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dismantling the 14th amendment

Dismantling the 14th Amendment: Keeping it upbeat in Key West when the world isn’t

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


I’m just going to come right out and say it: I’m grouchy and it has nothing to do with Key West. It has everything to do with a commitment I made when I started writing editorial columns back in 1966: I wouldn’t write until I could offer solutions and context that stopped short of excitable screaming in capital letters.

It’s a point of view that’s worked for 56 years. I make clear what my thinking is, but I try not to rant.

My Key West columns steer clear of state and national issues unless they specifically affect Key West or the Keys. Several years ago, I wrote about the hearings for then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Readers weren’t amused. I learned a lesson. Keep it local; bring it home in context; remind folks we’ll be OK.

When I am in one of those affronted “Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, what were they thinking” moods, I suck it up and remember that I do, indeed, live in Key West. That Key West’s centuries-old resilience remains strong. Outrage wastes energy.

But, I’ve got to confess, keeping it upbeat when the world isn’t is getting tricky. I love my Key West Bubble, but state and national dissonance is dribbling through today.

I am unsettled at the prospect of living through the dismantling of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment, ratified by the states in 1868, can be boiled down to this: Oops, when we wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments), we were thinking only of straight white men with money. Perhaps we need to fix that?

The 14th Amendment is a grab bag stuffed with five sections, including equal protection under the law. In the 154 subsequent years, Congress and state legislatures have crafted laws establishing legal protection and rights for those who aren’t rich, straight white men. (And, before you get testy, the original Constitution and Bill of Rights took care of them just fine. Those founding fathers really did mean men when they said “all men are created equal.” And since the laws also said enslaved people of color were property, like a horse, a house and a wife, well, that meant all white men were created equal. Well, except if they were poor. That’s another story.)

What did the 14th Amendment do?

The 14th Amendment eventually ensured I didn’t need my husband’s or father’s signature before going to the hospital. I could, among other things, get a credit card in my own name. (Back in 1972, I applied for a credit card in my name. Bank refused; said I could have a card with my name on it but the account would be my husband’s. That guy, my eventual-ex, was a law student and unemployed. I was the source of family income. Made no sense, so I wrote a story for the newspaper. The bank folks complained to my publisher. He told them it was their fault, his “little girl” (that was I) had done good and if they didn’t want any more bad PR, they could just give me the darn card. They did. )

The 14th Amendment decided eventually I could buy a car or a house without my “man’s” signature. I could own my own property and manage my own finances, not get fired when I got pregnant and didn’t have to put up with handsy bosses or a husband with a penchant for spousal rape. The 14th Amendment meant gay marriage was legal; that landlords and companies couldn’t use my gender, race, color, creed as a reason to discriminate. And, it meant that girls had access to sports the same as boys.

14th Amendment

None of that was true 50 years ago. Some of it wasn’t true seven years ago.

If Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his fellow “originalist” justices have their way, only those rights and protections specifically included in the Constitution will remain. Alito wrote the draft opinion that’s been circulating this week. This is, as a friend says, is the “money paragraph,” the one that succinctly states the intent: “… the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment … has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’

I’m pretty sure equal access for girls to soccer in high school or going to the doctor without my “man” in tow were not on the minds of the Founding Fathers.

Collectively, Americans take those protections for granted and a healthy majority of us approve of them. We have long forgotten that they are based unilaterally on court interpretations of legislation based on the various clauses in the 14th Amendment. That means, with a simple change in a law and the acquiescence of the courts, those protections disappear. So when legislators decide voters they don’t like are just too uppity these days, nothing stops them from crafting exclusionary laws that will be happily upheld by today’s U.S. Supreme Court. What the law gives, the law can take away.

What’s next?

We’re going to hear a lot over the next few weeks about the all-but-certain overturn of Roe v. Wade, the 1973, Supreme Court court decision that said a pregnant woman could choose to have an abortion without excessive government interference. That was a decision based in the 14th Amendment and from what we know this week, the Supreme Court will in fairly short order say there is no federal protection for women to make that decision and that states will decide, effectively diminishing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

That scares me but before I go on, let me be perfectly clear. I’m not starting a pro-choice/anti-abortion fight here. My overarching fear is the destruction of the 14th Amendment. But just so there’s no question, here’s my position on Roe v. Wade: I believe life begins at conception, though there is no viability outside the mother’s body. I do not believe that that life is a “person.” I believe abortion must be legal, especially in the cases of rape, incest and mother’s life; I saw too many of my high school and college friends suffer terribly when it was not. I believe women should make their own choices on a matter so intensely personal.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade is a raindrop in the potential deluge to come as half our state legislatures (and Florida is a poster child) and the courts dismantle the 14th Amendment.

Eventually Americans will right this mess. We cannot for long abide in the extremes. Once millions of us realize our daughters and sons are in jeopardy simply because they don’t fit the originalists’ Constitutional interpretations of who gets to be protected, we will right ourselves.

I said as much to a friend in a text exchange this morning. “If we can’t get our (inappropriate word) together and focus fully on these 14th Amendment decisions, we are in for 20 years of Gilead,” a reference to Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “Yes,” she replied. “I think 20 years is optimistic.”

Thanks for your patience today. I needed to get that on the record.


  1. Douglas Chase

    Nice to see LTP get a mention. I am surrounded constantly by 18-21-year olds, and unless it’s featured on some silly social media platform, they are unaware … and unconcerned … about the status of reality. Oh, well!

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      LTP was, among other things, my champion so many times. I will always be grateful for his “as long as you can do the work, I’m good.”

  2. Edie

    Well said Linda. A shock to the extent Alito directs such a possible total wrecking ball blow to not only all US Women’s Rights to Choice for an Abortion as an ultra personal decision and a consequential medical decision for our body along with the Right for safe medical intervention and care, altho not surprising due to the Republican Christian White men and women’s radical goal for this to become US Law! But the legal language is a javelin missile no longer stealth to the core, the heart of the 14th Amendment for protection through current law for Same Sex Marriage, Voting Rights for Blacks and other minorities, birth control, etc.
    Very concerning!! 🙏🇺🇸

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thanks, Edie. It’s a troubling time and it’s hard to hold hope.

  3. Stephanie

    Thank you for writing this. I should not be reading it close to midnight when it is time for sleep. I am stirred up and anxious.

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      As hard as it is for me to do in the middle of my anger and anxiety, I believe we will — eventually — right this ship. It may not be soon and it certainly won’t be easy, but we will. I can’t change the world, but I can do something each day to make it a little better for those near by. And, I know you do the same. Sleep well.

  4. Valeri

    Amen….scary times. Glad my ovaries are old. God help America’s young women….we all knew that this was planned and coming.

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