Absolute Autonomy: A Violent Religion
Category: MCC Director's Desk
June 28, 2024

This past Sunday my family, like millions of others, celebrated Father’s Day. Typically, on Father’s Day my girls ask if I’d like some quiet time to go hiking or work in the garden, and as tempting as it sounds to get some “me time,” I can’t imagine celebrating Father’s Day without the ones who made this gift possible. The older I get the more I realize that I only come to know who I am and who I am called to be through my relationships, especially as father and husband.  

My wife and I suffered with infertility for the first few years of our marriage. Those who struggle to conceive know this heartbreak well. But I will never forget the day she approached me with tears in her eyes, opening her hand to reveal a pregnancy test with two beautiful pink lines and saying, “I’m pregnant!” That was one of the best days of my life, when I realized I was a father. And at roughly 8 weeks pregnant, we were able to watch in awe a little dot pulsating on a screen while we listened to our daughter’s strong heartbeat. How could someone so little take over my entire heart?  

I’m sure during these past few weeks you, like my family, have encountered many of the paid signature gathers for Constitutional Initiative 128, the proposal to enshrine a right to abortion in our state constitution. I cannot adequately describe the sadness that permeated my heart when my 8-year-old daughter looked up and asked, “Daddy, what is abortion?” 

We’ve now had these conversations because our girls are old enough to know what abortion is and, like everyone, they deserve to know the truth shared in love. Sadly, I believe the truth about CI-128 has been cloaked behind carefully crafted language and talking points that obscure the implications if this amendment passes, whether this November or in the future.  

What struck me when I read the amendment were the portions addressing limitations on the government’s ability to regulate abortion. For pro-choice advocates this is part and parcel of the argument, so it wasn’t surprising to find that principle expressed in the amendment. However, the degree to which this proposal would effectively prohibit any government regulation was shocking. 

Regarding the right to make decisions about pregnancy, including abortion, the amendment would insert the following into our constitution: “This right shall not be denied or burdened unless justified by a compelling government interest achieved by the least restrictive means.” 

Given proponents’ beliefs about abortion, this language isn’t unexpected. However, while the amendment provides almost no definitions, one of the few terms defined is what constitutes a “compelling” government interest. Here’s where I was left stunned, for this interest is defined as “compelling,” “only if it. . . does not infringe on the patient’s autonomous decision making.” Perhaps that sounds reasonable but consider that for a moment. That means the state is prohibited from enforcing regulations around things like parental notification, post-viability abortion or late-term abortion procedures (e.g., partial-birth abortion) and more. Regardless of arguments to the contrary, that’s precisely what this language imposes because every government regulation of any kind potentially conflicts with a given individual’s autonomy. But that’s the very nature and purpose of law—to regulate individual conduct for the common good. 

This “absolute autonomy” standard is unprecedented. Fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and others, while protected, are not unlimited. Gutting the government (we, the people) of the ability to regulate the practice of abortion amounts to enshrining abortion as a “super right” elevated above other well-defined rights.  

Are we really ready to afford the “right to abortion” greater protection than we afford freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? What CI-128 proposes is extreme and goes far beyond the views expressed by many pro-choice Montanans. 

The establishment of such a standard in our constitution would unleash a dangerous social experiment where the implications of one’s actions are no one’s business, even a child’s own parents. But, if this standard is appropriate for abortion, why not other fundamental rights? Why not amend our constitution to allow the state to regulate the free exercise of religion only if it doesn’t infringe on a believer’s autonomous decision making? I believe in the free exercise of religion, but that’s unthinkable. Use your imagination if you dare.  

Ultimately, what is at stake is an understanding of the human person and how we function within broader society. We are social by nature not simply “sociable,” and it is within relationships that we reach our full potential. It’s where we flourish and experience life’s greatest joys, in part, by acceptance of the social responsibilities those relationships require.  

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Nothing of importance can be separated entirely from its social effect, which is politics, or from its ultimate value, which is religion.” In the case of CI-128, I believe the social effect would be the erosion of our natural social bonds by the raising up a new “religion” though the enshrinement of a legal standard that says autonomy isn’t just “a” good but the single greatest good, the thing of ultimate value, unassailable and sacrosanct. But the religion of absolute autonomy isn’t one of peace. It’s one of violence. It goes beyond “do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” It’s simply, “do what you want”—full stop.  

I desire for my children a world where they can thrive and reach their full potential. That necessarily means a place where they learn that their lives are bound together with those of their neighbors. A place where rights come with corresponding responsibilities embraced as the work necessary to promote the common good and forge bonds of solidarity, justice, and peace. A place where autonomy is “a good” but always properly expressed within the context of our social obligations and in service of something greater than ourselves. That’s a vision this dad will fight for. 

This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2024 edition of the Helena Independent Record.