We are becoming a society in which “choice” and self-defined identities trump once-common values and traditional beliefs. But contrary to the rhetoric of its defenders, this shift is not a simple advance for freedom. The privileging of “choice” above all else in fact requires re-engineering the human person and society as a whole, and this will inevitably involve a great deal of coercion.
This shift, if it didn’t begin with Roe v. Wade, could be said to have been dramatically accelerated by it. Despite continuing opposition by over 50 percent of the American people, abortion is now universally available, in some places through the ninth month. Two states have legalized assisted suicide for the terminally ill—once strictly prohibited by the Hippocratic Oath. Now, some doctors actively collaborate in lethally overdosing their patients.
Advocacy for legalizing “after birth” abortion—e.g., infanticide—as a natural extension of the abortion right is growing more prominent, and not just among acolytes of Princeton’s Peter Singer. A Florida Planned Parenthood representative, opposing a bill that would require medical treatment for an infant who survives abortion, said the choice to care for the child should be a private one made between a mother and her doctor. The President of the United States expressed similar views while an Illinois state senator. The blind eye demonstrated by the media on the Kermit Gosnell murder trial—in which he is charged with snipping the spines of newborn babies and keeping fetal body parts in jars—has convinced some observers that “post-birth abortion” is no big deal among many on the “choice” left.
More futuristically, transhumanists urge society to devote its intellectual and financial resources to expensive research aimed at enabling individuals to radically redesign themselves in their own image. The ultimate goal of transhumanism is designing a “post-human” species in which everyone could freely change their appearance and capacities at will.
There is now even serious talk about allowing doctors to amputate healthy limbs as a “treatment” for a terrible mental illness known generally as “body integrity identity disorder.” BIID sufferers obsess about becoming disabled, a few as paraplegics or quadriplegics, but most desperately desire to become amputees—which they perceive as their true identities. Some defenders of voluntary amputation note, correctly, that we permit sex change operations—and even legally “reassign” males to be females and vice versa—so it is only logical that we also accommodate “amputee wannabe” self-identity.
To what extent is society required to help facilitate the choices of radically autonomous individuals? Based on what I am seeing, it seems clear that identity, health, and lifestyle choices may soon trump all—particularly when these desires conflict with traditional values and norms. For example, in Colorado, the parents of a first grade boy are suing his elementary school for discrimination because their son, who identifies as a girl, is not allowed to use the girls’ restroom. Similarly, a bill has been filed in the California legislature that would require schools to permit transsexual boys and girls to use opposite-sex bathrooms. That boys and girls might not want to share toilet facilities with girls and boys is of no consequence.
This collapse of comity is happening most acutely in the health field, in which “choice” increasingly trumps the values of medical professionals. In Victoria, Australia, every doctor must be complicit in abortion—either by doing the deed when requested or referring to a colleague who they believe will. A few doctors have gotten in hot water for being unwilling to participate in the taking of human life, including a doctor who refused to refer for a sex-selection abortion.
Similarly, the Royal Dutch Medical Association issued an ethics statement telling their members that if asked for euthanasia by a legally qualified patient, they have to either do the deed or refer to a doctor willing to kill. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a similar ethics opinion in 2007 concerning physicians opposed morally to “standard reproductive services.” Advocates for BIID amputation also assert that doctors ethically opposed to the procedure should be required to refer patients to a colleague who will amputate.
Referrals to willing practitioners may one day be insufficient. In California, an infertility doctor objected on religious grounds to providing artificial insemination to a lesbian patient. Despite referring the patient to a doctor who she knew would provide the service, she was successfully sued for discrimination.
We have now reached the point that others are expected to pay for individuals’ “choices” and maximizing others’ self-identity—even when it violates the payer’s own beliefs. The contraceptive mandate under Obamacare requires religious organizations and business owners opposed to contraception on faith grounds to provide their female employees free access to birth control, sterilization, and the sometimes-abortifacient morning-after pill. San Francisco taxpayers now pay for sex change operations of city employees, and that procedure will soon be covered by “Healthy San Francisco,” the city’s universal health insurance plan. A bill pending in the California legislature would require group health insurance to pay for infertility treatments for all gay and lesbian people who want children as if they were biologically infertile.
Parents are now subservient to their own children’s sexual “choices.” In many states, minor girls can obtain an abortion without parental consent, and in some cases, even without notice. The Federal Drug Administration just made the morning-after pill available on store shelves for girls age fifteen and up.
Not too long ago, Americans mostly believed in “live and let live.” The ironic motto for the current day: “You do it my way.” That’s not paradoxical. The maxim that applies just depends on the choice that is being made.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.