When He Talks Abortion, President Obama Pretends to Be a Libertarian

He's always supported "the right to choose." But when he tells women only they should make decisions about their health, he's contradicting himself.
Obama full reuters.jpg
Reuters

Addressing Planned Parenthood last week, President Obama made what must be one of the least self-aware statements of his tenure. "Forty years after the Supreme Court affirmed a woman's constitutional right to privacy, including the right to choose, we shouldn't have to remind people that when it comes to a woman's health, no politician should get to decide what's best for you," he said. "No insurer should get to decide what kind of care that you get. The only person who should get to make decisions about your health is you."

It's no secret that Obama supports a woman's right to choose, in consultation with her doctor, whether getting an abortion is appropriate. Contrary to his rhetoric, however, Obama doesn't believe that American women should alone be empowered to decide what's best for their health as a general matter. However emphatically he proclaims the opposite, Obama verily believes that politicians like him ought to interfere in myriad decisions about personal medical care. It is illegitimate for him to invoke the language of liberty to score points on this set of issues.

If "the only person who should get to make decisions about your health is you," why has Obamacare mandated that all Americans buy health insurance, whether they want it or not? Why isn't he championing the right of people to decide, with their doctors, to take medical marijuana? Why does he favor laws that prohibit kidney donors from being compensated for their organ? Why does he favor FDA rules that prevent sick people who want to try new drugs from doing so until the drugs have gone through a lengthy approval process? If "no insurer should get to decide what kind of care that you get," why does he favor a federal panel that would evaluate treatments covered by Medicare and stop reimbursing doctors for the ones deemed ineffective or less effective than alternatives, regardless of what a patient and her doctor wanted?

The issue isn't whether Obama's actual positions are prudent or imprudent. It's just highly misleading for him to invoke liberty as if it's his guiding principle. He shouldn't be allowed to obscure the fact that he favors limiting the ability of Americans to make all sorts of decisions about their own health. If he were being honest, he'd say, "It just isn't prudent to have a healthcare system or a broader public policy norm whereby individuals are the only ones empowered to make decisions about their health. Other stakeholders, including politicians, bureaucrats, insurance companies and the American Medical Association must to have a role." That statement would probably be very unpopular with Americans. But it accurately captures the approach to health care policy that Obama has taken as president. Like many pro-choice Americans, he employs rhetoric when talking about abortion that makes it sound as if he is far more libertarian than is justified by his other positions. Americans shouldn't be fooled.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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