‘Language matters. Constitutional language matters very much.’

NEWFANE — This piece, and other letters to the editor, in The Commons assert that one must be a lawyer or do research into judicial history in order to understand Proposal 5, the so-called “reproductive liberty” amendment, and that since ordinary people don't have the lawyerly training to understand what is written in the proposed amendment, voters should trust the experts (i.e., lawyers) who can understand it and tell us what it means, rather than us ordinary types relying on reading the words it contains.

By now, Vermont voters have received ballots in the mail and can look at both Proposal 5 and Proposal 2, the proposed amendment to the Constitution that bans slavery absolutely. (The language of the original article of our constitution allowed for slavery for people under 21 or those who entered into servitude willingly.)

The 18th-century language of Article 1 is crystal clear. “All persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The proposed amendment gets rid of a bunch of legalese conditions under which servitude was allowed and replaces them with “[therefore,] slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

You don't need to be a lawyer to understand this. You don't need to research judicial history to get what it means. And it doesn't add “unless there is a compelling State interest.”

Why is the proposal to absolutely prohibit slavery so clear and the other one so opaque? Both were crafted by and approved by our Legislature.

If “personal reproductive liberty” is supposed to mean the right to an abortion, it fails to convey that message. The phrase brings to mind absurdities like “right-sizing” - corporate jargon that means “we're firing a bunch of workers so the shareholders can get bigger profits,” or calling everyone's favorite potato dish “freedom fries.”

Language matters. Constitutional language matters very much.

We ordinary people use euphemisms when something is difficult for us to face. When a beloved pet dies, we might say the dog “crossed the rainbow bridge” to make it easier to cope with the loss.

But Constitutional language doesn't get to be fuzzy. Proposed amendments have to go through committees (presumably made up of lawyers and other important experts) and have to be clear and mean what they say. Everyone in the Legislature read the language of Proposal 5, and a majority approved it.

Could the Legislators not face the reality of saying “abortion”? If a “compelling State interest” is important legal language, why doesn't the anti-slavery amendment contain it?

The day we cede our power as citizens and vote to approve something that is supposed to mean something other than what it plainly says is a sad day indeed.

Vote no on the convoluted mess that is Proposal 5 and yes on the clear and good Proposal 2.

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