CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


Personal Sovereignty

This was written as a response to my growing uneasiness about discussions, particularly within the UUFC, concerning aspects of abortion and fertility control policy. One of the UUA resolutions for that year concerned world population control: I took exception to significant parts of it, rewrote it and the resulting Clemson congregational response was reflected in the final form adopted at the General Assembly. I presented this sermon on March 18, 1990, marking the first time in my adult life that I had spoken publicly, with a prepared text, on other than professional matters. It was also the first time that I spoke from any pulpit, except for brief comments. The tone of this piece is quite philosophical. Its' completion marked, for me, a certain degree of being "set free" by my father's death in August 1988. He was a philosopher and I used to remark to friends: "We have a deal, he doesn't discuss my work and I don't discuss his." While our interests were different, I now feel released from this agreement.

Finally, Clemson is the home of the most popular and widely grown variety of okra in the world, Clemson Green Spineless. In my experience, people either like okra or hate it: you may judge for yourself in which camp I dwell.


"The first thing I remember, I was lying in my bed. Couldn't have been more than one or two...." With these words, Paul Simon, in his song "Late In The Evening" described the beginning of his World and mine: the first thing I remember was being confined in a screen top crib in the midst of a Colorado summer thunderstorm. Or so I discovered when later research put names to the images I retained from that moment during my second summer.


Further research revealed that the World and the Universe had probably existed before my awareness of them, perhaps for billions of years and that I had been born, whatever that meant, some fourteen months earlier than that sultry August afternoon. What had happened then was that I had my first experience as an individual, of things happening to me, as Jim McKay would say, "Up close and personal."


In fact, it became clear that the history of the Universe could be divided into three eras: BJ, DJ and AJ: before Jonathan, during Jonathan and after Jonathan. What distinguishes the present era from the one previous and the one, presumably, to come is my personal awareness and my, albeit small, apparent ability to affect its' course.


I think that each of us understands the Universe and our place in it in a way similar to this. What I believe that we overlook, as I had until recently, is the particular role that our individual self-awareness plays in our relationship to the external world and some of the logical consequences of this relationship.


Earlier today we shared a responsive reading adapted from the writings of Henry David Thoreau.1 The central idea he presented is the necessity to confront life and seek out its true nature, whether base or noble, rather than to move with the current of time without reflecting on one's relationship to it.


In the past several years I have experienced several major personal events: the death of both of my parents, a change of job and, after nearly a quarter of a century in one house, a change of location, which among other things, has led to my speaking to you today. Perhaps the most traumatic of these events was the twenty-first birthday of my youngest child: truly a way that nature has of reminding middle-aged men of their increasing obsolescence. Out of these experiences, I have formed some ideas concerning my relationship to the external world which I would like to relate to you.


The central idea that instructs this discussion is the profound difference between what is me and what is not-me. For the brief period of my life, the DJ era of the Universe, there is a clear distinction between it and me. I perceive the difference easily, my immune system recognizes it, my students and, yes, even my dog, understand it.


Gore Vidal, in his early novel Messiah, writing the words of John Cave, an undertaker's assistant turned prophet of the goodness of death, remarked on my condition thus:


"We are small," said Cave. "In space, on this tiny planet we are nothing. Death brings us back to the whole. We lose this instant of awareness, of suffering, like the spray in the ocean. There it forms, there it goes back to the sea."


Vidal was emphasizing the sea; in my contrary way, I choose to emphasize the spray, briefly standing up, separate from the massive deep.


I believe that it is this separateness and the awareness of it that is and must be a central guide to our lives. We may form relationships with others, we may join communities and even act altruistically, apparently putting others' interests before our own. But the undeniable reality of each of our individual existence is that the world begins with our awareness of separateness from it, it progresses while we are in it and apparently will persist after our awareness of it is extinguished.


If we accept that this separateness is what defines us as individuals, then it is an easy step to the next idea: that is, that we are individually sovereign. Individual or personal sovereignty follows directly from this apartness, for if we possess autonomy without sovereignty, self-governance without self-direction, then our apartness, our individuality, is an illusion: we are as ants in a hill or bees in a hive and all of our cherished aspects of self-awareness: love, sorrow, passion, creativity, free will, etc. are the delusions of inappropriate socialization.


To be sovereign is to be a ruler, a king or queen in one's own country.


Louis XIV of France said, "L'�tat c'est moi" - "I am the state" - and traced his right to rule to the gods of creation, claiming a divine right of kings.


I say, "I am I," and I claim absolute sovereignty within my kingdom.

The English say, "A Man's house is his castle."


I say, "My body and mind are my kingdom, my realm."


Some would argue that, because we neither cause our existence nor can prevent its end, we lack free will. How can one without free will claim to be personally sovereign? I suggest the following argument: I may or may not have free will. If I fail to exert my will unfettered by the will of others, then I lack free will, whether I originally possessed it or not. If on the other hand, I act as if I do have free will and take responsibility my actions, then it matters little whether I actually possess free will, since I shall enjoy all of its benefits.


Arguments that free will is an illusion and individuality a delusion, while rarely carried to extremes, have led directly to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes of both the right and left. Even within the family, failure to recognize and honor personal sovereignty has led to the broad acceptance of improbable ideas such as: "man and wife are one person, and that one is the man"; and "children are not real people."


I believe that we do possess free will and that external events produce opportunities for choice: walking in the woods we may, like Robert Frost, come to a separation of the ways and select one road while pondering the road not taken. We may have little or no control over the options presented, rather like having dinner at Grandmother's house, but we can freely choose between them. And in some cases, although not at Grannie's, even choose not to choose.


The central issue here is that, as personally sovereign individuals, we may choose as if we are free to do so, and, having chosen, we should then expect to be held accountable for the results of those choices.


Let me tell you this story: I have a terrible, insatiable craving. It started innocently enough: a friend suggested I try it. I tried it and found I could take it or leave it. Then I wanted it several times a week, then daily. I took to sneaking out to the men's room several times a day, I spent all of my pocket money to satisfy my urge. More and more I found my thoughts centering on this craving and its satisfaction. What is this craving? It is for the eating of okra, in all its hideous forms.


Of course you are moved to laughter. And possibly even to pity. Let me assure you that I have no such tragic addiction. However, consider my situation if I did: You would judge it my right to act in this way, so long as I did not affect the lives and freedom of others. Only if I began to act antisocially, holding up gas stations to finance my okra habit, lying in a stupor in public places, etc., would you wish to have my freedom curtailed.


Thus you recognize that I am free to act in, as John Stuart Mill2 termed it, "self-regarding" ways but you would properly hold me responsible for "other-regarding" actions, again using Mill's term, especially when they interfere with your freedoms. Would that we could be so sensible about the use of drugs and other mood altering substances. Personal sovereignty directs that we tolerate people's choices in these matters and only act to curtail their actions when they behave irresponsibly, in a manner which might harm others or limit their choices.


The oft quoted maxim "Your freedom to punch me in the nose extends only as far as the tip of my nose." is, I believe, misunderstood. It is usually invoked to justify limiting individual actions which affect or might affect others. I think that a more profound interpretation is that within myself, behind the tip of my nose, I am sovereign and you or your surrogates, officers of the State, dare not intrude. Only when I act in ways affecting others should I become subject to judgment and possible curtailment of my liberties.


An okra habit is laughable but one might argue that individuals should be restrained from acquiring other more serious addictions as they might become unable to exercise their personal sovereignty as a consequence.


Therefore, to illuminate further the power of personal sovereignty as a concept to guide human behavior, I would like to turn to a discussion of one of the most contentious issues of our time: abortion. For years I have refused to comment on this matter, sheltering in the argument that it is a women's affair and, thus, not being a woman, I had no views on the matter.


I am now aware that taking this position was a serious error. Over the past year, through reading, hearing news reports, speaking individually with many here and elsewhere, both men and women, and through simple plain hard reflection, I have come to some conclusions about abortion. I would like to share these with you, particularly in light of the concept of personal sovereignty.


In the rising shrillness of debate over abortion, I believe that a fundamental aspect has been overlooked. The arguments have come to be polarized about two opposing views, that of "pro-life" on one hand and of "pro-choice" on the other hand. I suggest that not only are both views flawed but that they obscure the real question under discussion.


The "pro-choice" view is based broadly on arguments of personal autonomy and more narrowly on an alleged "right to privacy," invoked, in this case, to protect women from public knowledge of (and resulting limitation of changes in) their conceptive condition. Despite the Supreme Court's rulings which support a limited right of privacy, there is no clear constitutional right and many aspects of law and common practice oppose its existence. Private dealing does not justify many necessarily proscribed interpersonal acts, such as whipping or enslavement; and many interpersonal acts, such as marriage and the determination of guilt under the law, must be performed publicly, or at the least before witnesses, to have validity. Furthermore, the right of free speech, the right to utter and publish facts and opinion, without prior restraint, is preserved in the First Amendment.


The "pro-life" view focuses on a perceived "sanctity of human life," regarding each embryo or fetus as fully human, unique and deserving of protection. Nature, on the contrary, is profligate, expending vast quantities that a few individuals may survive to perpetuate a species. In the human species, each ovary is potentially mother to thousands of ova; only a few will ever successfully encounter a spermatozoa, one of hundreds of millions in each opportunity, and of perhaps every four fertilized gametes, only one will come to term, with the potential of becoming an independent individual. Furthermore, through human acts of omission and commission, untold numbers of children die from starvation, disease or misadventure before they in turn have generative opportunities.


Finally, to argue that human life begins with fertilization of the ovum, or at "quickening" or at any other fixed point is to argue that we, as individuals, rise up out of dust and chalk rather than as a consequence of a succession of innumerable personal choices and successful generative acts stretching back to the origination of human life.


The nature of these two points of view is such that facts and reason cannot resolve the differences nor reconcile the opponents. Rather, since positions in this argument spring more from belief than reason, science and rationality tend to inflame rather than sooth passions. Those whose minds are made up, whose opinions devolve from deeply held values, respond angrily when confronted with the inherent contradictions of their views.


To be forced to choose between these views is to be placed in the situation of the child who, resisting being put to bed, is co-opted into the process by being asked to choose between blue or red pajamas. The wise child resists making such a choice as should we.


The real issue, as telegraphed in the well-known phrase from the Declaration of Independence: "endowed...with certain unalienable rights...among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," is not regulation of abortion but protection of individuals' liberties, of their personal sovereignty.


We have nothing, no rights nor future, if we are not secure in our "homes," if we do not have unabridged sovereignty over our own bodies. Such a right is clearly intended in the Tenth Amendment which reserves to the People those powers not prohibited nor delegated to the State.


Thus, I argue that the freedom to control conception and its attendant events is as much a human right as freedom in exercise of religion and is but one example of the rights implicit in personal sovereignty. We are as individuals personally sovereign and the State arises only from our collective actions to protect and defend that sovereignty. If we accord to the State the authority to regulate the termination of conception then we lay open our bodies to repeated and unwarranted intrusion, to infringements of our personal sovereignty.


If the fetus is worthy of State protection, then why not the ovary? If life in utero can only be terminated under conditions laid down by the State, why not State control of conception? Why not determination of where, when, by whom and how often? And males are not privileged, since comprehensive conceptive policy and law would necessarily address all features of the event to be regulated. Lest one think that these are far fetched suggestions, it is well to remember that current "population" policy in many States, especially India and China, already incorporates many of these features.


If control of reproduction is a part of personal sovereignty, as I argue it is, then it must be protected as a basic right, as a necessary ingredient of the birthright of each person, and be placed permanently out of reach of the whims of any Legislature or officer of the State.


However, to provide this protection only to one aspect of personal sovereignty would be shortsighted and divisive, leading to possible conclusions concerning lack of sovereignty in other respects. Personal sovereignty is, I believe, absolute and indivisible. Therefore, I propose a new amendment to the Constitution, the Personal Sovereignty Amendment:


"Each individual is personally sovereign. Therefore Congress or any state shall make no law abridging the right of any individual to be secure in his or her person."


Adoption of this amendment would not end the debate over abortion but would help to move it out of the legislatures and the courts into the more suitable surroundings of home, work place and church where we, as individuals, still free and sovereign in matters of belief and conscience, resolve such issues so central to our existence.


Now, I would like to speak directly to the women of this Fellowship. While adoption of the Personal Sovereignty Amendment, improbable as it might be, would speak to your situation concerning personal control of conception, it is a typically male solution. Let me explain what I mean.


Many modern feminists argue that traditional accounts of history are in error since women, as individuals, as movers and shakers, are largely absent from it. It is a fact that history is largely recorded by men as what men did and what happened to women. Some feminists even have gone to the extreme of rewriting history from their perspective and terming it "herstory."


My sense of unease in reading these works is similar to that of watching Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This is a re-telling of Shakespeare's Hamlet but from off stage, from the viewpoint of two minor players who appeared only briefly in the original drama. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are students who are unwitting witnesses to the murder of Hamlet's father and, in the original play, are quickly eliminated from the scene by off-stage murder.


Both herstory and Stoppard's play are interesting and, at times entertaining, but both seem irrelevant; unrelated to reality. Herstory since it casts women in typically male roles; Stoppard's play since it changes the viewpoint without telling us about the new protagonists as people.


The English historian Macaulay commented that "Good history is biography and all the rest is bunk." I believe he was right but not in the manner he intended. Women's history, as also men's properly should be, is biography: the experiencing and recounting of the personal, seemingly trivial events of life rather than of the rise and fall of nations.


I have concluded that men and women are different: not a spectacular or difficult decision to reach, but at this moment I mean it in a special way. I think that women and men experience life differently at a fundamental level. There are many reasons for this difference in perception, perhaps the most obvious being their different roles in continuation of the species: after all, motherhood is definite while fatherhood is conjectural.


To put the difference in life experience simply: Men make war, women make bread. Women work in the garden while men write books. That is, women focus on practical, people-oriented situations while men focus on theory and pursuit of principle.


There are, of course, exceptions to these generalities: I bake bread and most of the books I have read recently have been written by women. However, the central point intended here is: while men have been making laws about control of fertility, women, as they always have, have been making choices and acting for themselves, exercising their personal sovereignty. Of the women who I know and respect, most are both "pro-choice" and "pro-life": they strive to live free and they affirm life by their actions. I suggest that for them or for any women to join actively in the present argument between the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" factions, between wearers of blue pajamas and red pajamas, is to accept others' terms of engagement and to impair their and other's personal sovereignty whatever the outcome.


Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, recognized the essential flaw in any State, as erected by men: by presenting the choice of "your money or your life," by enforcing its edicts with force and the threat of force, the State usually produces cures worse than the evils it seeks to remedy. Speaking specifically of slavery, he argued that abolitionists should withdraw their support and political participation from the State, not waiting until, in his words, "... they constitute a majority of one and suffer the right to prevail through them." Continuing, Thoreau said, " is enough that they have God on their side, without waiting for the other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." And, I must add, the same goes for any woman!


In the 140 years since this essay was published, its' ideas have shaken the State to its core. Mohandas Gandhi took Thoreau as his mentor; in this past year the masses of demonstrators in Eastern Europe and their dramatic progress toward freedom proved, once again, the wisdom of his advice.

You are free to act in these matters, individually and collectively, you know what to do and you should act, as women always have. You should no more concede the right of the State to regulate your fertility, to affect your conceptive condition against your willful choice, than men and women should concede the right of the State to regulate their religious beliefs and practices. The First Amendment informs the State that it "...shall make no law respecting...religion...." You should accept no less absolute an injunction concerning fertility and reproduction. And in its absence, uphold the principle of personal sovereignty as fundamental and inalienable.


What is needed is massive civil disobedience by women. The proper question to ask of a politician running for office is not whether he, or occasionally she, is "pro-life" or "pro-choice" but "where do you stand on sovereignty of the individual?" and "how will you act to reduce rather than increase the State's continuing and more frequent trespasses on personal sovereignty?" If politicians, standing for election and sitting in office, continue to fail to heed your views, you should, as Thoreau advised, "...withdraw your support, in both person and property..." and act as you are instructed by your personal convictions.


I believe that women have for too long been silent and the vast majority of those who have spoken up have accepted the lie that the choice offered is the only possible choice. I implore you to stand up for personal sovereignty and, as you possess it by right, refuse to choose between blue pajamas and red pajamas, for freedom not asserted is freedom lost.


And if you are not each personally sovereign, how may I hope to be?


1 To Live Deliberately. See "Singing the Living Tradition" (UUA, 1993), reading #660.

2 On Liberty (1859)