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NOTIONS: A pregnant GOP primer on civil liberties: Who decides?

September 8, 2008

Years ago, I wrote an article about Sheila Suess Kennedy, an Indianapolis author who'd written a book called "What's a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU?"

I didn't know Sheila. I didn't know much about the American Civil Liberties Union, either. So I stopped by her office (she directed the organization's Indiana chapter back then) for an education.

Sheila, now a faculty member at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, explained to me that she'd grown up a Goldwater Republican. And how that brand of Republicanism was, in her view, consistent with the mission of the ACLU: to ensure that a limited government never takes away our civil liberties, even when the majority of citizens would like the government to do so. In deciding whether government is overstepping its bounds, Sheila said, it often comes down to a simple question: "Who decides?"

Who decides whether a preacher may shout his hallelujahs on a street corner?

Who decides whom I may love and marry?

Who decides whether a couple may adopt a child?

Who decides what we may say, write and read?

Who decides which god or gods we may worship-or choose not to?

Who decides whether we may pack Colt 45s?

Who decides when life begins?

Sheila said that the late Sen. Goldwater and the ACLU are in synch on this one: In our sweet Land of Liberty, under its Bill of Rights, we, not Big Brother, should have the right to decide for ourselves.

She also said, with deep regret, that Goldwater Republicanism is dead and gone, buried by those who would employ the power of government to impose their own brand of morality.

I remembered Sheila's civil liberties lecture last week, as Sen. John McCain announced that socially conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate and we subsequently learned that Palin's 17-year-old unwed daughter is pregnant.

I have two regrets over the hullabaloo that ensued: One, that young Bristol Palin, her boyfriend and their families were pilloried in the public square as a consequence of her mother's candidacy; and two, that the tabloid treatment of this circus sideshow overshadowed the bigger issue-a civil liberties choice that may affect your freedom and mine for decades to come.

Last week, during an interview with Washington Post editors, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

With an economy in tatters, unemployment raging, home foreclosures skyrocketing, tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, a widening gap between haves and have-nots, and a tarnished U.S. image around the world, Davis is wrong. The election is about issues.

And with all the talk about fighting for freedom, one issue should be a reminder of what freedom means. Four examples:

As Sarah Palin was introduced to the nation, we learned that she made a choice to give birth to a son, knowing full well that he would have Down syndrome.

I honor her freedom to choose.

As Bristol Palin's pregnancy was announced to the nation, we learned that she's made a choice to keep her child and marry the father.

I honor her freedom to choose.

When Sen. Barrack Obama was asked by Rev. Rick Warren when life begins, he said such knowledge is "above my pay grade"-in other words it's divine knowledge, not mortal, and certainly not governmental.

I honor his freedom to choose.

When my wife and I became pregnant, we knew there was a chance our twin sons could inherit my eye cancer and suffer blindness. We chose life (and our sons have sight!).

I celebrate our freedom to choose-and our choice-every day.

But we've also learned that McCain and Palin would deny such freedom of choice to others-replacing it with a government mandate that all pregnant women must give birth, even in cases of rape or incest.

And we've learned that they oppose the comprehensive sex-education programs that give teens like Bristol and her boyfriend more choices in avoiding pregnancy.

And we've learned that, while they support Bristol and her boyfriend's planned marriage, they, along with Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, believe government should continue to deny the same privilege of marriage for same-sex couples.

Knowing all that, even if civil liberties and related public policies don't rise to the level of Rick Davis' "irrelevant" campaign issues, they're fair game for our "composite view of the candidates."

Which brings us back to Sheila's question: Who decides? You? Or Big Brother?

Election Day is Nov. 4. Sorry Sheila, Barry Goldwater is not on the ballot.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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