PENNING: This year's election really is about choice

Oct 12, 2012


But other than considering statements of the obvious, the emphasis on choice has made me think about that word. That’s when the irony hit me: So many candidates and/or elected officials who claim to be “pro-choice” on abortion seem to be working against allowing choice on other issues.

Certain politicians years ago framed the abortion debate as one of “choice.” A woman should be allowed to choose what happens with her own body, the logic goes. At rallies you would see signs that read “My body! My choice!” All of this was to turn attention away from the fact that a human life was at stake. So people against abortion described themselves as “pro-life,” and have bumper stickers and rally signs that say “Choose life!”

But if choice is so important as an operative word, it is interesting to me that our society lately seems to be working to remove choices. Let me run through a few examples.

One has to do with school vouchers. The basic idea here is that, since a portion of taxes people pay go to public schools, parents should get a voucher from the government to send their children to a school of their choosing. So, if they don’t like the local public school, they could use the voucher to send their child to a private school, a charter school or any other school that charges tuition. Parents could use the tax dollars they paid — or the portion “covering” their child’s public education — for another school if they so choose.

But there are many people against school vouchers. This is the first societal hypocrisy — people should have the right choose to end the life of their unborn child, but if the child is born and reaches school age, the same parents can’t choose their school.

But say school isn’t an issue. Say kids are in the public school. Then we have the issue of choosing what to have for lunch. Recently, federal guidelines went into effect mandating what types of food schools serve for lunch. There have been stories of some school employee telling a little girl not to eat the lunch her own mother packed for her.

Late last month, a group of students launched a YouTube campaign to protest the new school lunches. Good for them! They are showing critical thinking and communication skills, not to mention exercising the right to protest abuses of government in a democracy.

But, so far, it still remains that parents can choose to end the life of an unborn child, but they can’t choose what to feed them.

Let’s say that these children survive school food and live to see graduation. Then they want to get a job at a place that has a union. “Right to Work” legislation that has been hotly debated is about whether or not a person should be allowed to decide whether or not to join a union. Many are advocating that employees have no choice but to be part of a union. This is a great way to bolster union membership. But it’s not so great if you say you are in favor of personal choice.

So our society says it should be a right to snuff out the life of an unborn child, but a grown-up child can’t choose whether to be part of a union or not.

The recently passed massive health care legislation includes one controversial aspect called the “insurance mandate” that requires everyone to buy health insurance. There are lots of arguments for and against this. But on the issue of choice, it’s another case in which personal responsibility and choice is being taken away from individuals.

So add to the list of hypocrisies that our modern society endorses the right to terminate “fetuses,” but if they emerge into the world as actual human beings, they don’t have the right to choose whether or not they want to buy health insurance.

The most recent example is specific to New York City, but it could spread. I’m speaking of course about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s dictate that people in the Big Apple can’t buy big sodas, at least nothing as big as 16 ounces. It’s an effort to battle obesity. Whatever happened to “My body! My choice!”

Apparently, what you imbibe and how much is a government decision in New York. You can get an abortion there, just not a large diet coke.

The real irony is that many of these restrictive policies are advocated by folks who call themselves liberals or progressives. The original political meaning of “liberal” had freedom at is core — it seems the opposite lately. As for progressive, one wonders toward what we progress if we keep making government policies taking away freedom of choice. Perhaps England, before the American Revolution?

One choice we do still have is in the ballot booth. This election really is about choice.

Tim Penning’s columns and other thoughts can be read on his PierPoints blog at


Tri-cities realist

In this country, we have equality of opportunity (liberty), not equality of outcome (socialism), at least for the most part. So if someone wants contraceptives or an abortion, they can pay for it themselves, don't force me to subsidize it through my taxes. And while we all want to eliminate poverty, can we agree that the social experiment called the "great society" hasn't worked out so well for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum? We've spent TRILLIONS as a nation, trying to help the poor through the myriad of govt programs. And what has been the result? More poverty, the destruction of the family, abortions, the list goes on. So if we spent twice the amount of money, would we get twice the amount of the destruction? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. I for one am ready to end this cycle of destruction. What ever happened to personal responsibility? And yes I believe in a safety net, but not for able bodied Americans to collect welfare as a way of life. Talk about compassion, how humiliating it must be for them to rely on the govt to survive, rather than provide for themselves. And I'm not talking about the chronically sick, truly disabled, etc. And one last thing, the 96 oz big gulp did not create the obesity problems, that was caused by individuals CHOOSING to purchase and consume it, along with other bad food and exercise choices, for the most part. That's the thing with freedom, people can choose to make bad choices, but I will take our freedoms along with some of its "undesirable" consequences, over the bread lines of the Soviet Union (yes they did seem quite skinny though).


Thanks to all the commentary. I especially appreciate those of you who do so with civility. Several quick responses:

1. Yes, my wife and I are grateful for our health care. However, the column was about choice. We chose to pay the premiums to insure ourselves, and recently chose a high deductible health savings account, which puts more responsibility on us. That was before the cancer diagnosis, when we thought we were healthy and paying out of pocket for routine doctor and dentist visits would be less than the deductible and even less than premiums. Plus, this added more to the insurance pool for people with serious illness. Then we became those in the pool who had serious illness. But we still don't regret our choice, and must live with it regardless, right? The issue of those who don't have insurance is whether they a) choose not to or b) can't afford it. For the former group, freedom of choice always comes with personal responsibility. It's a quandary--what to do with people who don't get insurance (i.e. don't pay into the risk pool) and then get sick and suddenly want to tap it? Tell him/her to live with their choice? Some would say yes. But others would say that lacks compassion. It's an issue as old as the founding documents of our country--we want freedom from government until we want help. It's an issue of fairness, which one comment on this site points out is why he's for the insurance mandate. However, there are those who would say that's the problem, that government keeps growing because people refuse to be personally responsible. Remember, WE are the government, so the mandate is asking responsible people to pick up for the irresponsible. As for those who can't afford insurance, that's where we have Medicaid and Medicare, as well as numerous nonprofit organizations. Beyond all that, the next president, whoever it is, will no doubt see legislation to ammend Obamacare, keeping the good parts and working on much needed changes that address the cost of health care, not just the coverage (i.e. more choice of insurance providers, relationships with doctors, medical litigation, the business model for doctors moving from fee for service to salary etc)

2. On vouchers--it is precisely the poor, inner city parents who want vouchers. The comment about a charter school being a white supremicist institution is bizarre. May be out there, but hardly the norm. And the reams of data I read about alternative schools show good education. And again, it's about the choice parents want to make for themselves. If the school they chose is so bad, and they have choice, they can chose another. My column years ago about teacher pay was about looking at the finances apples to apples. What's funny is that my teacher friends who know me liked the column, because they noted the bouquet I threw to teachers for their hard work. Some of the letters to this paper were so reactionary and vindictive because they didn't like the suggestion that 'some' teachers whine about pay--that's empirical, I've heard it, many times, at parties and in publications--and none offered a mathematically based assessment of the proposal that we look at teacher pay based on hours per year. There's no doubt that the work teachers do is important. Community members complain that teachers "get summers off." Teachers respond that they put in long hours during the school year. Others say they put in long hours, nights, weekends all year long. So, it's an interesting proposition to look at hours/per. By the way, I took a cut in pay, from a nonprofit, then invested lots of money that I earned with side consulting jobs to pay for a PhD, in order to teach. I love it. I drive a 99 Nissan, a car older than the cars my students drive. This also choice.

Tri-cities realist

Tim, thanks for the follow up and letting us know you read the comments. I just wish more of the tribune staff was as thoughtful and attentive as you are. Regardless of whether I agree with you or not, I respect you for your civility and rational thinking. Hopefully your students appreciate it as well.



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