THE BLOG
07/21/2009 07:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Culture of Liberty

The Catholic Church and American religious conservatives have advanced a so-called "culture of life" ever since Pope John Paul II coined the term on his 1993 visit to Denver. The Church's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, defined this ideology quite precisely, condemning condoms and capital punishment as well as abortion and euthanasia. Over the succeeding years, right-wing activists and politicians, including former President George W. Bush, have selectively advocated for a loose confection of ideas cherry-picked from this basket. Yet the widespread consensus among social conservatives in the United States is that the program against which they define themselves -- most notably, the acceptance of abortion-on-demand, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriage and diversity in sexual practices -- will genuinely transform our society. Some progressives reject this criticism. I prefer to embrace it.

Anyone who has spoken to a woman who has traveled a long distance at considerable personal expense in order to terminate a pregnancy, or to an adult child who has been unable to help a debilitated parent end his suffering, or who has witnessed the pain of gay couples separated by overtly discriminatory immigration laws, should recognize that we live in a society desperately in need of profound and lasting transformation. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans who reject the underlying premise of the "culture of life" movement -- namely, that biological existence and social tradition should trump the values of individual choice and personal privacy -- have so-far failed to unify in support of a comprehensive alternative.

For far too long, supporters of abortion rights and legalized assisted suicide and sexual liberation have huddled in separate political corners. These divisions are unfortunate, as each of these skirmishes is part of a larger struggle to defend personal autonomy. The right to remove an unwanted conceptus from one's uterus, and to choose one's intimate partners, and to end life on one's own terms, are each threads in the same social blanket. Those who value freedom should be equally incensed by New York's prohibition on no-fault divorce, and Alabama's statute banning sex toys, and the United States military's prosecution of adultery, by the forcible feeding of competent prisoners, and bans on the medical use of marijuana, and the anachronistic "alienation of affection" statues under which jilted spouses sue their partners' lovers. That is not to say that a person may not, with some philosophical legerdemain, embrace some liberties and oppose others. However, when viewed through the prism of personal autonomy, which I believe is the preferable perspective, then these issues become, to paraphrase John Donne, pieces of a unified continent of liberty and parts of the same moral main. In short, components of a Culture of Liberty.

This is not to say that freedom should be without meaningful limits -- or that government regulation does not have its appropriate place, particularly where the economy and public safety are concerned. Moreover, even those who believe in a Culture of Liberty will grapple with gray areas, such as mandatory vaccination and quarantine, where private choices may challenge the public welfare. But as Justice William O. Douglas suggested in the seminal Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, which enshrined privacy rights in the Constitution, certain areas are far too intimate for government interference. If freedom means anything at all, it is the right to primacy in regard to sexuality, reproduction, medical care and death. I am grateful that I have rights in the proverbial public square -- but, as a practical matter, my most cherished rights are those that I possess in my bedroom and hospital room and death chamber. Most people are far more concerned that they can control their own bodies than they are about petitioning Congress.

The reason that a Culture of Liberty has not yet developed in the United States may be that, for many years, issues of personal freedom were too often political losers. Supporters of reproductive choice or the right to refuse medical care feared binding themselves to a larger ethic at odds with what they perceived to be a conservative-leaning populous. Fortunately, aided by demographics and new technologies, personal liberty has become a political winner. Our nation is better educated, increasingly secular, and exceedingly more tolerant than it has been at any time since its founding. Poll numbers strongly suggest that, with regard to matters of sex and death, Generation Y will be Generation Why Not? That is certainly not to say that all of today's high school students will someday choose to terminate pregnancies or to end their lives with a chalice of hemlock. Rather, they will make their own private decisions -- and allow their fellow men and women to do the same. Eventually, I imagine, some savvy entrepreneur will combine these diverse but related intimate services under one roof, offering "liberty centers" at which teenagers will be able to terminate pregnancies and elderly couples will be able to end their lives in mutual embrace. To many self-styled traditionalists, this prospect is unwelcome. In contrast, those who favor a genuine Culture of Liberty will view such a widespread embrace of personal autonomy as a sign that our democracy has finally lived up to its mantra of freedom for all.

The day will inevitably arrive when current efforts to impose the particular set of theological values at the core of the "culture of life" movement upon society-at-large is looked upon as no less misguided than the Inquisition or the Crusades. In matters as intimate as reproduction and death, history favors freedom over the power of church and state. However, this victory will arrive sooner if those who favor personal liberty unite against individuals and institutions, however sincere or well-intentioned, who seek to return us to an age of moral darkness. The twenty-first century can witness a Second Great Enlightenment embodied in a cohesive Culture of Liberty. Or those of us who believe in personal autonomy can remain fragmented in the face of monolithic opposition, each of us beating a faint drum for a particular right or freedom that we cherish. The choice is stark and the choice is ours. I can only hope that we rise to the occasion.