LIBERTARIAN PRINCIPLES VERSUS ABORTION PROHIBITION
Pro-Choice Libertarians network bases our views on the libertarian non-aggression principle, itself a variation of the “do unto others” Golden Rule. Therefore we oppose the initiation of physical force or fraud on others.
From the non-aggression principle flow four basic libertarian principles: individual liberty, self-ownership, self-determination and limited government (or no government at all, as preferred by anarchist libertarians). Applying these to the issue of abortion leads to a “keep the government out of the issue” view point. Adhering to these principles has real consequences for the lives of millions of women in the United States and billions worldwide.
These principles also are applied to other reproductive rights issues including: sex education, contraception, “morning after” contragestive pills, prenatal testing, fetal surgery, work and personal behavior during pregnancy, home birth, Caesarean birth, voluntary surrogacy, consent of parents or sex partners, government-mandated waiting periods, indoctrination on medical risks or fetal development, government restrictions on sex selection or abortion of physically deformed fetuses and government-forced sterilization and abortion.
Individual libertarians may emphasize these over-lapping principles differently in support of their position, one which is defacto “pro-choice”. Note that many “pro-life” libertarians who are against abortion nevertheless support keeping the government out of the issue because of their limited government views. They are not abortion prohibitionists.
1. Individual liberty is the most basic libertarian principle, including as applied to reproduction and abortion. Personhood, and thus individual rights to liberty, exist only after birth when a child becomes self-conscious, capable of cognition and able to engage in purposeful action to affect their environment. The sperm and egg and fetus may be alive, but that does not mean they are persons with rights.
2. A living person’s first responsibility is to themselves. A woman should not be forced to sacrifice her liberty – and even her life – for the biological survival of a fetus which has no equivalent right to liberty. Childbearing risks women’s health and lives and is far more dangerous than legal abortion. Over 300,000 women a year worldwide die during pregnancy or delivery and over 600 in the United States. Some describe this as a conflict of rights; we believe the woman’s rights are far stronger.
3. Every person should be free to defend themselves from something acting forcefully against their liberty. This includes a woman’s right to defend herself against a fetus never wanted, or no longer wanted, within her body. Consent must be ongoing and is revocable. Libertarians recognize women are responsible and rarely exercise their right to late term abortion except under extra-ordinary circumstances. In fact, government restrictions make it harder and more expensive to arrange abortions, resulting in far more later term abortions.
4. The freedom to abort must be contrasted with prohibition of abortion which leads to compulsory childbearing; this is use of a woman’s body as a natural resource and herself as a chattel slave. Some call it “forced birthism.” Forcing women to continue unwanted pregnancies sets the precedent for government forcing any person – male or female – to provide bodily tissue and fluids to help others survive.
5. Only voluntary means of convincing a woman to give birth to child are libertarian. Thus only personal counseling and provisions of private economic aid and/or adoption services are libertarian ways to discourage abortion.
1. Libertarians believe individuals should be sovereign over their own lives and that no one should be forced to sacrifice for the benefit of others. They believe men and women own their bodies and have rights over that “private property” which other individuals, groups, and governments may not violate.
2. Principles of self-ownership mean one’s reproductive choices are strictly personal. A woman has a right to right to control the pregnancy taking place within her body until the point of birth. We believe women acting voluntarily, without imposed social or legal restrictions, will use good sense in using contraception and, when that fails, in having abortions early in pregnancy.
3. Many libertarians use the analogy of the fetus as a trespasser, a “stowaway” or even a parasite. The woman has a right to eject the unwanted intruder from her property, i.e., her body, in order to preserve her own life and liberty. This is true even if the fetus initially was “invited” but then becomes an “unwelcome guest.”
4. If the state can force a pregnant woman to allow her body, i.e. her property, to be used to service a fetus, it can force any one to do with his or her body or property anything government considers to be of service to others or to the state itself.
1. The principle of self-determination makes individuals free moral agents to determine their reproductive status. Since the woman is a free moral agent with sole dominion over her life, her claim to life is stronger than that of a fetus which has minimal self-consciousness and cognition and cannot engage in purposeful action. The woman’s right to self-determination means the choice to carry the child to term is hers alone.
2. Self-determination means individuals cannot be forced to abide by an onerous contract that makes them a defacto “slave”. Libertarians reject “slavery” contracts. That includes any alleged “contract” with a fetus, a being incapable of making a contract.
3. Women may agree to abortion restrictions in a marriage contract or in order to enter a contractual community. However, their right to self-determination means they are not a slave to that contract and may leave a relationship or a community to seek an abortion.
4. If a woman has not made a child support contract with the father, the ensuing responsibility for the child is hers alone. If there is a support contract and either spouse finds that circumstances make it impossible to fulfill without it becoming a slave contract, the parents should seek mediation or arbitration to change the contract terms.
5. Many libertarians believe it is wrong to carry to term a fetus so deformed that it can never care for itself or live as a truly self-conscious, self-determining person.
1. In this issue, as in so many, libertarians believe in the principle that “government is the problem, not the solution”. Overwhelmingly, government laws and regulations have negative unintended consequences, especially when government is prohibiting something that people demand.
2. We reject “states rights” views regarding abortion and support only those “constitutionalist” arguments that comply with libertarian principles. Therefore we agree with Supreme Court arguments in Roe v. Wade which held that a right to “privacy” in abortion could be deduced from: First Amendment freedom of speech, assembly, and religion; Third Amendment freedom from forced quartering of troops; Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; Fifth Amendment freedom from forced self-incrimination; Ninth Amendment protection of “rights retained by the people”; and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Libertarians might add Tenth Amendment protection of “powers retained by the people” and Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against slavery and involuntary servitude, of which forced pregnancy is an obvious example.
3. We oppose abortion prohibitionists’ religious or philosophical arguments that support use of the state to force others to adhere to those views. We find particularly offensive any arguments against contraception. Those who consider abortion to be “intentional and pre-meditated murder” even may believe women’s pregnancies should be monitored and all miscarriages investigated by police. As many as 20 percent of pregnancies naturally miscarry, most in the first twelve weeks. Such prosecutions endanger women of child bearing age. And most prohibitionists do call for prosecution, conviction, prison, fines and even execution of women and abortion service providers.
4. Abortion laws and regulations, like most other laws and regulations, only multiply and expand their scope. Through most of history community standards and common law permitted abortion, which typically was done using abortifacient herbs or physical techniques in the first weeks of pregnancy. After medicine became more professionalized, physician lobbies demanded abortion and midwifery be outlawed. The Catholic Church also became active in the issue. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision the largely protestant Republican Party decided to use abortion as a wedge issue for political advantage. Between just 2010-2015 the Republican Party convinced seventeen states to pass laws banning abortion after 18 or 20 weeks. Since 2011 restrictive state regulations shut down more than 160 clinics. In 2016 nineteen states passed 60 new abortion restrictions. In the two months after the election of Donald Trump nearly 50 anti-abortion laws were introduced on the state and federal level. Dozens followed in the following months.
5. It is obvious that efforts to outlaw abortion since the 1970s only have encouraged fanatics to bomb and burn abortion facilities and threaten and kill clinic staffers. This has driven many qualified physicians away from providing services.
6. The consequences, intended and unintended, of laws restricting or outlawing abortion are well known because women suffered them during the hundred and fifty years abortion was illegal in the United States. Abortion restrictions greatly increase the number of “late term” abortions as women are forced to raise money to pay for more expensive abortions and go long distances, and even to other states, for the medical procedure. Abortion prohibition creates a black market in abortions, leading to unprofessional abortions and even infection, mutilation, infertility and death. Girls and women who have suffered incest or rape are forced to suffer the trauma of giving birth to an unwanted child. Unwanted children often are psychologically damaged by their mother’s distressed pregnancy. Women prosecuted for abortion-related “crimes” and sent to prison often leave existing children behind to be neglected or abused by relatives or the governmental foster care system. Given the consequences, prohibiting abortion hardly can be called a “pro-life” position.
Prohibiting abortion is clearly against libertarian principles of individual liberty, self-ownership, self-determination and limited government. The consequences of restricting and outlawing abortion can be catastrophic for individual women.
Libertarians who want libertarians or the Libertarian Party to remain silent about, or take no position on, issues of reproductive rights and abortion, may not understand the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies for women. However, they should understand that enforcing these laws, and dealing with the consequences of these laws, only increase the power of government. Government uses abortion as yet one more excuse to intrude on every aspect of our lives.
- References to many of the libertarian viewpoints in this piece come from Sharon Presley and Robert Cooke, Association of Libertarian Feminists paper on “Abortion”, and from Sharon Presley, “A Libertarian Feminist Case for Abortion Rights”, 2012, a restatement of principles in the first piece.
- (WHO) World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Maternal Mortality, 2015
- (CDC) Centers for Disease Control and Preventio, Pregnancy-Related Deaths
- Joffee, Carole, Abortion and medicine: A sociopolitical history“, in M Paul, ES Lichtenberg, L Borgatta, DA Grimes, PG Stubblefield, MD Creinin. Management of Unintended and Abnormal Pregnancy, 1st ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2009
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