Faculty, staff, and students gathered for a symposium exploring how the poor are subject to invasions of privacy by the state.
Boston University School of Law held a symposium on November 20 for Khiara M. Bridges, professor of law and professor of anthropology, to celebrate the publication of her new book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights (Stanford University Press).
Building on the research completed in her first book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights examines three types of privacy rights: reproductive privacy, which allows individuals the right to determine whether or not to become parents; information privacy, which enables individuals to keep personal information from being shared with third parties; and family privacy, which allows parents to raise children the way they want and instill the values they choose.
Bridges explores how poor mothers are subject to invasions of privacy by the state whether they receive public benefits or not. She suggests that their lack of privacy is not a function of their reliance on government assistance, but rather their having been deprived of privacy rights in the first instance.
Dean Maureen O’Rourke welcomed guests to the event, citing Bridges as a “celebrated scholar” and “award-winning teacher.” Dean O’Rourke noted Bridges was of the most active members of faculty, presenting her research around the country and the world.
To start the discussion, Danielle Keats Citron, Morton & Sophia Macht Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law, suggested that the very collection of sensitive information could be so demeaning and undermining of family life that it implicates substantive due process. “We have come to a moment in which the very invasion of privacy undermines life opportunities, in particular, equal citizenship for poor mothers,” she said. “I’m thinking of ways in which we should demand reciprocity of the state.”
Michele Bratcher Goodwin, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, blended the research that Bridges has done on privacy in the reproductive health space with her own work. She began with Bridges’s assertion that the value of being able to decide whether or not to bear a child is that it allows individuals to be autonomous and affords them control over the direction of their lives. “I’d like to start with the question of who controls the narrative, because I think that is what Professor Bridges wrestles with in her work,” she said. Goodwin argued that the book pushes readers to think about how law reflects the demeaning cultural narratives that exist about the poor: “The privacy rights of poor mothers is more illusory than real.”
Radhika Rao, professor of law at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law, noted that Bridges’s writings are “not only influential, but generative in the sense that they provoke thought and generate ideas among other scholars.” Rao argued the denial of privacy rights documented in the book was part of a much broader trend, where not only privacy rights, but all rights belong only to those with property. “Rights provide a sphere of freedom from the overweening power of the state,” she said, “but I think that in our modern neo-liberal vision, property rights are essentially swallowing up all other rights.” For example, Rao cited the reproductive privacy rights of employees, where the right to access contraceptives as part of an employee’s health insurance now gives way to the religious freedom rights of their corporate employers. “It is not just poor mothers who lack privacy rights, but all of those who do not own property,” Rao said. “We are witnessing the impoverishment not just of privacy rights, but of all rights… where rights are attached to only those who own and possess property.”
Bridges concluded the symposium by reflecting on the inspiration for the book. Her main goal, she said, was to show that the way we talk about rights as if everyone has them has impoverished our political discourse. This conversation, she said, makes us feel self-satisfied and gives us the sense that there is nothing fundamentally broken with our system. “By describing poor mothers as not bearing rights, I hope it reminds us of a previous historical moment when other populations, like the enslaved, didn’t bear rights,” she said. “I want to argue that our present is more reminiscent of our horrible past than it is of some utopic future where we have fixed everything.”
Reported by Natalie Carroll (COM’19)
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