In discussions touching on sexuality in particular (e.g., abortion, gay rights) the notion of choice has become a flashpoint of disagreement. Advocates of abortion rights have framed a woman's access to abortion services as an issue of freedom and choice to exercise control over her own body. Opponents of abortion rights see this framing as dangerously disingenuous because it excludes the choices or freedom of a human life cut short.
As the gay rights movement has gained momentum some people wonder if being gay is a choice. Within this framing, conservatives are portrayed as insinuating that people are choosing to be gay, while progressives contest this. Although most people agree sexual attraction itself is not a choice, conservatives often say that acting upon homosexual attractions is a choice. They contend that a person could choose celibacy, for example, as a way of working with the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that accompany the attraction. Meanwhile, progressives contend that it is unreasonable and unnatural to expect anyone to remain celibate and that responsible, private sexual behavior between consenting adults harms no one regardless of the form it takes.
The concept of choice figures prominently in other socio-political questions. For example, the issue of School Choice can be contentious. As another example, libertarians often position themselves as being in favor of choice in all aspects of life. They regard most government regulation, such as occupational licensing, as arbitrarily restricting citizen choices. Meanwhile, moderates and progressives contend that government regulation is necessary to promote order, protect the freedom of everyone, and (in the case of progressives) to remedy the inequalities that divide people along economic and racial lines.
Yet another position if that of leftists who believe that various realities -- such as capitalist economic structures -- restrict people’s real-life choices in major ways that leave some of them permanently disadvantaged, even if legally and in theory they have the freedom of choice. Some people, for example, work at dangerous jobs that pay too little to live on and will probably poison them in the long run. They have the legal right to quit, and thus do it by “choice,” but in practice they can’t quit; they (and the people in their support networks) don’t have enough money to enable them to pull up stakes and move to a new place with better jobs.
Across issues, the word “choice” can at times be used glibly - made to sound like it’s not serious decision-making and merely promiscuous or hedonistic. For example, in discussions about abortion some people are surprised to learn that women often agonize over the decision to have an abortion.
On abortion and other issues the idea that individuals deserve to have a range of choices can be a potential common ground. For example, women with unplanned pregnancies could given more information about abortion, and more support for continuing a pregnancy if they so choose, and better access to adoption. However, while many favor all choices being authentically available, some on both sides resist that position. Some conservatives feel uncomfortable about making abortion a legal option, while some progressives feel uncomfortable about offering non-abortion options for fear they will be used to pressure women.
The same conflict is evident around the different options available to those who experience same-sex attraction. These include whether or not gay orientation is chosen, and whether or not sexual orientation change efforts should be approached, as well as choices related to gay marriage, no marriage, or mixed-orientation marriage. While some see making those kinds of options available as a positive step, others see it as potentially damaging.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
- Why is it that “choice” can feel threatening in some cases (like with homosexuality or abortion) and so liberating in other contexts? (like freedom generally)
- There are many personal choices that our society/civil law prohibits - polygamy, incest, nudity in public, refusing to educate your children, to name just a few. What distinguishes the choices that have given rise to the change movements discussed above ?
Mary Jacksteit, Michael Strong, Stephen Morris, Heidi Weaver-Smith, Phil Neisser
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