Tensions within Libertarianism (Part I): Libertarians and Abortion

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.

21 thoughts on “Tensions within Libertarianism (Part I): Libertarians and Abortion

  1. So, essentially you have a set of principles to follow in determining your position rather than a set of positions to follow in determining your principles?

    Slightly on/off-topic: in regards to determining when life begins I’ve always wondered why the murder of a pregnant woman results in charges of double homicide if this definition is not all ready defined.

  2. Murray Rothbard might be responsible for some of the confusion. In For a New Liberty, he claimed that the personhood of the fetus didn’t matter, that a woman could not be forced to keep a fetus inside her body if she didn’t want it. Abortion is merely ejecting a trespasser.

    The problem with this is that it also implies that infanticide is OK if you do it in a particularly cruel way, such as “expelling your little trespasser” into the gutter or refusing to feed him. It seems to me that the only reasonable libertarian position holds that children enjoy some positive claims on their parents for provision, protection, and education and should not be treated as if they were simply little adults.

    1. If children enjoy some positive claims on their parents, wouldn’t that apply just as well to unborn children? (In fact, even more so, since before birth, no other adult can sustain the life of the unborn child but the mother.)

      The whole “little trespasser” argument is completely silly, not to mention completely abhorrent.

      1. Sven – Absolutely. Rothbard’s position is either incoherent or, as you say, abhorrent.

      2. I think Rothbard’s conclusions might be “abhorrent” but I think they’re far from silly. Likewise I don’t think it’s incoherent. In reading “For a New Liberty” and “The Ethics of Liberty,” you get the clear impression that Rothbard rejects positive rights claims in all forms. With that in mind, I’m not sure how any other conclusion is logical (in that specific context). He didn’t use that line of thought exclusively when discussing the “un-born” either.

        Now that’s pretty shocking to most of us (including me). And I haven’t bitten the bullet in either direction when it comes to the subject of abortion. But his argument isn’t completely devoid of logic. If you make the claim that individuals have absolute sovereignty over their bodies and their property, it’s not clear that this argument couldn’t extend to children, no matter how morally taboo it seems.

        That being said, I think the general area of how to handle rights and obligations when it comes to children is pretty fuzzy in the libertarian-sphere; it should be talked about more.

    2. So that’s how babies get inside of their mother… they sneak up in the night and weasel their way in there. Those sneaky, little trespassers!

      1. In the case of rape or incest one might make the “trespasser” argument. But, otherwise, the trespasser argument strikes me as silly because it is biologically incoherent.

        So, come on over to my house. Once you are settled in having a nice meal, I will show you the “No Trespassing” sign in the corner of the room and shoot you.

        Seems like a silly argument to me.

        [I’m not a logician by any stretch of the imagination, but can’t a logical argument still be silly if, for instance, it rests on premises that are empirically absurd (such as ignoring the fact that most conceptions result from voluntary choices that have clear biological consequences, if not intentions).]

  3. I’m really glad to hear that one can be both a libertarian and pro-life. 😉

    In all seriousness, I think the pro-life position follows from libertarian first principles. Protection of life supercedes other freedoms, including freedom of choice. If a person is causing me or others an enormous inconvenience, I am not, and cannot be, entitled to kill him.

    Now, of course the question is whether the fetus is a “person” in the proper sense, whether it is a life that warrants the respect and protection libertarians accord such “persons.” Granted. But we all agree that the fetus at some point becomes the kind of thing that one may not kill for the sake of convenience. Some say it starts at conception, everyone else says it comes at some point later. Almost all—with the notable exception of Peter Singer—believe that at least by (natural) birth the fetus has transitioned to become a thing one may not kill.

    Here’s my argument: If we cannot be sure what (beyond conception) the precise moment is at which this crucial transition takes place, then, rather than run the risk of getting it wrong, we should err on the side of caution. It is a life we’re talking about, after all, presumably the first and most important of all liberties, especially for libertarians. So unless we are absolutely sure the fetus is not a life deserving respect and protection—which I believe we are not—then the reasonable position to take is that we, and especially libertarians, should not abort.

  4. Walter Block has elaborated on the Rothbard position in a few places. He reasons to the point where removing the “trespasser” must be done in as minimally harmful a way as possible. Taken seriously, this position would rule out most kinds of abortion, since they involve not just removal of the fetus but its dismemberment. Block considers himself pro-life, although not exactly for this reason.

    That’s a little better than Rothbard’s approach, but still far from adequate. Absolute propertarians would seem to run into a lot of other cases where their reasoning permits what other people would consider murder: does one have the right to throw a stowaway off your aircraft mid-flight, even if it will mean his certain death? Rothbard and Block are reluctant to concede any positive obligation, no matter how small it may be in proportion to the harm that would otherwise be done to another person, because their philosophy leaves hardly any room for involuntary obligations that are not arbitrary.

    Of course, to say there are positive moral obligations does not necessarily mean that the state must enforce those obligations, even in matters of life and death. One can subscribe to a theory of natural rights and still believe that the state does not exist to vindicate those rights but only to preserve a minimum of social order — just as one can be a devout religious believer without being committed to, say, biblical law, one can be a philosophical believer in natural rights (and the moral obligations they entail) while having a more restrictive or quasi-utilitarian view of the state. Between the libertarians who fall into this category and those who don’t subscribe to any theory of natural rights at all, I can see why one might think that the belief that abortion should not be outlawed is a fundamental libertarian tenet.

    For my part, I’m anti-abortion for reasons that I don’t feel compelled to justify as libertarian, and I basically agree with Grover. Libertarianism is not a sufficiently deep concept to supply a definitive answer on this question, and that lack of depth is not a defect, but a condition appropriate to a political philosophy, which isn’t meant to pin down the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

  5. Daniel – Your point about rights that ought and ought not be enforced by the state reminds me of the pro-choice analogue to Jim’s argument about the side on which to err. Pro-choicers will say that we know abortion bans infringe on a woman’s freedom, perhaps requiring a relatively intrusive enforcement apparatus, while we can’t know whether a fetus has rights – so we should err on the side of legalizing abortions.

    I find Jim’s argument to be more or less compelling on the moral question, especially when paired with the observation that even if a fetus/embryo isn’t an actual person yet, it may have moral value as a potential person. The legal question is trickier, and I think the best we can do to establish a general legal principle is to make the best judgment we can about when an individual Homo sapiens develops the essential prerequisite for personhood, that is, the capacity for developing rational thought. Once a fetus has a brain that we can tell is working, which if carried to term and raised to adulthood would have every prospect of developing rational thought, the fundamental characteristic of personhood is there, and rights attach. That doesn’t tell us what kind of enforcement regime for those rights we ought to have, but it establishes a baseline.

    Prior to the fourth month, we can’t make these determinations. About a third of the time, there is something really wrong with a first-term fetus or the womb environment, and it spontaneously aborts. If we really thought these were persons, then miscarriage would be the biggest moral tragedy of our time. We would encourage women to take drugs to carry these children to viability & try to keep them alive (as some hypothesize that thalidomide really did). That even ardent pro-lifers don’t think this way leads me to believe that hardly anyone would actually consider a first-term fetus/embryo/zygote to be a person with rights. And that seems like the right judgment, since they don’t have brains with even minimal self-awareness.

    1. Jason, I enjoy your commentary. I’m wondering if you’d give your thoughts on the Rothbardian position. The discussion seems to be be centering on the morality of killing a being based on it’s level of humanity (and rights intrinsic to it). But to Rothbard, this doesn’t seem to be an important aspect of the over-arching conversation. From a negative-rights perspective, Rothbard feels that you could have an entity or being removed from you (human or not) and simply let it die by not feeding it or caring for it; and that this would not be equivocal to killing it.

      He seems to warn that if we (libertarians) bite that bullet, we’ll find ourselves in the precarious position of conflating inaction with violence…which has serious political implications in light of government health care, welfare, social security, etc.. I can’t help but think of Peter Singer’s analogy of the drowning child. I know it’s a complicated issue, but I’d like to hear your perspective on this particular slant.

      1. Well, to put it bluntly, I think Rothbard’s position is abhorrent! So how do we avoid the slippery slope of having legally enforceable positive obligations to all sorts of people? I think children are different. I did a little paper on “Libertarian Theory and Children’s Rights” back in grad school, & the UK Libertarian Alliance eventually published it. ( http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/philn/philn061.pdf ) My views are pretty much the same today. Taking a broadly Kantian starting point, I argue that parents have a moral duty to develop the rational capacities of their children to an adequate standard, and that this moral duty is in principle legally enforceable (that is, children enjoy a right to this development). However, once you are a capably rational adult, you don’t enjoy positive rights of this kind as against everyone else, because to make such a claim would require subordinating the interests of others to one’s own interests – or, equivalently, treating others as means to your own ends only and not as ends in themselves.

  6. The funny thing for me about this post is that it is mostly saying “it’s OK to be a pro-life libertarian.”

    To me, a libertarian stands up for the individual against coercion and abuse–whether by the state or by other individuals. At the foundation of any libertarian ideology has to be the right to life. And any libertarian worth his/her salt will be most passionate about protecting the inherent, self-evident rights of those who cannot stand up for those rights themselves.

    There are lots of gray areas surrounding abortion. In these gray areas, I can endorse the view that the parents of the fetus, particularly the mother, should have the right to make the hard choices rather than the state. But the fact is that most abortions in this country do not fall in the gray areas. They consist of the killing of healthy human offspring where there is no risk to the life or physical health of the mother. Particularly noxious are abortions that occur past the point of viability (even most Western European countries are morally advanced enough to restrict those abortions more than we do in the U.S).

    So, Grover, I don’t think you are right in this case. There is no tension. One cannot be a libertarian and believe in abortion on demand.

  7. It’s about private property, right? Well, isn’t the physical body the “property” of the soul residing in it? So it’s not about when life “begins,” but when the soul takes possession of the body. We don’t really have a way to measure that, bot we DO have a way to determine if a body is sufficiently complete to begin the path of activities we call “life.” And that’s NOT at conception.

    Look at it this way: You’ve custom-ordered a car. The factory lays the first parts of the framework, but then there’s a fire at the plant and it “your” car get caught up in it. Do you file an insurance claim? No, because you haven’t taken possession of it. The factory just tosses the remains into the furnace and starts again.

    Or suppose you come to collect it, and discover they put the engine where the driver’s seat should be, and the wheels (but not the axles) are on the roof. So you refuse to get in to it, and it sits on the dealer’s lot, rotting, because the dealer insists that’s your car, and won’t let anyone part it out.

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