Implied Rights

Some rights are not explicitly stated in the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment reads, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The amendment clearly leaves the door open for determining just which rights have constitutional protection.

The right to privacy

Many people believe the government has no business being involved in certain areas of people's lives. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court overturned a century-old law prohibiting counseling about and on the use of birth control, noting that what goes on in a married couple's bedroom is not the concern of the state. Later decisions extended the same privacy to unmarried persons.

The privacy issue has become a subject of considerable debate. Many employers now require job applicants to be tested for drugs, as do high schools as a condition of playing on athletic teams. Considerable hysteria erupted in the mid-1980s over AIDS and whether it was a contagious disease. Lawsuits were filed over invasion of privacy when employers asked questions about their employee's sexual orientation.

The abortion issue

Until 1973, abortion was illegal in most states. In the landmark case Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stated that a woman has a right to obtain an abortion because her decision is a matter of privacy. This was not a blanket approval of abortion. In the first trimester, the decision to abort is left to the woman and her doctor. States can restrict but not ban abortions in the second trimester, and they are allowed to regulate or ban abortions altogether in the third trimester (late-term abortions) unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman's life. The case opened up numerous questions. What rights, if any, does an unborn fetus have? At what point in the pregnancy can fetal rights be assumed? Which is more important, the health of the mother or the fetus's right to life?

The Court has moved away from the Roe decision in recent years and has supported additional limitations on abortions unless they impose an "undue burden" on a woman attempting to exercise her privacy rights. It has upheld both state and federal statutes cutting public funds for facilities that perform abortions as well as laws that require parent notification if a minor wants an abortion. In a recent decision, the Court upheld a federal ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions. The conflict between right-to-life and pro-choice groups has sometimes led to violence, and religious and political conservatives strongly favor a constitutional amendment to ban abortions in light of the unwillingness of the Court to overturn Roe.

The right to die

If questions about the right of an unborn fetus to live seem complicated, the increasing age of the adult population has brought a new issue to the courts — the right to die. Modern medical technology is able to keep "alive" people who would have otherwise died. A patient may lie in a coma for years, sustained only because of life-support systems. To avoid the agony of terminal illnesses, many people write living wills, stipulating that no extraordinary measures be taken to prolong their lives.

A terminally ill patient in great pain from cancer may want to end his or her life. Does the right to die include the right to physician-assisted suicide? Oregon's Death with Dignity Act (1997) allows the terminally ill to end their lives by taking lethal drugs prescribed by a doctor for that purpose. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2006. This issue demonstrates that in protecting civil liberties, the Constitution is not a static document; it responds to new and troubling questions that continue to challenge a free society.