COLUMN

Freedom of choice is immoral

Barbara Amiel November 21 1983
COLUMN

Freedom of choice is immoral

Barbara Amiel November 21 1983

Freedom of choice is immoral

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Last week was a fun time in Eastern Canada for those issue-oriented people with the enviable ability to think in black-and-white terms, free from the burden of moral sensibilities. Like femlibber Gloria Steinem and soul mate Flo Kennedy.

You remember Flo. She is a founding member of the National Organization for Women and more recently the U.S. Feminist Party, as well as being a lawyer and author of such judgmentfree books as Abortion Rap. To use her own description of herself: ‘T may seem radical but I’m not. I’m just a worm turning.”

Well, Gloria and Flo were popping in and out of Toronto to meet such Canadian counterparts as Toronto feminist Margo Lane and journalist June Callwood. They had a press reception down at Toronto’s Elmwood Women’s Club, which was once considered too haute matron but is now okay ever since the more democratic 21 McGill club went belly up financially and The Elmwood, weathering difficult times itself, decided to give good deals to its members.

Gloria and Flo were in town at the invitation of the ad hoc committee for “The issue is choice.” Which, as my invitation to fork out $50 and meet and hear Gloria and Flo explain things to me read, “is not pro-abortion or anti-abortion. The issue is choice.” Unfortunately, in spite of the added temptation of champagne and dessert, I made a choice not to go and hear these persons at their $50 reception at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre.

Some of us, alas, unlike Steinern, Kennedy, Callwood and the Canadian ad hoc committee (which included Liberal activist Kathy Robinson, chutneyand-pickle queen Myra Sable Davidson, writer Judith Finlayson and politico Barbara Caplan), are afflicted with the problem of seeing moral aspects to certain questions, like abortion. These moral aspects may not prevent us from seeing the need for abortion as a nasty but necessary fact of life, but they do prevent us from reducing the question to the outright lie contained in the phrase, “The issue is choice.”

That is not remotely the issue, and I do not believe for one moment that any of the above think it is. Personally, I think too highly (perhaps wrongly) of their mental acumen to believe such a ludicrous suggestion, but if they really think that, well, they have even less

brain power than some of their lunatic ravings would suggest.

Abortions are available to women through hospitals. They are not illegal. Any woman in Canada who wishes to have an abortion can have one. She may have a little more difficulty in getting one if she lives in Nanaimo or Fenelon Falls, but then Drs. Morgentaler et al, for whom Flo and Gloria and June are raising money, are not planning to go to such remote parts of the country.

Anyway, making a bit of a journey to kill one’s child ought not to be too overwhelming a choice to make. Even economically disadvantaged women (who are always used in these arguments) will sometimes travel out of town for a special occasion or to make a special purchase. And furthermore, and key to this argument, having an abortion is not quite the same thing as choosing, say, a green dress rather than a blue dress. There is more than choice in-

volved. There is a moral decision to make. To pretend that such a component is not the most pressing element in a woman’s decision or in the attitude of society to the question of abortion is to turn the issue into one of strict utilitarianism; of whether the dress should have a white collar or a plunging neckline; whether the abortion should be done on Monday or Tuesday—depending on what is on TV that night.

In fact, the most discouraging thing about the politics and issues of our age, and most especially Canadian politics, is that they are no longer concerned with virtue, or the slightest consideration of what might be morally desirable. These are practical, utilitarian times. The progressive approach to life is to abandon those aspects of our being that have marked our great social political thinkers, from Aristotle to Edmund Burke, who would begin ruminating on issues with a variant of the question, “How should we live?”

The classical approach to debating public policies with the goal of elevating the passions of our citizens has been abandoned in favor of debates that be-

gin with rote slogans like, “The issue is choice.” Slogans that, whatever the outcome of the debate, totally eliminate the consideration of virtue from the argument.

In taking this argument further, the American conservative philosopher George F. Will pointed out that the great moral issue of slavery, when debated by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, was reduced by Douglas to an argument of utilitarian matters: the clash between material and economic interests and the balancing of those interests without regard to moral principle. Will argues that U.S. political theory today has more often followed the pragmatism of Douglas than the moral precepts of Lincoln. If he thinks the United States is bad, he should try dialoguing with Canadians.

I was reminded of this by spending part of last week previewing one of those frightful (in the sense of immoral rather than frightening) made-for-TV films that are now the rage, all about the end of the world through nuclear holocaust. The film I watched, called The Day After, churned out details of how awful it would be to wake up the morning after a nuclear war. Nowhere in the entire drama is there any consideration of the moral values of life, of liberty, of freedom. The whole damn thing is about the value of practical survival. Everything is weighed in relative terms. “Why would you blow up Chicago to save West Berlin?” seems to be the question implicit in the film— without any regard for what one might be fighting or suffering for. Survival, after all, is a practical business.

It is hopeless to explain that, if you regard every form of indignity, terror and humiliation as not worth coping with because of the destruction that follows, chances are that you will suffer every form of indignity and terror, and at the same time find it is not at all certain that you will escape the destruction you seek to avoid.

But certain indignities do more than temporarily affect one. There is a quality to life that cannot be quantified in the utilitarian ethics of our time. There are, whether Steinern, Callwood and fellow travellers of the world believe it, questions of morality that may be as important to life as life itself. Which is, after all, only a temporal state. And the quality and way in which we live surely have roles to play in our policy decisions.

That is my choice anyway.

Anyway, making a bit of a journey to kill one's child ought not to be too overwhelming a choice to make'