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Liberty Lessons from the Past

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has an old story that she likes to tell about her days as Speaker of the House: My chair was getting crowded, it begins. She was at her first White House meeting as the first woman Speaker when she found Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth, among others, all sitting in her chair. I could hear them say: 'At last we have a seat at the table.' And then they were gone.

It's too bad Anthony wasn't able to stick around long enough to have a conversation about the trajectory of modern feminism and Pelosi's role as a leading advocate of legal abortion. Anthony and other suffragettes, after all, recognized the rights of the vulnerable unborn as clearly as they did their own rights as women.

At about the same time as there was buzz about Pelosi's sisterhood seance, President Obama was in Denver, being introduced by Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law activist who has become the poster gal for the controversial health-care mandate. Obama made the point, that this mandate is both equivalent to and at the core of women's health, but insisted that he had reached a reasonable compromise with Catholic schools and hospitals. The truth of the matter is quite different, however. Even the University of Notre Dame, which once honored Obama, is now suing him to protect its religious rights, and a former key ally, Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, is rejecting administration claims that an acceptable accommodation has been drawn up.

The primary women's health claim that is at the heart of this drive -- in which managing fertility has become a preventative service as part of Obamacare's regulatory scheme -- is one that would be foreign to the women who crowded Pelosi's chair.

Let's look at Charlotte Lozier, a 19-century physician whose life Chuck Donovan is currently honoring, having just established the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an educational outgrowth of the pro-life political group the Susan B. Anthony List.

Lozier secured a medical degree, against the staunch resistance of the scientific establishment of her day, served as a vice president of the National Working Women's Association, bore three children of her own, stood for women's suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony and other contemporaries, and was profoundly pro-life, is how Donovan makes the introduction. Lozier viewed abortion as an assault on the healing profession and clearly did not see it as a pathway to women's equality or freedom, Donovan explains.

Dr. Lozier, Donovan, emphasizes, fought against a tide that told her she could not be a mother and pro-life feminist and still win a degree in medicine. We have something of the opposite problem now; we are told ... that women cannot realize their ambitions in the world of work without having abortion available. Charlotte Lozier and her allies rejected that idea -- in an era where women's options for dealing with sexual behavior, pregnancy and career opportunities were far narrower than they are now.

Donovan cautions against the perils of leaving these issues entirely to politics. The goal must be to make progress no matter who is in power. If consciences are dulled, we have to sharpen the instruments we're poking with. But consciences are not political property.

Of course, this necessitates well-formed consciences in the first place, in order to address these issues with moral honesty and scientific truth.

Which brings us right back to the presidential election this year, which Obama has made a battle over conscience rights, forcing a fight over the definition of religious liberty.

Has this become a fundamental American value? Insisting that women are only free when we've all been forced to embrace abortion, sterilization, and contraception as basic health care? A value so fundamental that religious liberty can be cast aside, redefined, and subject to punitive fines?

Pelosi's spiritual visitors can offer some guidance here, if we're up for a longer reflection. And one trailblazing doctor in particular, who was known to demonstrate as much compassion as conviction in her work to protect the lives of children and mothers and the integrity of her medical profession, may have a winning prescription. Free& contraception propaganda obscures what we really face today: choices about matters of basic freedom, cultural conscience, and the very soul of our nation.

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