Americans still don't like a bully. That's one hopeful takeaway from three recent polls on issues related to health care.
First, a Quinnipiac poll found a majority — a small one, but still a majority — of Virginians oppose legislation passed by this year's General Assembly forcing a woman to submit to an ultrasound before having an abortion. (More Democrats than Republicans resented the mandate, which is not surprising. But more men opposed it than women, which is.) As state Sen. Dick Saslaw and others have noted, this is only the second time Virginia has ordered any medical procedure to be performed. The last time the state did so, it approved the forced sterilization of the mentally disabled.
More encouraging than the 52 percent opposition to ultrasound per se is this: 72 percent of state residents think the government should not pass laws seeking to change a woman's mind about getting an abortion.
Second, a Washington Post/ABC News poll shows 67 percent of respondents want the Supreme Court to throw out either the individual-mandate portion of the 2010 health-care overhaul or the entire statute. This tracks with a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from a few days earlier showing only 28 percent of Americans think the Constitution allows the government to make you buy insurance. Judging from this week's oral arguments, a majority of the Supreme Court also thinks the mandate is unconstitutional.
Third, a New York Times/CBS poll several days ago found that 57 percent of Americans believe the Obama administration's mandate forcing employers to provide contraception coverage should include an exemption for religiously affiliated institutions. A slim majority (51 percent) supports a conscience exemption for all employers. Even a 53 percent majority of women themselves think religious institutions should be able to opt out for reasons of conscience.
Would it be nice if those majorities were even larger? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see a preponderance of the public come down on the right side of these issues. It suggests that while Americans are quite happy to have the government do things for them, many of them still bristle when the government starts trying to do things to them — or to their neighbors and fellow citizens.
Granted, public opinion is not the final word on every issue. Majorities can be wrong — as they were in the 1940s, when two-thirds of whites supported racial segregation in public schools, and as in 2009, when 58 percent of Americans said the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, should be waterboarded during questioning.
Majorities also can be incoherent. A 2003 USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey on the separation of church and state found that 70 percent of respondents approved of allowing monuments of the Ten Commandments in public places, while 64 percent disapproved of allowing monuments of the Quran in public places.
But the majorities in the polls cited above are neither wrong nor incoherent. They are expressing something worth taking note of. The common thread running through the ultrasound mandate, the contraception mandate, and the insurance mandate is the callous indifference to the subject's consent.
Consent, which ought to be the first principle of every social interaction, is the last concern of bullies everywhere. It also is a cornerstone of the American ethos. The word appears explicitly three times in the Declaration of Independence, and implicitly many more — as when the Colonists protest that the monarch has called together legislative bodies at distant and uncomfortable places "for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance."
Fatiguing women into compliance seems to be the point of mandatory ultrasounds, which are not medically necessary and which are, according to state Sen. Jeff McWaters, motivated by concern for the "sanctity of human life." Opponents have called them part of a war on women. The rhetoric is overheated in some ways, but not in this: Ultimately, the ultrasound mandate is backed up by the threat of state violence. Comply, or else.
So too are the contraception mandate and the individual insurance mandate. Those edicts enjoy the support of some liberals who, ironically, think America is the world's bully because it uses force in the international arena. They would prefer that Washington use "soft power" — at least abroad. At home, they feel somewhat less compunction about compulsion, particularly in the service of liberal causes such as socializing medical costs.
But as Santayana said, "it will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America." And as recent poll results show, Americans still do not like to be hammered on — even by their government.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.