Reflections on the Role of Government in Our Personal Lives

Posted by Tulsi Gabbard on December 22nd, 2011

I'm committed to preserving a woman's right to choose, and I want to tell you how I got here.  This wasn't always my position - at one time, I was anti-choice.  I also once supported a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

But when I was 23, I went on the first of two tours of duty in the Middle East. Although I'd always heard about how most governments in the Middle East maintain excessive control of people's personal lives, it was still eye-opening to see women covered from head to toe with burqa, to meet people living in fear of being persecuted for any activity deemed inappropriate by the theocratic authorities, and to witness firsthand communities torn apart and people living in fear of being killed simply because of their religious beliefs.

In Kuwait, my assignment was to provide anti-terrorism training to the Kuwaiti National Guard. That task meant that I would have to go onto a Kuwaiti military base that no woman had ever set foot on before. I was expected to train men who had never seen a woman on the base before, never mind a woman in military uniform in a position of authority telling them what to do. As the Kuwaiti guardsmen walked down the line greeting and shaking hands with the newly arrived Americans, many of the men refused to shake my hand and walked past me as if I was invisible. They refused to even acknowledge my existence.

As the weeks and months went by, however, and the Kuwaitis saw that I knew what I was doing, that I was a person just like they were, the barriers began to disappear. I was genuinely moved when, on their graduation day, the commanding officer of the Kuwait army presented me with an award in appreciation of the training I had provided. It was very interesting to see these men go from forbidding any woman to come onto the base to actually publicly honoring a woman for her work there. It was heartening to see the veil of prejudice start to lift from the eyes of these men. But that was just one tiny victory, and unfortunately it was the exception rather than the norm. Many times during the two years I lived in the Middle East, I said to myself, "God, I would never want to live in this stifling, suffocating, oppressive society." 

Returning to Hawaii was indescribably liberating. Before I had deployed to the Middle East I had sometimes heard people refer to the "sweet taste of freedom." But it was only upon returning to Hawaii, to America, that I experienced that sweet taste. 

The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference--the reason those societies are so oppressive--is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce "morality." 

My experiences in the Middle East eventually led me to reevaluate my view regarding government's role in our personal lives and decisions. Slowly, I began to realize that the positions I had held previously regarding the issues of choice and gay marriage were rooted in the same premise held by those in power in the oppressive Middle East regimes I saw--that it is government's role to define and enforce our personal morality. 

The next year was full of challenges and soul-searching as my long-held views were challenged by my newfound recognition of the absolute importance of keeping church and state separate. 

I realized that whether or not I would choose to have an abortion ought to have no bearing on another woman's ability to do the same. And the government has absolutely no business telling either of us what we could do in that intensely personal situation. 

I realized that a constitutional amendment defining marriage - even the one I and most Hawaii voters had supported - was anathema to the personal freedom we enjoy in America. And so my positions evolved. 

I can promise Hawai'i that when I get to Washington I will fight any efforts to undermine our reproductive freedom, and I will fight for the repeal of DOMA. 

It's been a 30-year journey from my childhood to this day, and that journey has spanned continents. My time in the Middle East forever changed me. I understand how precious our freedom is, and that allowing government to dictate these most personal aspects of our lives is diametrically opposed to what makes America great: individual liberty and equal rights for everyone. 

For more information on my views on social issues, click here.

Serving Hawaiʻi