The libertarian discussion about abortion is far from settled. Many libertarians continue to believe abortion is akin to murder, and many others continue to believe it is a woman’s right because it pertains to her body. My personal guess is that the discussion will not be settled for a long time, if ever, because far from the matter being debated on logical or moral grounds that are consistent (or logical or moral at all), emotion is what drives it. Especially in the case of religious and/or conservative libertarians, their emotional involvement with the subject matter will end up overruling any logical or moral considerations that are consistent and which successfully argue for the right of a woman to have an abortion. I believe that a number of these libertarians would sooner abandon libertarian philosophy than accept that they are wrong on the matter of abortion. For the religious libertarians among them there is no doubt about this. Their belief in god is likely to trump all.
From the point of view of the ‘pro-choicers’, it is ironically the case that they would not relent because of how profoundly they believe that they themselves are the owners of their own bodies; they are not ‘murderers’ looking to kill harmless innocent babies because it is in their nature to do so. They claim the right to their own bodies and the decision-making power over it. No matter how much you agree or disagree with their position on abortion; it cannot be denied that their position on abortion comes from a conviction – true or false – that is profoundly libertarian; it is based on private property rights and self-ownership. The conviction that no person other than themselves gets to decide whether they should remain pregnant. The conviction that no one – no unborn child; no third party that is not even involved in the pregnancy – but they themselves gets to make any such decision. Would ‘pro-choicers’ abandon libertarian philosophy if abortion would be considered murder? Maybe so; and it is not difficult to see why. How can a philosophy about private property rights and self-ownership, compel a woman to sacrifice her time, energy and her physical body to the needs of another person? This is tantamount to compelling a person to sacrifice herself for the needs or requirements of other persons. Is this, in nature, really any different from forced service in the military in order to sacrifice oneself for others, or being forced to feed starving children in Africa? In both cases, lives may be dependent on other people sacrificing themselves. The very basis of one of the libertarian pro-life arguments: that the unborn are living human beings and that living human beings allegedly have a ‘right to life.’
I will attempt to make my own libertarian position on abortion clear with several arguments. These are based mostly on what I consider to be moral and logical consistency, using the Non-Aggression Principle and private property rights as the starting point.
In order to do that, I would first have to make clear what the non-aggression principle and private property rights entail the way I see them.
The Non-Aggression Principle (also commonly referred to as the NAP) is a principle that states that no aggression, that is to say no physical coercion of people, violation of their private property and no fraud may be initiated against another person. The word ‘initiated’ is extremely important, because the NAP does not forbid reaction; it does not forbid defensive action against an encroachment upon libertarian rights. If no such encroachment is taking place, there can be no reaction, no defensive action. The action would be aggressive, and therefore illegal. It should also be clear that such encroachment need not be conscious. The right to react and to take defensive action is not dependent on whether an encroachment upon a victim’s libertarian rights is made consciously, subconsciously or can even at all be avoided by the “aggressor”, because the libertarian rights of a person are not conditional to any considerations other than whether action taken by that person is aggressive (violative of another’s rights) or defensive (protecting one’s rights). It then becomes supremely important which action comes first, and can thus be classified as violative, and which comes after, and can be classified as defensive.
Private property rights means that one has the right to own property that one has obtained in a morally justifiable way, through homesteading (the mixing of labor with unowned resources) or voluntary trade. Self-ownership is included in private property, because one cannot have any rights if one does not own one’s own body and life. One cannot own any property if one does not own one’s body. Simply put, if your body belongs not to you, it must belong to someone else and thus their decision making rights over your body or life must overrule your rights to your own life and body. Regardless of how, when, why or how frequently these decisions about your life and body are made, if they are made by another you are a de facto slave. One does not have to be whipped or chained to be a slave. One simply has to be regarded the property of another person. If you own your body, then you and nobody else gets to make decisions about your body and all of its contents (which is why organ selling is considered perfectly libertarian, as well as euthanasia, prostitution and drug use). If you own your own body, then by default nobody else can lay claim to its resources for any reason, including survival. No hungry man may force you to give him food even if without it he would starve. His needs can be no legal burden on your life and body. To claim that it is, or should be, it to make a claim for socialism. And in socialism, legitimate private property does not exist.
So now that I have explained how I see the two main libertarian principles, and I have already said that with these as the starting point, I will try to employ logical and moral consistency in determining whether abortion is acceptable within libertarian philosophy.
First I will start off committing a bit of an appeal to authority, by making clear what immensely influential anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard had to say about not one but TWO things. I completely agree with them, but he is better than I am at wording these things.
The first is his opinion on voluntary slavery:
“In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced — for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement. The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.”
It should be clear from this that no decision a person may make at any one point, can justify being considered, or being treated as a ‘slave’ at a later point. In other words, self-ownership cannot be forfeited in the sense that it can be withheld from someone against their will, unless as the result of aggression.
The second is his opinion on abortion:
“If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being’s body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.”
For a New Liberty (ch. Personal Liberty) – Murray Rothbard
Although I reached my conclusions about abortion independent of Rothbard, I do find the words he uses to be so clear as to merit including them here. I do not myself believe that people’s opinions should be given more value because of who those people are, but some people do believe that. So to those people I say, let it be clear what Rothbard’s opinions were before I present my own as a completely unknown libertarian.
Now onto my own arguments, in my own words.
Anti-abortion libertarians are against abortion because they consider it a violation of the NAP at best and murder at worst. They consider it a form a brutal aggression. But in order for it to be aggression, it cannot in any way be seen as a defensive action against the encroachment of a person’s libertarian rights, such as an invasion against a person’s private property, self-ownership or the right to be left in peace. So if abortion can be seen, logically and/or morally, as a defensive action against such an encroachment, the whole libertarian argument for abortion as an act of aggression falls down. After all, libertarianism does not forbid violence per se; it only forbids initiatory violence.
Rothbard in the quote I used above talked about voluntary slavery and how it cannot be possible in a libertarian society. The word ‘slavery’ in the quote above is important because I consider a pregnant woman, who would not be allowed by external parties to commit an abortion, to be a slave.
In order to be considered a slave, a person does not own one’s own body, i.e. the person has had his/her self-ownership taken away. If a pregnant woman cannot own her own body, she therefore must be a slave. Therefore, an unwanted pregnancy that is forced upon a woman is a form of slavery. The moment a libertarian argues that a pregnant woman should either be forced to remain pregnant, or be punished after the fact if she has an abortion, is the moment that libertarian argues that she herself is not the sole owner of her body and all within it. Such a pregnant woman would be a slave in two ways: she would be a slave to the unborn child, and she would be a slave to the anti-abortion community that would either force her to remain pregnant, or would punish her for the act of abortion.
But someone may object here: how can a pregnant woman ever be considered a slave to the unborn child?
She is a slave to the needs of the unborn child within her. The fetus is inside of her; so if she cannot remove it, then she cannot do with her own body – her own private property – as she sees fit. If private property rights are conditional upon another person’s needs, private property rights would be as much a sham as they are now in the current state of affairs.
Who’s rights are supreme?
Whereas the woman can live her life independently (she can live her life without forcing anyone else to see to her needs), the unborn child cannot. The unborn child by default is dependent on the host mother; it must “parasitically” use the mother’s body – its resources – for survival. A fetus cannot live without using someone else’s body to take resources from, therefore its very life basically violates the NAP against a pregnant woman, the moment this woman no longer desires the pregnancy. In a certain sense, it is no different than a homeless man, or starving man, being allowed to parasitically live of another person against that person’s will because otherwise the man may starve.
From the libertarian perspective, the legitimate question is: where does the NAP give a completely dependent person the right to live off of someone else’s body, life or the fruits of his/her labor?
Where does a fetus get the right to live off the host mother in order to survive? Living off another’s body or its resources can only be a “positive” right (which within libertarian philosophy is not a right at all, but a violation of rights), because the fetus’ ‘right to life’ would come at the expense of the mother’s rights to her own body, such as the right not to carry an unwanted child inside her body – inside her private property.
As a result of this, an abortion cannot be a violation of the NAP, because no person can lay claim on another person’s body and its resources, and thereby claim a right to be defended in any way against removal from someone else’s premises. The moment a pregnancy is unwanted, the unborn child loses its rights to remain on the premises and use its resources. The tragic thing, obviously, is that an unborn child cannot simply opt to leave the premises. The only option, unfortunately, is an abortion. Walter Block has written essays on the possible exception to this being removed alive when such is possible; he calls this ‘evictionism.’ It basically boils down to the idea that if and when an unborn child can be removed from a woman’s body alive, the mother no longer has a right to an abortion because there is now a non-fatal alternative that simultaneously respects the woman’s right to her body.
Some pro-life libertarians will claim that a pregnancy is like inviting a house guest and then suddenly uninviting him. But this analogy is false. A pregnancy lasts around 9 months; it is much easier having a house guest for a day before getting sick of him and sending him out the door, than it is having to be a pregnant woman for 9 months whilst not wanting the carry the child any longer. Other major differences are of course that a pregnancy is a much larger burden physically in terms of potential pain; in terms of potential health issues; in terms of not being able to do the same activities one usually does; in likely not being hired (or kept employed) for a job if the woman is even capable of doing this job to begin with. A pregnancy may have a negative emotional and psychological impact on her such as mood swings at best and depression at worst. And then there are the potential health-hazards, not to mention the pain during the actual delivery. In other words, the negatives for the pregnant mother are much, much larger than they would be for someone simply tiring of a house guest.
And besides, private property is private property. Unless a clear cut contract has been drawn up somehow that all parties involved have voluntarily agreed to, no invitation gives any guest a right to remain on someone else’s premises longer than they are wanted. An invitation itself does not logically lead to some right to live at the expense of another’s rights. This would be a total non sequitur. An invitation is just that: an invitation. Not a guarantee to safety.
The many “rights” of unborn children
Another problem is that a supposed NAP-governed ‘right’ of the unborn would render the pregnant mother a slave in even more ways than just one or two. After all, do sovereign persons not have the right not to be exposed to potential life threatening situations? If abortion cannot be permitted because it is lethal, then should other behaviors by the pregnant woman that are potentially hazardous not also be banned? Would an unborn child not have a right not to be exposed to drugs, alcohol or cigarette smoke without its express permission? Would it not have a right not to be taken somewhere where there is risk of major injury? Should, in other words, the pregnant woman not be disallowed from smoking, drinking, doing drugs, or engaging in any other behavior that is potentially hazardous to the health of the unborn child? Crack babies can be the result of pregnant women doing crack. But wouldn’t the NAP lead to the conclusion that it is wrong to turn an unborn child into a crack addict without its express approval? So wouldn’t unborn children having rights at the expense of pregnant woman lead to the unborn having many more rights than merely not being aborted? Should the pregnant woman not be disallowed from any activity at all that may endanger the health of the unborn child? Where is the argument that – relative to the supposed rights of the unborn child – a pregnant woman has certain rights to her own body at a certain specific, arbitrary point?
Is the logical conclusion of all this not, that a pregnant woman would have no rights at all if such rights would, in any possible way, provide a risk to the health of the unborn child? One can certainly not say that the pregnant woman would not be to blame in these examples, because she cannot very well leave the unborn child behind in some safe place; she has to take it with her wherever she goes, whatever she does. And so whatever she does will likely have an effect on the unborn child.
So the logical conclusion can only be, that if the unborn child has rights derived from the NAP, it must have them all. And where the unborn child has them, the woman’s must take a back seat wherever they conflict. How can it not be obvious then, that such rights of the unborn child have a ‘positive’ nature? That these rights can only exist at the expense of the rights of the pregnant mother? That the pregnant mother must indeed be rendered a slave to the needs and requirements of another person?
To be continued…