Commentary

The Selective “Right to Choose”

Today, President Bush signed into law a bill banning what opponents call “partial-birth abortion,” and feminists are up in arms. After the Senate joined the House in passing the bill, Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, announced that her group would challenge the law in court. “Today, women’s right to privacy is being sacrificed to politics by the United States government,” she said. “The Senate took its final step toward substituting politicians’ judgment for that of a woman, her family, and her doctor.”

The National Organization for Women and other feminist groups made similar charges. But only a week earlier, they played a different tune.

In between the House and Senate votes on what NOW called “anti-choice” legislation, the group took time out to condemn a Food and Drug Administration committee for recommending that silicone breast implants be made available again. NOW had no use for women’s choices that day. Nor did other feminists.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) denounced the Senate’s anti-abortion bill, saying, “I am not a doctor, and I am not God. I trust other human beings to make these decisions.” But a few days earlier she had sent a letter to the FDA asking it not to allow women to get silicone implants. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, had earlier complained, “The FDA has placed more emphasis on providing choices to patients, rather than the previous emphasis of keeping potentially unsafe products off the market.”

Abortion always brings out the libertarian rhetoric in liberals. At a gala dinner for NARAL Pro-Choice America, Democratic presidential candidates fell over themselves to make the most ringing defense of abortion rights.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, proclaimed, “This government is so impressed with itself in promoting individual freedom they can’t wait to get into your bedroom and tell you how to behave.” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) promised to bring up the abortion issue if he finds himself debating President Bush next year: “I’ll tell him, ‘There’s a fundamental difference between he and I: I trust women to make their own decisions. You don’t.’” Former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt acknowledged a change of heart on the abortion issue: “I came to realize that the question of choice is to be answered not by the state but by the individual.” With language like that, Gephardt could run for the Libertarian Party nomination.

But the breast implant issue reminds us that too many people these days think “a woman’s right to choose” only refers to abortion. After all, it looks like the only decision John Kerry trusts women to make is the decision to have an abortion. He doesn’t trust a woman to make the decision to invest her Social Security taxes in private accounts that would provide her a more comfortable retirement. He doesn’t trust a woman to own a gun. He doesn’t trust a woman to make her own decision on where her children will go to school.

. And what question of choice — other than abortion — does Gephardt think should be answered “not by the state but by the individual”? Like Kerry, he opposes Social Security choice, school choice, and the right of individuals to choose what drugs they will use, either for medical or recreational purposes. He voted to deny gays and lesbians the right to choose to marry.

And this month we’ve learned that the most vocal feminist advocates of “choice” don’t believe a woman should have the right to choose silicone breast implants.

I’d like to hear a presidential candidate say, “I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I believe in a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child. I believe in a woman’s right to choose any job someone will hire her for. I believe in a woman’s right to choose to own a gun. I believe in a woman’s right to choose the school she thinks is best for her child, public or private. I believe in a woman’s right to choose to drive a cab, even if she doesn’t have a taxi medallion. I believe in a woman’s right to choose the employees she wants for her business, even if they don’t fit some government quota. I believe in a woman’s right to choose the drugs she prefers for recreation, whether she chooses Coors or cocaine. I believe in a woman’s right to choose how to spend all of her hard-earned money, without giving half of it to the government.”

Whatever one’s decision on the right to choose abortion, surely that is a more difficult issue, involving more lives and more complexities, than the right to choose a breast implant, a school for your child, to use marijuana, or to own a gun. And yet many of the supporters of “a woman’s right to choose” don’t support a woman’s right to make those choices.

It’s great to hear feminists talk about freedom, trusting people to make their own decisions, and limiting the power of the state. It would be even better if they applied those noble principles to more than one issue.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.