Jeb Bush is a compassionless conservative: His "Scarlet Letter" law was even worse than it sounds

Jeb declined to veto a 2001 law that required women to provide explicit details about their personal and sex lives

Published June 10, 2015 1:51PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)
(Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

In Jeb Bush’s 1995 book, “Profiles in Character,” the likely Republican presidential contender wrote that Americans have dropped the ball on public humiliation and called for a return to a time when “public condemnation” was used to deter people from "irresponsible conduct."

Public condemnation -- and in the criminal justice system, sentencing intended to humiliate -- never actually went anywhere, so Bush wasn't really calling for a return to humiliation -- he just wanted more of it. Here’s the excerpt on single parenting, which Huffington Post political reporter Laura Bassett unearthed on Tuesday:

One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.

Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” as a reference for how this kind of thing might work, writing: "Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘Scarlet Letter’ are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots.”

Bush wasn’t just riffing, he was setting up policy prescriptions for his future tenure as governor. As Bassett points out, Bush waived his veto power after the state legislature passed a 2001 law requiring single women who wanted to put a child up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper. The ads included women’s names, ages, physical descriptions including her hair, weight and eye color. Women were also required to provide details about their sexual encounters -- including names of sexual partners, dates and locations.

From the bill:

The notice... must contain a physical description, including, but not limited to age, race, hair and eye color, and approximate height and weight of the minor's mother and of any person the mother reasonably believes may be the father; the minor's date of birth; and any date and city, including the county and state in which the city is located, in which conception may have occurred.

Women were required to pay for the ads, which ran once a week for the duration of a month. The law included no exceptions for victims of rape or minors. Bush expressed reservations about publishing these details, but declined to veto the law while it wound its way through the courts for two years.

Florida adoption lawyer Charlotte Dancui challenged the law in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, representing six plaintiffs, including a 14-year-old girl and a rape victim. Dancui told the New York Times that in addition the women and girls she was representing in the lawsuit, others had come forward feeling terrorized by the law.

''I had a woman come to me who had a child 10 years ago while in college and now her husband of five years wants to adopt her child and in order to do that she had to put her name, her daughter's name and all the men she slept with in college in her college newspaper,'' she said.

But the law wasn't just being criticized by women's rights groups and the left -- many conservatives opposed the law, arguing that violating women's privacy and subjecting them to public shame for choosing adoption would incentivize abortion and decrease adoption rates.

In 2003, after the law was declared unconstitutional, Bush signed a repeal. As the Times reported after the original law was overturned, the repeal replaced the provision to humiliate women with a new provision allowing men to electively enter into a confidential parental registry. Bush's was apparently satisfied with the change, according to a spokesperson for his office:

This was an important bill to sign and it has been two years in coming. It not only streamlines the adoption process by outlining specific steps for the unwed biological father but it also balances and protects the privacy rights of the mother and child.

But opponents of the bill were unimpressed that Bush acted only after the courts struck down the law. ''Only a male-dominated legislature could possibly pass a law that facilitates adoptions by requiring public humiliation of women,'' Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, told the Times.

''You've got to have a real narrow vision to congratulate the governor for signing a repeal of a statute that, as a result of a lawsuit we were involved in, the courts struck down as unconstitutional,'' he continued. ''The legislature shouldn't have passed it in the first place.''

One of the women involved in the lawsuit against the law told the Times that she welcomed the repeal and was relieved that other women wouldn’t have to be subjected to that kind of humiliation. ''They don't have to put their names in the paper in this barbaric gesture,'' she said. ''They don't have to be afraid anymore.''

Add this to the list of Bush's credentials as a compassionate conservative.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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