True Free Choice

by Nancy Forest

The more I read about abortion, the more women I meet who have had an abortion or had a close brush with it, the more discussions I have with supporters and opponents, the more I am convinced that ours is not a society of death. We are a fearful society, we are cowardly, we are deeply confused about what constitutes the truth, and more than anything else we do not know what it means to really make a free choice — but we are not a society of death. If we were, the choice to abort would be regarded as morally neutral, and it is not. Even the Clintons agree — at least claim to agree — that fewer abortions would make for a better world. Statistics are cited about the way abortion is used as a means of birth control in Eastern Europe as evidence that something is terribly wrong with these societies. If we were a society of death, we wouldn’t care. If we were a society of death, we would allow women to abort their babies until they went into labor. There would be no discussion of “viability.” But this is not the case. Past a certain number of weeks abortion is just not an option because the baby is recognized as “viable” — so indisputably human that even the laws that defend choice will no longer permit ending a pregnancy.

The child is protected by law once it is recognized as being capable of surviving outside the womb. But I wonder if this is the whole story, or indeed if this has anything at all to do with this arbitrary time limit on abortion. I wonder if, instead, the pregnancy has advanced to a stage at which we could no longer successfully suppress our horror at halting it. If we were a society of death, we would have no qualms about aborting at any phase of pregnancy. But abortion, despite all the support it seems to have, doesn’t affect us in the neutral way that a tooth extraction does. We know abortion is a nasty business. It is intrusive and profoundly unsettling. It is a frantic attempt to halt the inexorable development of something, ­which means making quick, irreversible decisions. It is extremely stress­ful. It is not a shrug of the shoulders.

If there is something about abortion that is deeply unsettling, and wide agreement that the fewer abortions, the better, then why does society allow the abortion option to remain in place?

Over the years I’ve received many letters from pro-choice friends expressing more or less the same sentiments: “Of course I’m not pro-abortion. Nobody wants to have an abortion. But we have to uphold a woman’s right to make this decision for herself. It’s a matter of free choice.” To this may be added a few points about whether a fetus is a human being, the problem over-population and so forth. But the bottom line is the defense of choice and freedom. Even if the choice is painful, even if it is harmful, even if abortion is socially damaging, even if the abortion procedure itself is horrific, even if the mother knows in her heart of hearts that it is the wrong choice and that she will be haunted for life by the experience: even so a woman must be free to choose.

Abortion is upheld on the principle of freedom of choice. To deny women the freedom to abort is somehow to seen as putting the axe to freedom itself.

But is this really the stark choice: defense of the unborn child versus defense of freedom?

Abortion involves violence and death. No one denies this. Whether you call it a human being or a bit of “fetal tissue,” it was once alive and now it is dead. That’s the whole point of abortion. We all know this, even the most militant pro-choice activist. Our problem is not that death doesn’t bother us as much as a perceived loss of freedom, but that we are willing to accept a certain level of death for the sake of what we believe to be “freedom.” And because ours is not a culture of death, this acceptance is highly unnatural; it is creating a catastrophic social trauma, because we can’t really swallow it. We feel a dull ache that we cannot name, we exhibit all the symptoms of someone who has been forced to commit dreadful crimes. And the triumphant cry of freedom is ever louder as a way of masking the real uncertainty, the real shame.

So what does it mean to make a free choice? To make a decision between two options? And how do we come to make that decision?

By rationally weighing the pros and cons of each side, and deciding on that which does the least harm, which does the most good?

But is that really what is involved in free choices? Do we really make free choices in a vacuum, into which we insert our rationality? Do we make free choices in isolation? Is freedom something that emanates from ourselves alone?

The word “free” has an interesting etymology. It is an ancient word. Freedom has been valued by human beings since the dawn of speech. There are sister words to our English word “free” in every Indo-European language, including Sanskrit. But the strange thing is that as you advance back in time, “free” loses its sense of individual, isolated decisions and instead describes a pattern of relation­ship. To say someone was “free” was to say something about a relationship: that the person was not a slave, that the person was “freely” related to another, defended that other – indeed, “loved” that other. In the Middle Ages, a “free” person gave his military services to the feudal lord, but he gave them freely, not as payment, not as a serf or a slave. A free person acted out of love, not compulsion. Other words in our language group that make this clear: Free is a sister word of friend. In other Indo-European languages, there are links with words for love, beloved, making love, and wife. Freedom and love are inextric­ably combined in the very soul of our culture, not to say in the very nature of things.

So perhaps the question we should be asking is, in the free choice that is being made for or against abortion, what is the freedom relationship? Is there such a relationship at all? Or is this “free” choice in fact the choice of a slave, a choice made under compulsion?

For many women, choice is hardly involved in their decision to have an abortion. They feel compelled by demands or threats from boy­friends, husbands, parents, employers, or sometimes simply by nameless social pressures that threaten women with an uncertain, unsupported future. In the tragic climax of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (written only a few years after the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion, and surely in response to that ruling), Sophie is forced to decide which of her children to have killed, and the Nazi officer who cynically grants her this “choice” is named von Niemand — the German word for “No One.”

If someone — anyone, a faceless sense of doom — convinces you that abortion is your only choice, is it really a “free” choice?

As Christians, our understanding of free choice is inextricably combined with love. We struggle to make God, and the universe in which he manifests himself, the aim of our love, which becomes the criterion on which all our choices are based. In our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians we practice making free choices every day. Even the simplest ascetic practices — regular fasting — help teach us to make free choices based not on our appetites, or on our fears, or on the manipulative wishes and threats of other people, or on our own amorphous future plans, or on any other consideration, but on our love of God. The deeper you enter into the ascetic life, the more you realize that the Christian understanding of free choice is quite different from the commonly understood notion.

Whereas the common notion of free choice suggests doing whatever you please for any reason, as long as you don’t hurt anybody or break the law, the Christian understanding of free choice implies always choosing out of love — even if it means crucifixion. In fact, we know that our salvation depends on these choices, on our willingness to “lose our lives” in order to save them. These are the true free choices.

So in this abortion debate, it seems to me that there are some things that need to be straightened out. It is not a debate between those who support life and those who support death. It is a debate in which life and freedom are in the balance, and a very dubious sort of freedom at that. For we do not live in a society of death, no matter how deep we seem to be wading in blood. We live in a society of fear, where we have put all our faith in what we think “freedom” can gain for us and are willing to swallow enormous amounts of unpleasantness, bad consciences and nightmarish images haunting our dreams and our future. Making choices at this cost is doing untold damage to both the unborn and to our whole society. ?

Nancy Forest is a writer, editor and translator. She founded Forest-Flier Editorial Services in 1988. She is a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

Reprinted from the Winter 2000 issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.