This is the first installment in a series on the tensions within both libertarian thought and the libertarian movement. Today I will focus on abortion – though, as I will explain below, this might seem an odd choice of topics for this series if you spend a lot of time around many movement libertarians.
Listening to or reading the works of many movement libertarians, you would think that there was an unambiguous libertarian position on abortion. Namely, that libertarians are by definition pro-choice. Indeed, I have been told repeatedly by such libertarians that “we” have to be against laws restricting the ability of women to seek an abortion. More frequently, this position is just assumed during any conversation that touches the subject.
Thus it was with no surprise that I read Michael Moynihan, on Reason magazine’s website, recently stating unequivocally: “I have very libertarian views on abortion” (I’m not picking on Moynihan, he just provided the umpteenth example of such talk by movement libertarians).* As it is clear here, Moynihan and others who say such things believe that there is a libertarian stance on the subject - on par with the libertarian view on, say, forced enslavement or income tax withholding (just joking about that last one — and btw, thanks Uncle Miltie for that “innovation”!).
This represents either a serious misunderstanding of libertarianism or an overly broad conception of it that goes beyond politics. Libertarianism – in the “statist” way I define it - is not opposed to any law restricting what an individual can do. Properly understood, it is a thin political theory that sanctions only those laws that relate to the fundamental protection of an individual’s property rights, broadly understood (either because individuals have natural rights or because of a rule-utilitarian position that generates such rights).
Therefore, in the area of abortion, all hangs on the definition of when life begins, whether an unborn child/fetus has rights or when it gains them, and therefore when a life warrants protection by the state. As a limited theory of politics, libertarianism cannot answer these questions and thus really has little to say on its own about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. We as individual libertarians can only answer these questions by importing exogenous ethical or scientific theories.
Therefore, libertarianism is properly ecumenical on abortion. While this is admittedly too black and white, one could argue that if you think life exists/rights inhere at conception, as a libertarian you should favor at least some level of government protecting the rights of the unborn. If you think life exists/rights inhere at birth, as a libertarian you should be opposed to laws restricting acccess to abortion. But both arguments are good libertarian arguments once you import your understanding of when an individual life begins/gains rights. And thus we should not be surprised that there are libertarians on both sides of the issue. So while the Reason crowd seems to be more pro-choice, Ron Paul is pro-life and there is a group called Libertarians for Life. However, pro-lifers are underrepresented among movement libertarians in my experience.
So please stop saying that there is a libertarian position on abortion – whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, pro-abortion or anti-choice, or anything else for that matter.
* And you’ll see by the comments on Moynihan’s post that non-movement libertarians frequently disagree.