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Protecting Liberty in a Land of Equality PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kathy Finn   
Monday, 11 June 2007
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Lawmakers across the country struggle daily to balance liberty and equality in their legislation. The fundamental issue remains the same: where do you draw the line? PT looks at HPV vaccines for young women, the anti-smoking crusade and gun control.

The stance that DebraLee Hovey took recently on a major public health issue has her feeling a little like a fish out of water. The Connecticut state representative authored a bill requiring that all teenage girls receive a vaccine offering protection against the Human Papilloma Virus, which is known to cause cervical cancer.

Hovey has no qualms about fighting cancer; she has prevailed in her own battles against breast and cervical cancer and is excited at the prospect of protecting others from a form of the disease. What gives her great pause is her own political leaning: Hovey is a Republican, and that puts her on the "wrong" side of the HPV vaccine matter in some people's eyes.

"You walk kind of a tightrope on this issue," she says. "It's not normally a part of my principles to impose mandates."

Hovey knows that requiring young girls to receive a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease may rub some parents the wrong way, especially those who feel the mandate impedes on their freedom to raise their children as they choose.

"Republicans believe in self-directedness and self-responsibility," she says. "I in no way want to interfere with parents' rights, but we may have an opportunity to eradicate a deadly form of cancer. I think one has to err in favor of what they believe to be the greater good."

Before arriving at this position, Hovey faced the type of dilemma many lawmakers encounter today. In an increasingly complex political climate, freedoms that most citizens consider their birthright often come into conflict with other fundamental American values, such as equal opportunity and the right to "the pursuit of happiness."

Meaning behind the words

Brandeis University history professor David H. Fischer says the roots of these conflicts can be traced back to the earliest days of the nation. The definitions of liberty, freedom and equality have been evolving for generations, he says, and interpretations of the words have not only veered in different directions, but also come into conflict.

Fischer, whose writings include the book "Liberty and Freedom," published in 2005, says liberty held sway in the nation's early years as representing citizens' rights to live free of government domination and control. "Most of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are about rights to liberty, defined as autonomy and independence," he says.

However, after the Civil War, the nation had changed dramatically, as did the 14th Amendment. Where-as the pre-Civil War northern states espoused liberty to represent personal freedom and unity, the southern states viewed liberty as encompassing the "freedom to enslave," Fischer says. The 14th Amendment, which grew out of the war, guaranteed citizens equal protection under the laws. "It went more toward rights of belonging and ideas of due process," he says.

The political pendulum swung back and forth in subsequent decades, as the nation embraced a laissez faire philosophy, then an expansion of freedoms under the New Deal, and later the quest for greater equality of opportunity through the Civil Rights and women's movements.

Fischer says that throughout this time, the nation's growing devotion to capitalism contributed to a "great tension" between liberty and equality. "When people began to think of equality as meaning equality of possessions, liberty and equality become increasingly opposed," he says.

"Today we have strident voices to the far left and right, with the far right demanding extreme independence and the far left demanding rights associated with collective belonging," says Fischer, who describes himself as a political centrist. The circumstances have created a virtual breeding ground for conflicts between the nation's fundamental values.

Health care and well being

In recent years, many of these conflicts arose in debates over how best to protect and improve the health of the American public. As medical advances such as genetic testing for the disease-prone have enabled strides against life-threatening illness, for instance, they also have raised questions about the right to privacy, as well as protection from discrimination in insurance coverage.

Efforts in many states to require the HPV vaccine for young women have also brought these tensions into focus. And while Connecticut Representative Hovey came down on one side of the issue, some of her peers struck a different stance.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry put the HPV vaccine issue front and center a few months ago when he signed an executive order requiring the vaccine for all young girls in the state. But some members of the legislature vehemently opposed the measure. State Senator Jane Nelson is one of 26 Texas senators who asked Perry to rescind his order.

"I support making this vaccine more accessible, but parents are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a mandate, especially when you are talking about their sixth-grade daughters," says Nelson, a Republican.

Does this mean that a family's right to privacy or freedom of choice should trump government's responsibility to offer equal protections to all citizens?

"Both of these rights are sacred, so there has to be a balance," Nelson says. "In Texas, our constitution is based on individual freedom. In the past we have made determinations that the greater good outweighs individual choice when it comes to vaccines for chicken pox, whooping cough and other communicable diseases. There is strong public support for requiring those kinds of vaccines. But there is strong public opposition to this mandate."

Nelson recognizes that the momentum could shift in time, as both the HPV virus and the potential of the vaccine are more widely understood. In the meantime, lawmakers nationwide continue to grapple with another public health issue that for decades has fueled much fiercer battles.

Cloud of Smoke: Smoke Bans Necessary?

The political struggle over whether and how much to regulate tobacco smoking has long pitted Americans' love of personal liberty against government's responsibility to protect the public. Economics complicated the issue: is it right for government to limit the consumption of tobacco, a proven carcinogen, when doing so endangers the economic well being of persons associated with the tobacco industry?

As medical evidence of tobacco's impact on health has mounted, lawmakers have squared off with this question repeatedly and become more creative in justifying their positions.

Recently, for instance, when Minnesota Representative Thomas Huntley (D-Duluth) proposed a ban on smoking in all restaurants, bars and private clubs throughout the state, he turned the traditional economic argument around. "All these restaurants, bars and clubs have employees, and those employees should not have to choose between having their health affected by other people's smoke and their job," Huntley says.

His position is a response to growing public awareness that nonsmokers can suffer diseases and even die as a result of being exposed to other people's tobacco smoking.

"The Surgeon General's report that came out last summer quite clearly states that second-hand smoke is very deleterious to the health of people who don't smoke," Huntley says. "We have a long tradition of protecting workers from harm in the workplace. We long ago banned asbestos and lots of nasty chemicals from workplaces. This is the same."

Some lawmakers in Illinois now believe the dangers of tobacco smoke warrant even stronger action. State Senator John Cullerton (D-Chicago) introduced legislation in early March that would prohibit smoking everywhere in Illinois except private residences, existing tobacco stores and designated rooms in nursing homes and hotels.

"The focus of this bill actually is the rights of people who are not smoking, of people who don't want to smoke but are being forced to," Cullerton says. "If you want to look at the rights issue, my whole focus is on rights of nonsmokers."

Triggering Battles: The Great Gun Debate

Of all the issues that have sparked debate among politicians and scholars over the meaning of equality and "unalienable rights," few have ignited such a firestorm as gun laws.

Arguments over gun control inevitably ensnare participants in what the first Congress meant 200 years ago. Those who believe that increasingly violent and deadly crime trends in many U.S. cities stem from the availability of guns—including high-powered assault weapons—are directly at odds with those who believe that any limitation on the ability to legally buy and use guns constitutes a violation of the Second Amendment "right to bear arms."

Persons in the latter category have helped to build one of the most powerful political lobbies in the country in the form of the National Rifle Association. The NRA has come to embody conservative ideology both in terms of its devotion to liberty, as defined by individual autonomy, and in its opposition to government interference with individual choice.

The NRA has succeeded in blocking or turning back national efforts at restricting ownership of weapons frequently associated with violence against human beings, so some states have taken up the effort on their own.

In recent months, Maryland Senator Michael Lenett (D-Montgomery County) proposed one of the most sweeping bans on assault weapons the state has ever consider-ed. Like other anti-gun law-makers around the country, Lenett cited in-creased incidence of violent crime as the basis for his proposal. "These kinds of weapons have no place in a civilian society," he said during a news conference.

But conservative opposition in Maryland, Pennsylvania and some other states where lawmakers are attempting a clamp-down on guns ensures that these efforts, too, face tough battles.

Meanwhile, in southern states like Louisiana and Alabama, where many see gun ownership as a right of passage, some advocates are moving the issue in the opposite direction.

Alabama state Representative Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica) recently introduced a bill that would ease restrictions on citizens carrying handguns in their cars. While current law allows guns in a glove box, console or in plain view, Bearden's bill would let an owner carry the gun anywhere in the vehicle.

"I want to make sure a law-abiding citizen cannot get in trouble for putting a firearm in his car," he says. "I consider it strengthening the Second Amendment."

Bearden views the amendment as "one of most important we have because it's the [means of] enforcing others, including freedom of speech and freedom from illegal search. There's no way to protect those freedoms unless you have a society that has the ability to be armed."

As difficult as the competing notions of liberty, freedom and equality make political decision-making, Fischer says the conflicts are a hallmark of a still-young nation. "I think Americans have a particular intensity about liberty and freedom, partly because these have been at the very center of what our cultures have been about," he says.

But Fischer also warns that capricious use of important terms can be dangerous, particularly if persons in positions of power exploit the words merely to advance political agendas.

"I think that if liberty is ever destroyed in America, it will be destroyed in the name of some false and even fraudulent idea of freedom," he says. "Looking back through history, we can see liberty and patriotism were often linked to justify the destruction of liberty in America's past."

Whether being a patriot means supporting second amendment rights, or liberty is invoked to oppose anti-smoking laws, what's clear is that finding the balance between communal good and individual freedom lies at the core of America's political culture.





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