Tuesday, September 21, 2004

COLUMN -- In a free society, one must defend right to do the wrong thing

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:06 PM |  

Pioneer Press
May. 26, 2002

I don't remember if she had the use of her arms, but she was in a wheelchair. I do not remember her face, but I remember thinking she was pretty. She was crying.

It was some years ago when independent living for the disabled was a new idea. On a magazine assignment, I was interviewing the manager of an apartment house built for independent living when the tearful teen-age girl rolled into the alcove where we were sitting.

I remember the newspaper on the tray of her wheelchair. It was folded exposing the bottom of the front page and an article about pre-natal testing for birth defects. I do not remember the headline on the article that made the girl cry. I do remember her tears were angry tears. I remember the sentence that ignited her anger.

"The test reveals birth defects during the first trimester so the abortion alternative can be considered."

I will never forget what she said:

"Who are these people to say I have no right to live?"

On that day the abortion controversy became more than just a newspaper story – more than just a political joust in the state Legislature.

Married, but not yet husband to a pregnant wife and father to an unborn child, I confronted what I would do were I told my child would spend his or her life in a wheelchair or suffer some mental disorder. I found no answer. Spared the question, even today I cannot honestly say how I might have responded. Nonetheless, regardless of my choice, the disabled girl's desire for life made it clear that lack of personal courage to love does not justify denying life to a child.

Abortion may be an agonizing decision, but anguish is not the measure of morality. And while it does not strain the quality of mercy to feel compassion for those who sincerely struggle with the literal life or death decision, compassion does not preclude moral judgment.

For some, abortion is a convenience or a political statement. It is elective surgery morally equivalent to a fanny tuck. The wheelchair-bound girl's question should haunt those who deny individual responsibility, trivialize the value of individual human life and make abortion a collective political cause.

"Who are these people to say I have no right to live?"
But having said all that, neither the false premise of a woman's moral "right to choose" nor the morality-based "right to life" position is the political high ground their legislative proponents make them.

In a free society, choice is not optional. It is demanded. Sometimes people make good choices, sometimes bad. Sometimes moral choices, sometimes immoral ones. The political issue in a free society is not what choice an individual may make, but rather what actions may legislation justly prohibit. Abortion is not one of those actions.

Unlike murder of the birthed, which if ignored by the state would directly affect the security of all, "murder" of the unborn does not directly threaten society at large. On the other hand, legislative fetal protection sets a precedent for intrusive state power affecting every potential parent.

At legislative whim, a pregnant woman's failure to eat her vegetables becomes a crime. Engaging in too much or too little exercise makes her a criminal. One glass of wine a misdemeanor – two glasses a felony.

"Endangering a fetus" becomes as subjectively punishable as political incorrectness.

Far fetched?

A government press release pronounced the Health and Human Services Blueprint for Action on Breast Feeding "a comprehensive breast-feeding policy for the nation." It is not a great leap from a national breast-feeding policy to a national policy on pre-natal care. It is a smaller leap from policy power to police power. For a government with a "womb to tomb" control philosophy, it is but a mere hop to the theme "from conception to resurrection."

In a free society one must often defend the ability of others to do things one finds morally reprehensible.

It is far more dangerous to our existence as a free people to expand the powers of government than it is to legislatively prohibit individuals from misusing their freedom to make bad decisions. On moral issues, free people may do what they can to change other people's minds — they have no right to use the power of government to make up their minds for them.

At times the price of freedom must be paid in angry tears.