The Mutation of “Choice” into Coercion

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. My family is on vacation. While we are gone I’ll be running articles from the past 12 months that you’ve indicated you particularly enjoyed. Dave

One lesson no doubt most of us have learned is that even when a presentation comes down with the wrong conclusion, if well thought out, it can help us sharpen our arguments, make us aware of considerations we’ve under-appreciated, and show additional ways to present our case to people who are open to reason. I offer as one example, “Opposition to Abortion and Physician Assistance-In-Dying: The Claim that Choice Can Evolve Into Coercion,” by Sherry F. Colb. (The piece appears at http://writ.news.findlaw.com/colb/20070611.html)

It is a long, long argument, as the title would suggest. But it is very much worth your while. Colb fairly presents some of the best arguments opponents of assisted suicide and abortion offer to demonstrate how easily “choice” can become coercion. In other words, these are (despite her conclusion that they are not) real-life examples of what can easily happen to the notion of “choice” when people are at their point of greatest vulnerability.

The best arguments for the slippery slope from (alleged) choice into coercion begin with two considerations. First, an acknowledgement of human nature and particularly of how the misguided desire not to “burden” others can push people in directions they would not otherwise take.

Second, as Colb puts it, “Sometimes, the very existence of a choice leads people to feel coerced into making it.” This is so true it is positively scary.

Colb cogently and thoughtful lays out three way the very existence of assisted suicide can soften resistance, both from the family and from the patient. I was particularly struck by “the second way in which dying might come to seem like an obligation, rather than a choice.”

Colb means by this the “increasing acceptance of this option by the patient’s family members–the ones who are burdened by the sick, elderly parent and whose inheritances are evaporating. As dying comes to represent a reasonable treatment choice, the ordinary inhibition that people feel about pressuring an aging parent to ‘drop dead’ could dissipate.”

Brutally blunt but true. I have seen this at work in families I would never had expected this from.

Likewise, Colb examines “the manner in which the abortion option might mutate–as opponents suggest–into an abortion mandate.” Again, she offers examples; I find number two to be the most telling.

“Second, in a regime where abortion is safe and legal, a woman’s parents, other relatives, and the father of the pregnancy might, on occasion, be inclined to demand that a woman terminate her pregnancy if they are not interested in shouldering the financial and emotional burdens of supporting a child,” Colb writes. “Like the relatives of the dying patient [and patients who “refuse to die”] who is pressured to choose death, family members might make a pregnant woman feel that she has no right to inflict the cost of a child on all of them, against their will, when there is the simpler, safer, legal, and relatively inexpensive alternative of abortion. They could thus push her to exercise her right to choose in a way that, in reality, frustrates her wishes.”

As I say, Colb stops at the edge of the cliff. “The difficulty with such arguments, however, is that although they have a certain surface plausibility, they have yet to be persuasively demonstrated in the field.”

But if by “the field,” Colb means, for example, examples of underage girls being forthrightly coerced by their much older boyfriends, I suspect the best witness, the organization with the largest data bank, is Planned Parenthood. The problem is the largest provider of abortions in the world is not exactly predisposed to share its data.

Likewise, anyone who has friends with elderly parents knows how the pressure of a society grown impatient with people who live “too long” wears on them. In that sense, most of us over age 40 know that the erosion of safeguards for very vulnerable elderly patients has already been “persuasively demonstrated in the field.”

Again, despite the limitations, this is an article very much worth reading. You can find it at http://writ.news.findlaw.com/colb/20070611.html.

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