Freedom To vs. Freedom From

Recent news suggesting that the US Supreme Court is about to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that nationally legalized abortion – either long-feared or long-awaited, depending on one’s beliefs – has brought to mind Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (and the Hulu TV series that started airing in 2017). In Atwood’s novel, demographic fears have created a totalitarian America where the few women who are fertile are forced to bear children for others. Their rights are severely restricted, yet their limited world is presented as its own kind of “freedom.”

There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

“Freedom to” represents positive liberty: freedom to speak, freedom to work, freedom to choose. But that could also mean freedom to fail or freedom to suffer. Freedom from is more protective: freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from doubt. But that could also mean freedom from opportunity and choice, in some sense freedom from freedom!

Given the horrific world described by Atwood, liberals and progressives might assume that “freedom to” is automatically better than “freedom from.” However, if one maps out the ideas politically, “freedom to” fits most naturally with libertarians, while the paternalism of “freedom from” could be expressed either as a socialist safety net OR an authoritarian theocracy. My freedom to speak might infringe on your freedom from being offended, and vice versa. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included both:

…the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

The concept of “freedom to” and “freedom from” predates both Atwood and the UN. Humanist psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm described both in Escape from Freedom (1941), which attempted to explain the rise of Nazism. The psychological uncertainty, social instability and paralysis created by too much “freedom to” is addressed by authoritarians promising “freedom from.” We also recognize, as did George Orwell’s 1984 that the same totalitarian restriction on freedom could come from right-wing fascism or left-wing Soviet Communism. Opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, same results: plenty of “freedom from,” very little “freedom to.”

The potential loss of women’s “freedom to” choose their reproductive lives, and follow-up implications that might affect contraception, the LGBT and others, is an expression of this ongoing struggle between these different kinds of freedom. Aspirational American theocrats would create a world of “freedom from” that hearkens back to earlier decades (or centuries!) of social restriction and forced conformity, a world-view all to often played out on women’s bodies and with women’s rights. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and its harsh results for women’s freedoms was part of the background to The Handmaid’s Tale; the strict social control of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects demands female modesty with comparable fervor, and it also provides a world of “freedom from” choice and uncertainty.

Given the alternatives, I’ll take the uncertainties, and liberties, of “freedom to.”


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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