A friend asked a seemingly innocuous question recently: “If you could choose to be born in any time and place, when and where would it be?” Not surprisingly, my answer was: “Here in modern America.” The answer seemed obvious: By being born here and now, not only would I likely make it to adulthood thanks to our blessedly low infant mortality rates, but I would go on to have a life of freedom! We have unprecedented levels of personal freedom in our culture, and what’s not to love about that?
But my argument was turned on its head when my friend followed up with a similar question, to which I had a startlingly different reaction: “When and where would you choose to be conceived?”
Suddenly, modern America plummeted to near the bottom of the list.
More than one out of every five pregnancies ends in abortion. While it’s almost certain that I would survive if I were born here, my odds of surviving nine months in the womb would be tragically low—and hardly better than a coin flip if my life were to start in a place like New York City.
This is a stark commentary about the undercurrents that run through our society. In particular, I think it’s the perfect illustration of what happens when a people misunderstand what it means to be free.
When the founders who shaped this country’s ideals talked about the inalienable right of man to be free, it was always with the unspoken caveat “...to do the right thing.” Nobody ever fought for individual freedom so that people could become rapists or burglars or peeping toms if the whim struck them. Freedom meant that a person would have the opportunity to seek his own destiny, within the boundaries of morality. Self-control and self-sacrifice were always understood to be part of the package. As Lord Acton put it: Freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
Now “freedom” has become synonymous with “being able to do whatever I want.” Responsibility, sacrifice for the greater good, living within the bounds of millenia-old moral principles are all secondary to the pursuit of individual comfort, if not disregarded altogether. This is often touted as an enlightened, progressive path: “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else,” the thinking goes. What’s not to love about that? It sounds great at first glance. The problem is that it doesn’t work. What previous generations understood, that we will have to re-learn at great cost, is that the fabric of a peaceful society is always the individual’s willingness to sacrifice his own self interest for his fellow human beings. When that’s gone, everything starts to unravel. “Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else” is an impossible moral directive. When your life revolves around doing whatever you want, it will always end up hurting others.
There’s hardly a better example of this truth than our current abortion rates. Sex is part of the modern personal freedom package, one of many activities where people are told they should be “free” to do whatever they want. And if that activity should create a new, dependent life? That’s a big problem, because having responsibility to someone else comes with things like duty, a loss of autonomy, and self-sacrifice. In order to maintain this new kind of freedom, you have to avoid all of that stuff. And so abortion starts to look like an appealing—even necessary—option. Though this may not be the thinking behind every single abortion, certainly this tension between complete personal autonomy and sacrifice for others is a major driving force in the culture of death.
I keep thinking about my friend’s two questions, and just how much they reveal about what is going on in our culture. I’ve read plenty of lofty philosophical discussions about the different definitions of what it means to be free, including some erudite defenses of the “do what you want” view of freedom. But I think nothing brings the faults of this line of thinking into relief better than the simple fact that the “best” place to be born, by the standards of this worldview, is the last place you’d want to be conceived.