Supreme Court justices and originalism: A legacy of ACEs

Just as millions of other people over the last few days, we’re still reeling from the news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade. One overpowering emotion after another hit us—we’re sad, devastated, numb, livid. So many parts of people’s lives are affected that it’s overwhelming to try to comprehend. It’s not just the 40 million women of childbearing age who live in states where access to abortion will be prohibited, but the millions of women who need an abortion because of health reasons. What happens when you live in a state where the first answer is “NO!”?? And it’s much more complicated and generational than that.

Ingrid Cockhren, PACEs Connection’s CEO, thought about how mothers being forced into birthing children puts those children at risk in so many ways, and the historical context of women being treated as property. Carey Sipp, who is PACEs Connection’s director of strategic partnerships, noted that the most “abhorrent rolling back to the dark ages” aspect of the ruling forces women who are raped and girls who are raped by relatives or friends of family (which are most rapes) to live with the consequences of those horrors with no ability to escape the past. The criminalization of pregnant women and their caregivers. The likelihood of a 33% increase in the pregnancy-related deaths of Black women. We could go on.

“It’s all just bad,” says Rafael Maravilla, our network manager.

In light of the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences, my main question is: What happened to you, Justices Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch? What happened to you in your childhoods, your formative years, that led you to blithely unleash such cruelty and incoherence? What happened to you, Justices Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch that you could nonchalantly testify that you regarded Roe v. Wade as established precedent, which meant that you weren’t going to consider overturning it? It’s obvious now that was misleading at best, a lie at worst.

We know what happened to former President Donald Trump during his childhood, and some of what happened to Russian President Vladimir Putin. We don’t know what happened in the originalist judges’ childhoods, but I am willing to venture that they experienced some adversity, otherwise why would they support the concept of constitutional originalism? It’s not an innocent concept. It clearly harms people.

I’ve always said that it’s not a person (with ACEs and few positive childhood experiences) with a gun or knife who does the most damage; it’s the people (with ACEs and few PCEs) who have great power who can do the most damage. And I believe that, as in the case of Trump and Putin, the originalist justices on this Supreme Court not only have great power, but are using it unwisely in a way that is causing great harm. It’s possible that by their actions they don’t mean to do great harm, but that’s a consequence of ACEs and not enough PCEs, too. (What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?)

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There’s no mystery to what happened in Uvalde; there were many opportunities to prevent it .

Thousands of parents, pediatricians, social workers, educators, community advocates, kids, judges, police, district attorneys know exactly what led to Salvador Rolando Ramos running into a school and slaughtering 19 kids and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. And what could have derailed his path, as well as the path of all other recent mass shooters.

To people educated about the consequences of too many childhood adversities and too few positive experiences, what happened in Uvalde is not a mystery.

Research has established that:

  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the root cause of most of our economic, social, physical and mental health issues.
  • People with more than four types of ACEs and few positive childhood experiences have an extraordinarily high risk of violence as both victims and perpetrators, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, alcoholism and drug use, and dying prematurely.
  • What’s an ACE? The 10 in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study include physical and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, sexual abuse, a parent who is addicted to alcohol or other drugs, who is depressed or mentally ill, a mother who is abused, an incarcerated family member, divorced or separated caregivers. More than 30 other ACEs have been added since the 1998 study include bullying, racism, community violence, and homelessness.
  • People who are denied economic stability, adequate housing, education and wealth because of local, state and federal policies (a.k.a., ‘being poor’) are burdened with the highest ACEs but have fewer resources to mitigate toxic stress stemming from ACEs; in the U.S., inequities are compounded by racism affecting people of color and other minorities. But as the last three weeks of shootings show, everybody has ACEs or is affected by them.

Ramos had, at minimum, five types of childhood adversity that lasted for years. He experienced extreme bullying; an abusive relationship with his mother; his mother’s reported substance abuse; an absent father; and a disability (stuttering, lisp) for which kids taunted him mercilessly. We know little about his early childhood, where more ACEs may be lurking.

A child that experiences toxic stress from ACEs exhibits a fight, flee or freeze response. Ongoing toxic stress damages kids’ developing brains, and leads to them to exhibit coping behaviors, such as engaging in violence. Ramos coped with his distraught feelings by harming himself (he cut his face repeatedly with a knife) and violence, including fighting often with peers.

Of the seven positive experiences that research shows can ameliorate ACEs, Ramos apparently had only two: neighbors who cared about him and, until a while before the shooting, friends. As for the other ways that could have probably prevented him going on a shooting rampage—able to talk with his family about his feelings, feeling as if his family stood by him in tough times, participating in community, a sense of belonging in high school, and feeling safe and protected by an adult in the home—he clearly had none.

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