Libertarianism and Abortion

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My recent article “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives” elicited a huge response – most of it positive. Some libertarians, however, were quite annoyed because I expressed my opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

I promised my critics that I responded to (I didn’t respond to profanity-laden missives or to statements like: “A libertarian is really a fascist SOB if he is pro-life.”) that I would write about these two subjects individually, and sooner rather than later. I addressed the subject of same-sex marriage in an article published on June 8. There I argued that there is no libertarian position on same-sex marriage. I address here the subject of libertarianism and abortion.

Other than brief mentions in my article “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives” and in a couple of articles about Ron Paul’s views on the matter, I have only written at length about abortion in the article “Is Ron Paul Wrong on Abortion?” I have actually written more that was critical of the pro-life movement than I have about abortion: I defended Ron Paul against the attacks of pro-lifers and took them to task for their hypocrisy and warmongering.

What I recently said about abortion in my article “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives” that ruffled the feathers of some libertarians was this:

I have argued that because the non-aggression axiom is central to libertarianism, and because force is justified only in self-defense, and because it is wrong to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property, and because killing is the ultimate form of aggression that, to be consistent, libertarians should be opposed to abortion.

The link I gave was to my article “Is Ron Paul Wrong on Abortion?” in which I said these things:

Why should it be considered libertarian to kill a baby in the womb or unlibertarian to oppose such killing? And even worse, why would a libertarian say that it was unlibertarian to advocate killing foreigners in an aggressive war but not non-libertarian to kill a baby in the womb?

Killing someone is the ultimate form of aggression. Especially a helpless, defenseless fetus that is only guilty of suddenly waking up in a womb. The fetus certainly had no control over being a parasite, aggressing against a woman, invading a woman’s body, or adding unwanted pounds to his host – but its mother certainly did. If an unborn child is not entitled to protection of life, then to be consistent, libertarians should have no problem with the abortion of a fetus from one month old to nine months old. The nine-month old fetus is no more viable than the one-month old one. In fact, a one-month old baby has the same degree of viability. I hate to be so crude, but leave all three of them unattended on a table in a hospital and see what happens.

Why should it be considered libertarian to kill a baby in the womb or unlibertarian to oppose such killing? This has nothing to do with giving the government greater control over a woman’s body; it has everything to do with preventing aggression and protecting innocent life.

If Roe v. Wade were overturned and abortion laws were once again made the provision of the states, there would be nothing unlibertarian about supporting state laws making abortion a crime just as laws against murder, manslaughter, and wrongful death are considered legitimate actions of the states.

I’m not sure who bothered to click the link and read what I had previously written about abortion, but doing so would have answered some of the questions that I was asked.

I base my statements about abortion on the libertarian non-aggression principle, which I believe is also a biblical principle, or else I wouldn’t hold to it.

According to the late Murray Rothbard here and here:

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another.

And according to Rothbard’s disciple Walter Block here and here:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. It [is] concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation.

The libertarian position on anything is based on the question of, Does it violate the non aggression principle (NAP) about initiating or threatening physical violence. If so, the libertarian position is that it should be illegal, and punished by the full force of the law. If not, the libertarian position is that it should be legal, and it would be unjustified to use physical violence against the person who engages in that act.

Because a child in the womb is helpless, not initiating violence, not committing aggression, and not there of its own accord, I believe that, to be consistent, libertarians should not only be opposed to abortion, but in favor of making it a criminal act just like murder, rape, kidnapping, theft, assault, and robbery would be in any libertarian society based on the non-aggression principle.

Now, what sort of penalty should be imposed, how criminality would be determined, how to divide culpability between the woman and her doctor, how to handle situations where pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, how to handle situations where parents force their pregnant teenage daughter to get an abortion, how far along the pregnancy has to be, etc., etc., etc. are things that would have to be determined that I don’t profess to have precise answers to. But, aside from premeditated, witnessed, proven-beyond-a-doubt first degree murder, neither do I have precise answers as to what the penalty should be for manslaughter, rape, kidnapping, theft, assault, or robbery.

I reproduce below relevant portions of interaction regarding the subject of abortion that I had with five “pro-choice” libertarians. I only gave them brief responses because I knew from their comments and questions that it would be much better for all interested parties if I took the time to write something much more in depth than an e-mail. I appreciate them taking the time to write and hope they are reading. Judging from the whole of what they wrote to me, I don’t expect to change their minds. Nevertheless, in addition to what I have said above regarding libertarianism and abortion, I offer my comments below.

Try as I might, I can’t reconcile a position favoring small, non-intrusive government, with support for the criminalization of abortion, which necessarily involves the government sticking its nose into doctors’ examining rooms, and one could say, into the orifices of any woman being examined there.

It cannot be denied that pregnancy is inherently dangerous, therefore any abortion can always be justified as defensive, not initiated force. It is an unpleasant fact that we all start our lives as parasites, and a potential mother has no more obligation to support such a parasite in her body than the body politic has to support “welfare parasites.”

I would kindly ask that you either: 1) Don’t tell people that you’re a libertarian if you’re going to defend a “pro-life” position, or 2) Don’t tell people you’re pro-life if you’re going to defend a libertarian position.

People like you are “spoiling the brand name,” and if folks hear you advocate both libertarianism and anti-abortionism, it may reinforce their false belief that we are far-right wingers.

It occurs to me that I don’t remember you saying in your article or your reply that you favor making abortion illegal. If what you mean when you call yourself a pro-life libertarian is that you would use peaceful persuasion to convince women not to get abortions, then any disagreement I may have thought we had was all in my head. If, however, my original assumption was correct, then I should point out that the right to life does not include the right to live at the expense of another. If it does, then government wealth redistribution is OK, right? Making abortion illegal again would turn the gift of life into just another entitlement coerced by government force.

Also, I am given to understand that quite often a fertilized egg fails to implant in the lining of the uterus and is expelled during menstruation, making God, if you will, perhaps the biggest performer of abortions.

I would like to someday hear from the “Pro-lifers” how we would deal with a pregnant woman that does not want to carry her unborn fetus to the full term and give birth to a child. What does a “libertarian” society do with her? What does a “libertarian” society do with her…legally?

Tell us how to be libertarians and advocate criminal activity to abortion. Tell us what we SHOULD DO legally when a woman chooses to abort. Is it OK to put her in a straitjacket in a padded cell and force feed her to keep her and her fetus healthy?

How should the law deal with an unwanted pregnancy. And by the way to your question “Should abortion be legal at anytime before the child is born?” My answer is yes. You and I may not like the choice someone makes but as long as we have the “right to life” I can’t see any other meaning to that than the right to our own life. The woman makes the choice and will have to live with it her entire life.

The bureaucratic apparatus that would be required to actually prevent and or punish even a fraction of abortions would be overarching, imposing, and by necessity invade the privacy of all women.

It would be a TSA of the vagina. Not a pleasant thought, at least not to me.

Or, less poetically, it would be but another tentacle of the already metastasized and gut-wrenchingly corrupt “justice” system that has – with little effect on crime – built a gulag system filled with more hopeless convicts than any other time in history or place in the world. And you’d like to add to this? Really? Should we not be focused on limiting, or better yet removing, state power?

Such an apparatus would necessarily impose force and coercion, and as such be the antithesis of “libertarian” (as you define it by NAP.) Frankly, I think this is why so many “conservative” politicians slobber over the issue, it would allow them more justification to spend more money on prisons and police while engendering a tumescent response from their latent sadism.

It really doesn’t matter if abortion itself is “libertarian” or not, any attempt to stop it would require un-libertarian means. Just as there can never really be a libertarian war, since all war harms the innocent.

I personally take the Rothbardian position that while regrettable that the fetus cannot live outside the mother’s womb, it is slavery to force a woman to carry an unwanted child to term.

A woman’s right to have an abortion has nothing to do with a woman’s “right to privacy” and everything to do with her right of self ownership. You wouldn’t allow anyone to forcibly insert any object into your body without your consent. By the same token, it would be well within your rights to remove an object consensually inserted into your body at any time. This is the most basic application of your inalienable right of self ownership.

I see perhaps nine things that I need to address.

First, opposition to abortion is not an exclusively far-right wing or conservative position. This was the whole point of my original article, “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?” Libertarians who advocate “anti-abortionism” shouldn’t abandon their position so they won’t be mistaken for conservatives anymore than they should abandon their advocacy of lower taxes, the free market, and other things that liberals associate with the right wing. And if a libertarians advocate “pro-abortionism,” won’t it reinforce the false belief that libertarians are far left-wingers?

Second, although it is true that “often a fertilized egg fails to implant in the lining of the uterus and is expelled during menstruation,” this doesn’t necessarily make God the “biggest performer of abortions.” Just because God allows something to happen doesn’t mean he’s the cause of it. Otherwise he would be responsible for all abortions. God “giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25) and “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). As the author of life, God can take life anytime he chooses in any manner he chooses.

Third, if an act violates the non-aggression principle, as I believe abortion does, then I think it inherently means that it should be punished in some way. Thus, to be consistent, pro-life libertarians should also support the criminalization of abortion just like they support the criminalization of other acts of aggression like murder and robbery. The fact that there may be no living victim to seek restitution and that all those who had knowledge of the victim (woman, boyfriend, doctor, nurse) preferred him dead is irrelevant just like it is in the case of the murder of someone who is already out of the womb.

Fourth, that the U.S. has a corrupt criminal justice system and a gulag filled with hopeless convicts there is no doubt. But abortion is not a victimless crime like drug use that should just be ignored. And just because the system is bad doesn’t mean that genuine acts of aggression should go unpunished. I am in favor of adding to prison anyone guilty of real crimes (assuming that prison should be the punishment) and removing from prison anyone not guilty of real crimes. And I should also add that abortion should not be a federal crime anymore than murder, rape, or robbery should be federal crimes. Most federal crimes (the ones that are really crimes, not the ones like taking unlicensed dentures across state lines) should not be federal crimes at all.

Fifth, criminalizing abortion would not lead to a greater police state that increases the bureaucratic apparatus and violates privacy. The fact is, we already have a police state, and it’s not because murder, robbery, and other real crimes are prosecuted. If abortion were illegal, it would no more entail the government sticking its nose in doctors’ offices and women’s wombs than murder being illegal means that the government stations agents in every home, bar, and alley waiting for a murder to take place.

Sixth, no pro-life libertarian believes in aggression to prevent possible or potential aggression. It would therefore not be okay to enslave a pregnant woman by forcing her “to carry an unwanted child to term” or put her “in a straitjacket in a padded cell and force feed her to keep her and her fetus healthy.” It would not be permissible to use “un-libertarian means” to stop abortion. It’s not the job of the government – whatever form it appears in – to prevent crime. A criminal act is not a criminal act until it is committed. Preventing abortion would be no different than preventing other crimes. The way to stop abortion is by persuading pregnant women to not undergo abortions or educating them sufficiently in the pro-life position before they get pregnant so they won’t consider abortion an option should they get pregnant. People so inclined to kill, rape, or rob should be persuaded not to kill, rape, or rob or educated to the extent that they would never be so inclined.

Seventh, although a fetus is a parasite in the sense that it lives inside, is dependent upon, and obtains nutriments from a host, I hasten to point out that a newborn baby is totally dependent upon someone to feed and take care of it as well. Even a six-month-old baby left to itself will soon die. Is it okay to just throw parasitical children in the trash with aborted babies? A child in the womb a week before birth is just as much a parasite as a child in the womb six months before birth. Are libertarians who advocate abortion on demand ready to allow the procedure at any time before birth in the name of consistency? And what about the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortion?

Eighth, certainly it is equally true that no object should be forcibly inserted into one’s body and that one would be well within his rights to remove, not only an object inserted without consent, but any object consensually inserted. But we are talking about a child here, not a choice. When a woman engages in an activity the natural consequence of which is pregnancy, she is obligating herself to bring to term a completely separate individual with uniquely different DNA that didn’t choose to “invade” her body or “aggress” against her. To be consistent, pro-choice libertarians should limit their argument here to pregnancy in the case of rape, a very rare occurrence. But even in the case of pregnancy via rape, it is the result of the aggression of someone else that the woman is pregnant, not the child which has, through no fault of its own, been inserted into the woman’s body. If someone owned a ship and discovered a child on board that someone had stowed away, would he be well within his rights to throw the child overboard for being a trespasser? Should he not rather give the child up safely at the end of his voyage?

And finally, based on everything I have said thus far, it should be obvious that if a pregnant woman doesn’t want to keep her baby – for whatever reason – then I see no other alternative for her than to have her baby and then give it up for adoption. If money is an issue, there are pro-life organizations that will care for women during their pregnancy. But I think pro-lifers have dropped the ball here. If pro-lifers would pay women with unwanted pregnancies to not abort their child, carry it to term, and give it up for adoption, they would do more to prevent abortions than they are doing now. But would not some women get pregnant just for the cash? Certainly, but there have always been and always will be women that will do unusual things for money. Even now some women have more children just to get increased welfare benefits. But even if a small percentage of women became baby factories because they got paid to carry babies to term, it would still be better than having a million abortions every year like occurs now in the United States. And since I mentioned adoption, let me also say that the state should get completely out of the adoption business and leave it entirely up to the free market.

I have not undertaken here a systematic defense of the libertarian pro-life position. I have merely addressed the concerns of those who wrote me.

One of the people who wrote me said that libertarians are pro-choice on everything. I see nothing libertarian about a woman choosing to kill her unborn child for getting in the way of her lifestyle.

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