Freedom Triumphs and Romania Goes Pro-Choice


IT should have been a glorious day for the American right when the new government took power in Romania a few weeks ago. Another communist tyrant had been overthrown. Capitalism had triumphed again. And what was one of the first things the new Romanian government did?

It legalized abortion.

The American right was expecting hosannas to Adam Smith. Instead, they got Gloria Steinem.

This says a great deal about what freedom means to people who have lived under dictators. It also helps to focus the abortion debate in the United States.

Nicholae Ceausescu, Romania's late dictator, treated women like sows; his aim was to increase the size of their litters. The abortion ban was just the beginning. Women who had not borne children by age 24 were taxed, even if they were single. Contraceptives of any kind were outlawed. Inspectors in offices and factories checked on pregnant women to make sure they weren't trying to induce abortion or miscarriage.

It would be stretching things to suggest that measures like these lie ahead if the US Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision establishing women's freedom in regard to abortion. But some offshoots of Ceausescu's population policies should well give the US pause. Children were abandoned in the streets. Orphanages were bursting. An official at Bucharest Municipal Hospital estimated that well over a thousand women died each year trying to end pregnancies in that city alone.

The abortion issue is so intractable in the US largely because the two sides can't even agree on what they are fighting about. To one side it's a matter of freedom and choice. To the other, it's a matter of murder and life. Both sides have a point

But there's great confusion over how those points fit into the political scheme of things. Generally, the press portrays anti-abortion activists as ``conservatives.'' But that isn't really true. The political right isn't against government. Rather, it wants the government to do different things than liberals want it to do. Put briefly, the left wants to regulate things pertaining to money, while the right wants to regulate the body. The left wants to control such things as oil prices. The right wants to control conception and birth.

The underlying offenses are greed and lust. According to traditional teachings, both are sins and equally so. Each political camp attacks with great righteousness the sin the other side prefers (openly, at least). Each invokes its own secular saint - Adam Smith and Sigmund Freud respectively - to excuse its own indulgence.

Given the legitimate concerns on both sides, the tough questions come in translating the predilections into state authority.

Much economic regulation is either unnoticed or received gladly. Millions of Americans use publicly owned power and transportation without feeling that their freedom is in danger. They are happy the law requires manufacturers to live up to their warranties. Do right-wingers refuse to buy stock because the stock market is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission?

When government regulates the body, by contrast, the heavy hand hits close to home. The Romanians can attest to that. It is no accident that the bodies in question here are women's, nor that countries that currently restrict abortion tend to be ones where such matters are decided by arbitrary, usually male, decree. The Islamic countries, for example. Romania under Ceausescu.

Nor is it an accident that the business realm, which conservatives hold off-limits to regulation, is dominated by males.

None of this negates the concerns of anti-abortion activists, but it gives the issue a different focus. Enlisting the arm of the state to impose their views on everyone would put the US in company that most Americans would not like to join. ``The nightmarish logical conclusion to what the right-to-lifers are pushing for,'' is how one Capitol Hill staff person described the Ceausescu reign.

If the US bans abortion, will the torch of liberty burn brighter here for women in Romania? That's not the only question. But certainly, it's a relevant one.

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