Reason, Compassion, Technology: A Libertarian Take on Abortion
Whose Life is it Anyway?
Commentary from the Libertarian Opinionizer
This is one article in which you get the opportunity to read the conclusion first.
A libertarian who accepts the non-aggression principle can be morally pro-life or morally pro-choice but cannot forcibly impose that morality on another. But a whole person must be both rational and compassionate.
Libertarians are just as split on the issue of abortion as everyone else. That shouldn’t surprise anyone since libertarians are individuals, not a bunch of groupthink conformists. But most of their arguments, pro and con, fall flat because they seldom make the argument they should: Defining their terms correctly and then applying the Non-Aggression Principle rationally and compassionately.
The real issue isn’t about the rights of the mother versus the rights of the unborn because rights, properly understood, based on nature and reality, never conflict. The real issue is about self-ownership. Either one owns oneself or one doesn’t. There is no in-between.
Pro-Choice AND Pro-Life
Pro Reason and Pro Personal Responsibility
As all other decent people, libertarians should absolutely acknowledge and empathize with the emotional and psychological realities of pregnancy, and they should absolutely be aware of other people’s religious and philosophical positions concerning abortion.
Further, libertarians should also be respectful of everyone’s individual freedom and personal responsibility. Libertarians should never be control freaks who assume to dictate to others what they can or cannot do with someone else’s internal bodily functions.
There is no doubt that emotions, and especially compassion, are absolutely essential to human beings. Without positive emotions people aren’t whole; they’re damaged, incomplete beings we know as psychopaths or sociopaths. But that doesn’t justify substituting emotions where reason must be paramount.
Life is a process, not an instant flash of light. A seed becomes a shoot, putting down roots and putting up a tiny stem and leaves before it blooms as a flower. An acorn becomes a sprout in the process of becoming an oak tree. A larva goes through a pupa stage before a mosquito emerges. A caterpillar marks time in a cocoon before it transforms into a butterfly.
Emotion Versus Reason
Human Fetus vs. Human Child
In a similar process, after a sperm has fertilized an egg, and the egg spends nine months in a womb developing as a fetus totally dependent on its mother for its very existence, the fetus becomes an individual fully-functioning human being by emerging from the womb, taking its first breath of air with its own lungs and is released from the dependency of the mother’s womb.
No one calls a seed a flower. No one calls an acorn an oak tree. No one calls a larva a mosquito. No one calls a caterpillar a butterfly. No one calls a fertilized human egg a human baby. The term “unborn child” is an oxymoron; a fetus is “unborn,” a child is “born.” Rational definitions are paramount to a rational discussion.
There are reasons why these different words exist. They help us to identify the different stages in the process by which life emerges from life.
Abortion is also not an issue of “When does human life begin?” Life, again, is a process. Life doesn’t begin at conception and it doesn’t begin at birth.
Life begins at life.
An actively living sperm and an actively living egg must unite to begin a new life. But where do the live sperm and live egg come from? They come from already living humans, who came from already living humans, who came from already living humans, and so on backwards into the primordial beginnings of humanity. Religions and origin myths aside, nobody actually knows when or how human life began.
So the issue is not “when does life begin,” the issue is when the life of a specific individual human being begins. Calling a human sperm, a human egg, a fertilized human egg, a human fetus a “baby” or a “human being” is an emotional distinction. The entire process must complete successfully for there to be a human being.
Just as no one calls a fertilized human egg a human being no one at the end of the human life cycle calls a lifeless human being “human.” The former human being may be called a “corpse” or a “cadaver” or a “carcass” or a “body” or “earthly remains” but not properly a “human being.”
The deceased is a former human being just as a fetus is a potential human being.
So why, besides emotion, should the beginning, developing and ending stages of a human fetus be called a “human being” when only the freely living functioning individual entity is the actual “human being?”
Don’t Berate, Cooperate!
Respecting Ideas, Rejecting Coercion
Every individual has a right to believe anything he or she wishes to believe. The emotional desire to think of a developing human fetus slowly growing inside a human womb, totally dependent on oxygen and nutrients from its mother, is perfectly natural and eminently admirable.
What no person has a right to do is to forcibly impose one’s own beliefs on another. If the fetus is not your fetus, not in your womb, not in your body, it is none of your business beyond your personal opinion.
When the fetus successfully completes its journey from fertilized egg to living, breathing, functioning individual human being that new human being is fully entitled to the same rights as all other living, breathing, functioning individual human beings.
The non-aggression principle against coercion along with the right of self-ownership, self-defense and defense of others applies. A “right,” after all, is a right only if it applies to all living human beings equally.
Calling a fetus “human” only identifies the fetus as a “human fetus” rather than the fetus of some other living thing. Otherwise the fetus is still a fetus no matter what some people choose to call it.
Note also that even though many people call an unborn fetus a baby no one calls a newborn baby a fetus. They know the difference and acknowledge that difference, whether consciously or not. The baby is a newborn human being, not a newborn fetus.
While the fetus is in the womb in a woman’s body that fetus is absolutely nobody’s business other than that specific woman. Her life is her life. Her body is her body. Her womb is her womb. Her fetus is her fetus. Even the man who supplied the sperm has no right to compel the woman to do anything one way or another concerning the fetus for the simple reason that the fetus is not in his womb in his body as a part of his life. He can express his wishes but cannot impose them on her.
Where Pro-Choice and Pro-Life should meet
There is No Escape from Reason
James Silberman at “The Federalist,” a conservative website, attempts to state the libertarian anti-abortion case in his article titled “Why All Libertarians Should Be Pro-Life.”
It should be noted first that nowhere in his article does he call the fetus a fetus. He always uses terms like “human,” “person,” “individual,” and “preborn child.”
Refusing to call a spade a spade, a rose a rose, a fetus a fetus is an argument from emotion. It’s a rejection of A is A, the “Law of Identity” first described by Aristotle and emphatically restated by Ayn Rand. To reject A is A is to believe that something is not what it is.
What Silberman does get right is this:
“There are two, and only two, possible sources of our freedoms. Either they come from the state’s generosity, in which case the state can rightfully confiscate them, or they are naturally assigned to each of us through being human, in which case they are inalienable and cannot rightfully be confiscated by the state.”
But then he throws in a third source of our rights. “None of us are God. None of us gets to assign or withhold the inalienable rights to life and liberty from anyone else” and further complains that “libertarians, conservatives, and all kinds of small-government advocates are losing the battle for the soul of the country.”
This is an argument from faith, not from reason.
But that isn’t all. Silberman goes on to—apparently unknowingly—commit a major contradiction. He quotes Ron Paul as saying “Everybody has an absolute equal right as an individual, and it comes to them naturally.” But he identifies the fetus as an individual. Isn’t the pregnant woman also an individual whose absolute equal right came to her naturally?
How can the rights of a pregnant woman and the rights of a fetus in her womb both be absolute? Logically, they cannot be. It’s like asking what happens when an unstoppable force impacts an immovable object.
The only escape from this logical contradiction is to invoke A is A by properly identifying the fetus as a fetus and the pregnant woman as a pregnant woman who in fact has the absolute right to her own body, her own womb and her own fetus. From the Oxford Dictionary:
Absolute NOUN Philosophy
1 A value or principle which is regarded as universally valid or which may be viewed without relation to other things.
1.1 the absolute Something that exists without being dependent on anything else.
The value or principle of the “rights” of a fetus cannot logically be “absolute” since the fetus and therefore its “rights” must be viewed in relation to other things, such as the fact that it resides inside the womb inside the body of, and is dependent upon, a person who has, by her very nature of being human, the absolute right to her own body, her own womb and her own fetus.
Hope for a Libertarian Future
What both Choice and Life libertarians can agree on is that Choicers should stop accepting tax money forcibly redistributed from people’s pockets—including the pockets of Lifers—to fund their Planned Parenthood operations, and Choicers should stop supporting laws that would criminalize the way pregnant women use their own bodies.
Further, both sides should stop using pregnant women as tug-of-war trophies in their political battles. Both childbirth and abortion—and let’s not forget miscarriages, stillbirths, premature births, serious birth defects and other unwanted complications—can have overwhelming emotional, ethical, moral, spiritual, physical, psychological, medical, economic, cultural and social issues that both sides can help to cope with if they just work together with compassion; the left with their focus on feelings-based concern and the right with their focus on rational problem-solving.
Politicalized abortion ceases to be about abortion and becomes all about the politics with the woman, the fetus and the newborn all getting lost in the self-serving posturing.
Eventually, however, the only end to this conflict may come about through advances in technology.
One potential solution is offered in Victor Koman’s book Solomon’s Knife, that of transplanting a fetus from a womb where it’s not wanted to one where it is wanted. It’s almost a libertarian solution but because this isn’t non-fiction, it’s a novel that requires conflict and drama, Korman’s transplant is a fraudulent act; neither mother is told.
Yet the author makes it clear that his fictional protagonist, the surgeon, is not merely a heartless abortionist but a compassionate human being when she tells her young client:
“I suffered a great deal of guilt and wondering when I had my abortion.” Her fingers tightened. “If there were any way that I could let you make your decision without pain or fear or guilt, I would. Believe me.”
Another possibility is that, someday, in a free libertarian society where government and other tyrannical interventionists are no longer tolerated, someone may finally perfect voluntary, temporary and easily reversible birth control and an artificial womb (“The coming era of motherless births”) and the whole issue of abortion will become history.
Yet even then of course, humans being humans, there will develop endless arguments over the rightness or wrongness of “artificial” versus “natural” gestation and the importance of “positive emotional development” versus “mechanical babies.”
Whose Body is it Anyway?
The non-aggression principle (NAP) requires a libertarian to be opposed to coercion. Coercing the mother on behalf of the fetus is anti-NAP; coercing the fetus on behalf of the mother is anti-NAP.
In short, a libertarian who accepts the non-aggression principle can be morally pro-life or morally pro-choice but cannot forcibly impose that morality on another. A whole person must be both rational and compassionate.
So the bottom line for all libertarians should be:
Not your life, not your body, not your womb, not your fetus, not your business.
References and Links
Why libertarians should be pro life James Silberman argues his position in which he claims both a pregnant woman and her fetus have “absolute” human rights, a logical controdiction.
Why libertarians should be pro-choice A website “made up of libertarians who want to keep the government out of the abortion issue, as well as other reproductive rights issues.”
Government creates massive roadblocks against adoption Why adoption should be a contract between the birth mother and the adoptive parents, not a politically regulated process that works against the very children it pretends to protect.
Science, not ideology: is motherless births the future? With reliable birth control, artificial insemination and artificial wombs the whole issue of abortion may become moot in the future.