Over the last two months, Republican politicians in Congress and across the nation have launched a complete assault on women's health generally and a woman's right to choose to have an abortion specifically. Last Thursday (on International Women's day no less), Congress debated a completely unnecessary (and potentially harmful) law making it a federal crime for anyone but a parent to accompany a young woman across state lines to seek an abortion, even where the parents are absent or abusive. All over the country, states are enacting anti-abortion laws at record levels designed to deter women from exercising their constitutional right to choose.
As part of this overall effort to prevent women from having abortions, Republicans are also attacking Planned Parenthood on almost a daily basis. Texas recently decided to forego significant federal money to be used to provide health care (not abortions) to poor women solely because of Texas' desire to strip Planned Parenthood of all financial support within the state. The United States government was almost shut down recently because of Republican hostility to the work of Planned Parenthood (most of which, of course, has nothing to do with abortion). Virtually all of these attacks on the right to choose have been brought by members of the Republican Party who would self-identify themselves as conservatives.
There are many public policy arguments supporting the right of women to control their own reproductive destinies. This essay, however, is only concerned with the one argument that should in a sane world appeal to the very people who are trying so hard to interfere with that right.
Our Constitution and political system place a heavy premium on personal liberty and the right to live one's life as one sees fit. Of course, that does not mean that I have the freedom to punch you in the nose, burn down a government building in political protest, or bribe public officials. The rationale behind most criminal laws is that our personal freedom ends where harm to others, or their property, reasonably begins. Thus, laws against murder, arson, bribery, etc., are supported by an overwhelming percentage of the American people. Virtually no one in our culture is willing to live in Hobbes' state of nature where everyone is free and total freedom, including the ability to harm others, depends solely on how much power and force one can exercise.
While people in this country do not disagree over the wisdom of most criminal laws, there is a serious and honest debate over whether women should have the right to terminate their pregnancies, at least before viability. Almost every poll taken in the last twenty years shows that we are almost evenly divided as a nation on the various issues surrounding abortion. The question then becomes what presumption should control when American citizens are divided over a question of important personal freedom. Although reasonable people can disagree on that issue, true conservatives and libertarians generally preach for smaller government, personal autonomy, and unregulated markets. Their starting point, for most issues, is that the government should stay out of contested questions. But, huge numbers of American citizens believe women need to have the right to terminate their pregnancies (even at the expense of possibly living fetuses) in order to achieve gender equality and female autonomy. This is an empirical, not a moral point. Obviously, anti-choice activists disagree. But, where such disagreement exists, people on the right generally, and republicans specifically, believe the government should stay away from coercive sanctions and undue limitations on personal freedom.
The four men currently running for the republican nomination for president stress individual freedom and governmental non-interference with important decisions as the most important American values. Because they cannot argue with the fact that approximately half our society feels the right to terminate a pregnancy is such an important freedom, on what basis do they support the government's right to take that liberty away or make it much more difficult to exercise?
The answer, of course, is that these four candidates and other anti-abortion advocates would argue that fetuses are innocent victims who cannot take care of themselves and thus need governmental protection from would-be killers. But, as previously noted, there is significant disagreement in our culture on this question. In totalitarian states, government officials could simply say we know better and we get to choose. In America, however, especially in the eyes of conservatives and libertarians, it is not the government's job to resolve through coercion and duress issues of freedom that so many in our population view as fundamentally important to living the good life. The argument "we know better," when there is such disagreement, simply should not be available to people who consistently voice skepticism of intrusive government.
Anti-choice politicians and pundits can scream as loudly, intensely, and as often as they like that abortion is murder but that does not make it so. Many Americans believe the right to abortion is just as important as the right to free speech, the right to practice religion, and the right to vote. In light of that undeniable reality, those in favor of private decision-making and personal freedom should vote pro-choice every time (and not use governmental force to punish an organization so vital to women's health just because it provides some abortion services). That conservative politicians and pundits often argue and vote otherwise demonstrates the great hypocrisy of the abortion debate and strongly suggests that anti-choice republicans and conservatives only believe in small government and personal liberty when it is their personal, subjective, and contestable views of freedom that get to carry the day.
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