National Catholic Register


Does Freedom Mean Getting Your Own Way?

Modern America has created a peculiar new concept of freedom.

BY J. R. Morse

June 29-July 5, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/29/03 at 1:00 PM


Freedom means getting what you want. This idiosyncratic notion of freedom is tightly intertwined with the sexual revolution.

“Reproductive freedom” is one of the most egregious examples of this redefinition of freedom. Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, recently alluded to this freedom. Shortly after the U.S.-led coalition liberated Iraq, Feldt argued, “If we are fighting for freedom in Iraq, then most surely that freedom should extend to women globally and in the United States. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom of reproductive self-determination. … Reproductive health care is an essential part of any health care package.”

Let's think about this for a moment. “Reproductive freedom” as the most fundamental freedom? This will surely surprise those Iraqis recently freed from Saddam Hussein's prisons. The Iranian students protesting in the streets of Tehran are more likely risking their lives for the right to have fair elections and jury trials than the right to contracept and abort. And those poor souls caught trying to flee Fidel Castro's prison camp of a country: What could they have been thinking? Their “most fundamental freedom” to abort is perfectly safe and legal in Cuba.

Quite apart from its grotesque overstatement, Planned Parenthood's position is utterly illogical. No government can possibly guarantee “reproductive self-determination.” This would have to include a right to “pregnancy on demand” that would correspond to “abortion on demand.” Even with the most sophisticated reproductive technology, no one can be assured of a pregnancy precisely on her own terms.

Our freedom does not depend on the development of a technology that completely masters the giving and the taking of life, with or without the messy intervention of actual sexual contact with a person of the opposite sex.

“Reproductive freedom” is really a euphemism for a right to sexual activity without pregnancy — it is only the right to say No to children. But this one-sided kind of freedom would be a right to suspend the laws of cause and effect in order to obtain what we want. Pregnancy is one of the natural consequences of sexual activity. “Reproductive freedom” is a claim that we are entitled to avoid this natural consequence.

Americans don't usually think of freedom in these terms. We don't think freedom of movement means the right to jump off the Golden Gate bridge and not die. Freedom of assembly isn't an entitlement for an entire fraternity to actually fit inside a telephone booth. Freedom of speech can't mean the right to say anything we want and still have friends. No court of law could grant such rights. But the lifestyle left demands the “right” to have only the consequences of sex that we choose.

Here is another way to look at it: One can argue that eating is a good and necessary thing and that everyone is entitled to eat. It does not follow that each and every person is entitled to eat anything they want and never get fat. No one has a constitutional right to eat just as they please without ever getting heart disease, high blood pressure or other natural consequences of overeating. You cannot coherently claim that every person has a constitutional right to eat without getting fat and call it “gastronomical freedom.” (Although, considering the number of overweight people waddling around America, maybe people do think this.)

Note that my argument here does not depend on any particular view of the proper role of the state or the proper scope of its guarantees.

Advocates of the welfare state might well argue that everyone has a right to food, at state expense if necessary. It does not logically follow from this that everyone has a right to eat nothing but butter and never get heart disease.

Advocates of more minimal government might argue that people have every right to such food as they can obtain through fair market exchanges and gifts. But no libertarian would claim that people have a right to eat without consequences. No legislator in his right mind would attempt to pass a law guaranteeing such a thing.

The very idea is reminiscent of a state legislature's notorious attempt to pass a law declaring the value of pi to be an even 3 rather than that irrational number with lots of pesky decimal places.

Likewise, it doesn't make sense to claim a right to unlimited sexual activity with a government guarantee of never becoming pregnant. Calling it “reproductive freedom” doesn't alter the underlying biology. Yet we have come to believe we have exactly such an entitlement.

Probably many Americans regard contraceptive technology as the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this technology just changes the probability that conception will result from a particular act of sexual intercourse. It is illogical to insist that we are entitled to actually achieve our reproductive goals.

We don't think economic freedom means getting the amount of money we want. We don't think political freedom means having our preferred candidates win every election. But we have convinced ourselves that “reproductive freedom” means getting the reproductive outcome we want rather than just playing the game by a set of known rules that apply to everyone.

Few Americans would accept “freedom means getting my own way” if stated as a general proposition. But if we allow the term “reproductive freedom” to go unchallenged, we are in danger of accepting the illogical beliefs of a handful of political extremists and malcontents. Normal people don't believe freedom means getting whatever you want.

Most of us believe freedom means the opportunity to make choices and accept the consequences of those choices.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence Press, 2001).