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The Fifth Freedom

DeWitt Cheng

In 1941, as the United States watched the fascist threat grow in Europe and Asia, President Roosevelt enunciated in his anti-isolationist State of the Union Address his list of Four Freedoms, to be granted to “everyone in the world”: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. He defended his vision from political opponents who saw it as utopian (and undoubtedly socialistic): “That is no vision of a distant millennium … It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation … That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” 

Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Sur, “For Freedoms,” 2018, color photographs

A reinterpretation of Norman Rockwell's iconic illustration “Freedom of Worship” Rockwell's classic illustrations of the "Four Freedoms," have been given a photographic update by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur. The project is part of a campaign by the arts organization For Freedoms and just one of dozens of different versions of the image.


FDR’s vision did not come to pass, unfortunately, as America flexed its imperialist and capitalist muscles after the war, dominating the globe for decades and even enjoying a brief, illusory idyll of total triumph after the fall of the East Bloc and USSR from 1989 to 1991. Sadly, the Four Freedoms remain a dream in much of the world. Even in the world’s first democracy they are under attack from the same plutocrat “malefactors of great wealth” who jeered Roosevelt and his successors. Now, as then, the Final Battle between Good and Evil is an eschatological fantasy employed by the autocrat classes to rouse the uninformed masses to vote against their own interests. Over the course of the 2016, 2020, and in the upcoming November 2022 midterms, it is now widely acknowledged, the risks for the country have become existential. The forces of democracy and righteousness are not the MAGA evangelical orcs (they are the threat), but those who resist that creeping global evil.


Paula Rego, “Abortion Series triptych,” 1998, pastel on paper mounted on

aluminum, each panel 43 1/4 x 39 3/8”. Courtesy  Marlborough Fine Art, New York

The recent Dobbs decision, removing the Constitutional right of American women to obtain safe birth control, has opened the eyes of many mainstream voters who had fallen under the spell of the faux-populist demagogue. The sudden removal of this fundamental right to bodily autonomy for women was characterized by GOP evangelicals as devolving the decisions on birth control from women, their families, and their doctors onto state legislatures, supposedly the true representatives and arbiters of public morality. But in fact, conservative ideologues installed sub rosa over the course of four decades seek to impose a theological belief on millions who simply do not subscribe to that belief. (The three most recent SCOTUS judges may be considered merely the latest, highest placed, best group of liars.) Their specious argument, so reminiscent of decisions on slavery that led to the Civil War, was shown to be but a polemical stalking horse, when Senator Lindsey Graham, apparently having written off moderate voters, decided to galvanize the rabid Trump base by proposing a federal prohibition on abortion in all cases after fifteen weeks. 


Hanna Negel, “Fear,” 1931, feather, ink, watercolor, gouache

The sexist dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale” didn’t come into being in 1985, as predicted in Margaret Atwood’s novel; the Reagan Revolution took another four decades of sustained effort to inaugurate the neo-medieval Gilead. Who will suffer the most? The young, the poor, and the nonwhite will be unable to obtain medical care in red states, and will be unable to afford travel to blue states. Should the Graham program ever be approved in a second Trump administration or beyond, other countries may well become havens for medical immigrants — for those of means, at least. Meanwhile, fanatics threaten women’s clinics, nurses, doctors, and staffers. Even immigrants seeking asylum from left-wing totalitarian countries such as Venezuela are humiliated for the scornful amusement of the likes of Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, who seek to be the Trumps of the next generation.


The United States is on the verge of renouncing democracy and modernity, values that it once championed — at least officially. Are we ready to consign our wives, girlfriends, daughters and nieces to the fatal coat hanger and traditional folk medicine? A quick search of historical methods of birth control yields the following remedies: acacia gum, honey, sodium bicarbonate, crocodile dung, silphium (an African fennel), willow, date palm, pomegranate, pennyroyal, artemisia, myrrh, rue, Queen Anne’s Lace, cedar oil, copper salt, elephant dung, cabbage, pitch, palm leaf, red chalk, ghee, rock salt, lily root, and silkworm gut.

This bizarre-sounding pharmacopeia may have been good enough in centuries and millennia past — indeed some of the ingredients are still in use and may offer lessons for modern medicine — but to staunch centuries of medical progress because of the dictates of misogynistic patriarchies is absurd and suicidal. 


The Right to Reproductive Health Care should be FDR’s Fifth Freedom. (Actually, the Right to Health Care should be, but for the purposes of motivating midterm voters, we’ll stick with reproductive health.) Vote every Republican out of office in November, just as the GOP has expelled every pro-democracy anti-Trumper. Remember Rusty Bowers, the Arizona Trump loyalist who refused to go along with The Big Lie and as a result was hounded with threats by the MAGA mob before losing his seat in the primary. Consider Hanna Negel’s image, “Fear” (1931), protesting the criminalization of abortion in Section 218 of Germany’s Criminal Code. Only we can save the future from backsliding into loveless, barbarous stupidity; or you can love Big Brother.

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