HISTORY OF PRO-CHOICE LIBERTARIANS
Formed in 1971, the United States Libertarian Party has supported women’s right to abortion since its founding. Its platform included detailed reproductive and abortion rights planks from 1982 until 2008 and a brief statement of support for keeping the government out of the issue since that time. (See the L.P. Platform page for actual language of planks through the years.)
Pro-Choice Libertarians was started in 1987 after Representative Ron Paul announced he was running for the nomination to be the Libertarian Party’s 1988 presidential candidate.
Paul was controversial because he told libertarians he believed life had to be protected after viability and that the states should decide on law. However, Paul’s writings proved he actually believed viability began at conception and he supported a federal constitutional amendment outlawing all abortion from conception. Enforcement would be left to the states. It was obvious he and his supporters would try, at the very least, to remove the Libertarian Party’s pro-choice platform.
Angry pro-choice libertarians invited American Indian activist Russell Means to run for the nomination. And a few of us started Pro-Choice Libertarians. We produced literature and press releases, which doubtless influenced the two headlines above in the days before the 1987 presidential nominating convention in Seattle. We had a table and members and supporters lobbied to keep the platform from being changed.
Pro-choice libertarians also demanded and got from Ron Paul a promise he would not make abortion a major issue of his campaign. After he won the nomination and during his 1998 Presidential campaign, we monitored all news clippings of his media interviews and speeches. We found only a couple where Ron Paul was quoted as raising the issue.
In 1989 pro-choice libertarians in the Washington, DC area were involved in the massive November 12, 1989 “March for Women’s Lives”. In the early 1990s some of us were involved in “clinic defense” where we would stand outside women’s health and abortion clinics, getting between abortion prohibitionist fanatics and women seeking to obtain legal medical advice and procedures.
This 1989 Women’s March photograph including pro-choice libertarians has become iconic in the movement.
However, abortion prohibitionists brought into the party by Ron Paul and “moderates” and “reformists” trying to appeal to Republicans to join the party began years of bitter debates and assaults on the Libertarian Party “Women’s Rights and Abortion” plank. Various polls have indicated that 2/3 of libertarians – pro-life and pro-choice – want to keep the government out of the issue. Nevertheless opportunists eager to bring in more former Republicans and a younger generation of individuals who learned their libertarianism from Ron Paul in the Republican Party continue to challenge party member’s support for abortion rights.
In 1998 Pro-Choice Libertarians organizer Carol Moore, who had been active for years in online discussions of the issue, ran for secretary of the Libertarian National Committee at the 1998 national convention in Arlington, Virginia. She was protesting the current secretary’s past attempts to remove the abortion issue from the platform. (Abortion language had remained unchanged in the platform that year, despite efforts to gut it.) He was her opponent and so unpopular that the voting went to three ballots before he won again! (Note that Moore also called for the party to demand impeachment of Bill Clinton for the massacre of the Branch Davidians. The resolution was brought to the floor and passed and the LP received worldwide media coverage of its demand.)
In 2002 there again were efforts to change the platform at the Indianapolis convention. Pro-Choice Libertarians, now organized online with a website and yahoo discussion group, distributed a letter at the 2002 national Libertarian Party convention in Indianapolis supporting the platform plank. It was signed by some leading libertarians. Pro-Choicers were active at the convention, attending the platform committee and distributing literature and buttons. As Carol Moore reported in Liberty Magazine, during Platform Committee discussions one member arguing to keep the current platform quoted from the Pro-Choice Libertarians leaflet requesting the LP do just that. However, abortion prohibitionists and “moderates” had a new plan, which they promoted widely – essentially gutting the platform. (“Don’t gun the platform” buttons were popular during a couple conventions.) They wanted to reduce the number of planks and make each plank only two or three sentences so that nothing would bore or offend potential members. Their tactic: vote against every plank in the radical Libertarian Party platform and thereby abolish it, and then start from scratch!
In this attack on the whole platform, the Women’s Rights plank passed by only 53%. 73% was the highest percentage garnered by any plank.
That year Carol Moore again ran against that same national secretary, who again had been unsuccessful in changing the platform. She protested the assaults on the plank, as well as his pro-military interventionist positions. He beat her on the first ballot this time.
The 2004 Libertarian Party presidential nominating convention in Atlanta was the beginning of the most serious attack on the platform and the “Women’s Rights and Abortion” plank, though most of us would not realize it until 2008. “Moderates” cleverly produced a plank that included an “Executive Summary” listing every plank with a short summary. They still encouraged their allies to vote down the whole platform.
During convention proceedings 75% of delegates voted to retain the abortion plank. They rejected several moves to dilute the plank. However, like the rest of the platform, the existing plank was reformatted, and the nefarious Executive Summary was voted in.
Abortion prohibitionists, meanwhile, were supporting Michael Badnarik as the 2004 presidential candidate. However, Badnarik was so eager to get the nomination he softened his position during the nomination process, placing at least three different statements on abortion on his campaign web page. The first two were rants against abortion inferring he wanted it illegal. The final one said the government should keep out of the issue, in line with the Libertarian platform. Frustrated abortion prohibitionists then nominated a special interest faux candidate who used his speech to rant against abortion. Badnarik eventually received the nomination, largely due to an excellent debate performance against two higher profile opponents. In interviews and speeches during his campaign he often strayed from his commitment to the platform. He even claimed on CSPAN that “49% of the party believe the baby owns its own body” and talked about “states rights” to regulate abortion!
The 2006 national convention in Portland, Oregon was the most poorly attended in years due to the location and the fact it came between presidential elections. Thus the moderates were successful in cutting the whole platform in half, removing whole sections. Delegates changed “Women’s rights and abortion” to “Reproductive rights” and tinkered with the language. Given that it takes far more votes to include new language than delete old language, the “moderates'” coup against the platform was successful. However, abortionist prohibitionists were not finished trying to get rid of the plank entirely.
The 2008 presidential convention in Denver, Colorado completed the gutting of the whole platform. As in Portland, pro-choice activists were unorganized. With states rights “libertarian” Wayne Root and quasi-libertarian abortion prohibitionist Bob Barr as the leading presidential candidates, moderates again managed to get delegates to further cut the platform down. Delegates voted to rename “Reproductive Rights” to “Abortion” – evidently to make it easier to remove the whole plank in the future. They limited the plank to one sentence: “Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” The very word “woman” was written out of the platform, replaced by the nebulous word “gender”. It was obvious that two-thirds of the plank’s content pandered to pro-life and even abortion prohibitionist sentiments.
Many hard core libertarians were outraged by the Barr and Root machinations; Wayne Root became presidential candidate Barr’s running mate. It was well known that Bob Barr’s former wife admitted Barr had helped her get an abortion years before. While he expressed his opposition to the procedure from time to time during the presidential campaign, he did not make it a central issue.
During the 2010 convention in St. Louis, Missouri, the 2012 presidential convention in Las Vegas, and the 2014 convention in Columbus, Ohio the one sentence plank survived repeated attempts to remove it. However, during the LP’s 2012 presidential nominating convention the platform only survived by a few votes. That was due to impassioned pleas from pro-choice members of the party. The leading candidate governor Gary Johnson has been described as pro-choice on abortion. However, as Arizona governor he had signed an Arizona bill banning late term abortion.
The 2016 Libertarian Party national presidential convention in Orlando, Florida saw yet more challenges to the platform. The platform committee, led by Alicia Mattson, called for removal of the abortion plank and even its replacement with language merely mentioning the libertarian position that government should not pay for abortion. Such a move would make the LP look anti-abortion to many outsiders. Some platform members excused this because of an unreliable platform survey, open to the public, that showed quite a bit of opposition to the plank. The platform committee was dominated by antiabortion activists, individuals eager to get votes from anti-abortion Republicans, and individuals who believed removing the plank would end divisiveness in the party.
Additionally, one of the three leading candidates, Austin Petersen, was a prohibitionist who promoted states’ outlawing abortion from conception. And even 2012 candidate Gary Johnson’s motives were questioned, given that the “OnTheIssues” website still carried his positions from 2011 when he attempted to get the Republican Party presidential nomination.
Particularly annoying was that two LP “Radical” Caucus members were on the platform committee working to remove the plank. The Caucus itself also removed the plank from their caucuses’ proposed Libertarian Party platform.
All of these negative factors forced pro-choice libertarians to re-organize to get ready for the 2016 convention. We updated our website and created a Facebook page and discussion group, a Twitter feed and a Youtube site. Members at the convention talked to hundreds of delegates and distributed buttons and literature.
The graphic below from the approved Minutes of the 2016 convention explains briefly what happened regarding the abortion plank. In short, first 439 delegates voted with “tokens” to get rid of it, which was enough to have it considered to be removed from the platform. A first, second and third motion were made to delete or change it but all motions failed.
Assuming LP Convention bylaws haven’t changed, that will be the procedure – and fight – in 2018.
The whole platform drama over two days convinced pro-choice libertarians that it was necessary to ramp up a real effort to educate libertarians about womens’ right to abortion. Thus the party might end the bi-yearly assaults on the plank and perhaps even strengthen it to oppose the many state laws and regulations that currently make abortions more expensive and difficult to obtain in a timely manner.
Pro-choicers were happy that the convention nominated two candidates described in all the media as “pro-choice.” Nominated for president a second time was Gary Johnson and for vice-president former Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld. Johnson’s campaign website stated:
As Governor, Johnson never advocated abortion or taxpayer funding of it. However, Gov. Johnson recognizes that the right of a woman to choose is the law of the land today, and has been for several decades. That right must be respected, and ultimately he believes this is a very personal and individual decision. He feels that each woman must be allowed to make decisions about her own health and well-being. Further, Gov. Johnson feels strongly that women seeking to exercise their legal right must not be subjected to persecution or denied access to health services by politicians in Washington or elsewhere who are insistent on politicizing such an intensely personal and serious issue.
As we enter into the months before the 2008 Libertarian Party national convention in New Orleans, pro-choice libertarians are again organizing to educate libertarians on the issue and abortion prohibitionists’ attempts to delete the abortion plank. We also will work to strengthen the plank.
For updated information see our News page.