in justice to the poor family and as a gesture to our men and women in uniform that we care about them.

But even if it failed, and especially if it passed and were vetoed by the President, it would be an excellent political adventure.

In political terms, the case has what the lawyers call “good facts.” Lots of people opposed to abortion in the abstract don’t really favor forcing women to deliver children certain to die at once. And even those who would oppose abortions in such cases might still find no good reason (as there surely isn’t) to add financial insult to emotional injury by coming back after the money.

And yet … for the organized Right-to-Lifers this will be a Right-to-Life issue. After all, if abortion is murder, then there’s not much place for sympathy with the murderess and her husband. If they let their tame Representatives and Senators stray on this question, what will be next? So they’ll have to fight, and most of the “pro-life” elected folks will have to swallow hard and vote against the bill, which won’t make most of their constituents happy. A vote against the Jane Doe Relief Act is a virtual confession to being either a hard-hearted extremist or a political coward. I’m happy to let our Republican friends make that choice, or alternatively to get a piece of their base seriously angry. Voting against the bill would outrage libertarians, whose willingness to team with social conservatives may be under strain after six years of fiscally irresponsible big-government Republicanism.

And, of course, voting against the bill could reasonably be painted as Voting Against the Troops; since we’re going to be hearing a lot about that in the context of voting against escalation in Iraq, it would be nice to have a snappy comeback.

If the bill passes and lands on the President’s desk, all of those considerations apply, squared, to his decision to sign or veto. And if he vetoes, we get another set of votes to make the Republicans suffer through.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but this one seems easy.

Footnote I’m just about certain that I saw a reference to this case on some blog within the last couple of days, but I can’t find it. A pointer would be appreciated.

Update: I’d forgotten that I’d blogged about the case earlier, and that Brad DeLong agreed with me. I’d also forgotten that, at the time, it seemed possible that the government, having won its case, wouldn’t actually come after the sailor for the money. That would reduce the injustice involved, but not eliminate it; the judgment would still be on the books. So if the money hasn’t been collected, the bill could simply formally forgive the debt.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com