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The Right to Choose Common Sense
May 19, 2004
by Jennifer Roback Morse

As reported in the National Catholic Register, Texas recently passed a law requiring increased information about abortion to women considering abortion. Beginning January 1, women seeking abortions in Texas must wait at least 24 hours after making their appointment and receiving a 21 page brochure, A Woman's Right to Know. One might naively think that promoting informed choice would be an unambiguous good. The controversy over this law, a law which does not prohibit a single abortion, suggests that something is at stake besides information.

The right to abortion is but one facet of the wider right to reproductive freedom or "reproductive self-determination," as Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, sometimes calls it. "Reproductive freedom" means the right to unlimited sexual activity without pregnancy.

This freedom is unlike any other. It amounts to a demand to suspend the laws of cause and effect to obtain what we want. Pregnancy is one of the natural consequences of sexual activity. The claim that we have a government gurantee of 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 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.

Eating is a good and necessary thing, and everyone is entitled to eat. But we don't think that everyone is entitled to eat anything they want and never get fat, heart disease, high blood pressure or any other natural consequence of overeating. (Come to think of it, considering the number of overweight people waddling around America, maybe some people do.) Calling it "gastronomical freedom" doesn't make it realistic. It isn't any more realistic to claim a right to unlimited sexual activity, with a government guarantee of never becoming pregnant.

Because every form of contraception sometimes fails, the abortion license is indispensible to this peculiar concept of freedom. This also accounts for the pro-choice resistance to information about possible negative side-effects to abortion, despite abortion supporters' protestations that abortion is just another elective medical procedure. The entitlement they claim is not to abortion per se, but to unlimited sexual activity without unwanted pregnancy. If there are significant side-effects to abortion, what becomes of this right to reproductive self-determination?

Imagine a young woman who absorbs the cultural message that she is entitled to sexual activity without pregnancy. She becomes pregnant and comes in for an abortion. The doctor goes down a list of possible side-effects, and says, "You have a family history of breast cancer, and a personal history of depression. As your doctor, I must inform you that there is evidence of increased risk of both breast cancer and depression associated with abortion. I advise against abortion. We ought to explore other solutions to your problem." This woman might very well feel cheated of her "right" to sexual activity without pregnancy.

This is why evidence of negative consequences of abortion creates such consternation for the abortion lobby. There is no constitutional right to be free from depression. But there is a constitutional right to be free from an unwanted pregnancy. There is no right to choose to avoid getting breast cancer. But there is a right to privacy that amounts to a right to avoid bearing a child. The Supreme Court assured us in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird that, "If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right to be free from unwarranted government intrusions into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child."

The Court says the right is about being free from government intrusion. Fair enough. But the phrase, "decision whether to bear or beget a child," creates the image that fertility decisions are similar to consumer decisions that people perfectly control. I pay the money; I get the car. By contrast, the fertility decision is inherently probabilistic. Even though I can take steps to increase or decrease the odds of bearing or begetting a child, I am not truly entitled to control the outcome. But the Court's language creates the impression that I am so entitled.

And that is why providing women with information became so controversial in Texas. Pro-life legislators wanted to list every reported side effect, while abortion advocates wanted a much more muted presentation of these possibilities. The conflict in Texas is a replay in miniature of the conflict that erupts repeatedly over research studying negative effects from abortion. The need to defend the concept of reproductive freedom makes it almost impossible to view the evidence dispassionately.

Many, perhaps most, Americans regard contraception 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. Americans don't usually 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. It is not contraception, but unlimited, low cost abortion that makes this claim even remotely plausible.

The possibility of serious side-effects from abortion makes the idea of reproductive freedom truly unbelievable. And that is why a little pamphlet like A Woman's Right to Know created so much acrimony. Scary information about abortion dissipates the smoke and breaks the mirrors that are so essential in creating the illusion of reproductive freedom.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.

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