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Whose Life Is It?

By George McGovern | From Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(Editor's note: What follows is a reprint of an article that ran on the op-ed page of The New York Times on Aug. 14, 1997. © 1997, The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.)


Freedom of choice in our everyday lives is a treasured right in America.

That freedom should, of course, be balanced with a sense of responsibility for our personal well-being and that of others.

Two high-profile lawsuits that hinged on the issue of choice were decided in early May. In the first case, a Florida jury decided that the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company did not have to pay damages to the family of Jean Connor, who died of lung cancer at 49 after smoking for 34 years.

A day later, a North Carolina man, Thomas Richard Jones, was given a life sentence for killing two people while driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Connor chose to smoke. Millions of Americans have quit smoking, and Connor admitted in a videotape made during the last stages of her illness that she could have quit puffing had she cared enough.

I know too well the ravages of alcoholism, having lost my daughter to her addiction. But I also know that people are able to make choices. In the case of Jones, he was aware of the lethal effect of combining prescription drugs with alcohol.

One can argue that as an alcoholic, Jones had a disease and therefore had no choice but to drink. But he had a choice to take public or other transportation. Instead he decided to drive while drunk, and now has to accept the consequences.

Despite the death of my daughter, I still appreciate the differences between use and abuse. I still enjoy a glass of wine with friends. I also would not have denied Connor her cigarettes. Nor do I condemn the current trend in cigars.

As the former owner of a Connecticut inn, I always allowed my adult guests wide latitude in their habits. Scotch was available at dinner, and there were convenient designated areas for smokers.

Today, however, there are those who would deny others the choice to eat meat, wear fur, drink coffee or simply eat extra-large portions of food, to give a few examples. Wearing perfume in public raises the ire of certain organized interest groups.

While on any day each of us may identify with the restrictive nature of a given campaign, there is a much larger issue here. Where do we draw the line on dictating to each other? How many of these battles can we stand? Whose values should prevail?

Life in America has remained relatively peaceful compared with that in other societies. But we are becoming less tolerant and more mean-spirited in everyday social interactions. We have become less forgiving. Suing institutions as well as each other for perceived harms has become a ruinous sport.

It was reported in June that a 61-year-old man, Norman Mayo, is suing Safeway and the Washington State dairy industry for failing to warn about the dangers of drinking whole milk. A self-described "milk-aholic," Mayo wants warning labels on all milk cartons to protect others. Where does this end?

Some issues, like the proper treatment of animals, deserve public debate. But that doesn't mean activists should assault people who wear furs, destroy animal research laboratories or firebomb restaurants that serve meat. These actions transform differences of opinion into dangerous intolerance and intimidation.

On other issues, such as gambling, the messages can be confusing. Is casino gambling a moralistic issue when state lotteries and horse racing are socially acceptable? Is the stock market different, or is it just a harder game to understand?

New attempts to regulate behavior are coming from both the right and the left, depending only on the cause. But there are those of us who don't want the tyranny of the majority (or the outspoken minority) to stop us from leading our lives in ways that have little impact on others.

While the choices we make may be foolish or self-destructive-bungee jumping is my favorite example of insanity-there is still the overriding principle that we cannot allow the micromanaging of each other's lives.

When is the thrill too risky? How many drinks are too many? When is secondhand smoke too thick? All of these questions need to be considered with some measure of tolerance for the choices of others.

We are witnessing a new age in this country: the fragmentation of society along lines that do not break on typical demographics such as race, age or income. These new divisions are based on paternalism-what we believe is best for each other.

The beauty of choice is that it allows some people to drive a high-powered car to dinner, allows others to have a drink with dinner and allows a cigarette to be smoked after dinner. In all cases, we require individuals to make certain their behavior does not have an impact on others. To the degree that it does, they will be held responsible for their choices.

But when we no longer allow these choices, both civility and common sense will have been diminished.

George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, is the author of Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.