With Roe v. Wade apparently teetering at the legal brink, the Libertarian Party (LP) has dropped its pro-abortion stance. Backers of the measure, members of the Mises Caucus, who seized control from the LP old guard, said they intended to eliminate a barrier to pro-life libertarians since opinions divide on the issue.
The party exists at the margins of U.S. politics but competes for a faction of traditional Republican Party voters. There always have been libertarians who trended left, more attracted to the LP’s laissez-faire attitude toward social issues than its commitment to free-market economics. And they were largely pro-choice. But the majority of libertarians came from the right, and some number of them were pro-life.
Although the pro-abortion faction dominated the LP, pro-lifers were aways present. The party adopted a pro-choice plank, but some of its nominees were pro-life, such as Ron Paul, who was the 1988 LP nominee. For years the group Libertarians for Life was headed by the late Doris Gordan, a Jewish atheist. Occasionally, important movement libertarians — usually after consuming a couple drinks — admit to being pro-life.
If the right to life is not acknowledged, there will be no liberty about which to be concerned.
Unsurprisingly for philosophical libertarians, who will debate most anything, abortion arguments sometimes trend arcane. One pro-choice claim was that bearing a fetus was like waking up to find yourself attached to a world-class violinist who would die if removed. You still should be able to cut him loose. Who but an LP loyalist could come up with such a comparison?
The pro-choice libertarian argument is straightforward: forcing someone to carry a pregnancy to term is an extraordinary imposition and violation of individual liberty. And surely this is true. But the claim is only superficially compelling.
First, there is a countervailing interest, a life. Although a fertilized egg and early fetus don’t look like much, absent interruption they will yield a fully formed human being outside of the womb within nine months. This separates the issue of abortion from any other medical procedure. At the very least the other life requires acknowledgement and consideration.
Indeed, life is a predicate to liberty. If the right to life is not acknowledged, there will be no liberty about which to be concerned. One can argue that one’s liberty should not be infringed upon over life concerns about which one bears no responsibility. Hence the appeal to the violinist. If you just woke up with a baby in you, its survival shouldn’t be considered your responsibility.
This brings up the second issue. Other than the case of rape, babies don’t just magically appear, as did the imagined violinist. In my view, rape is a unique case in which it is wrong to prohibit abortion, since the putative mother was not responsible for the pregnancy. In any case, it is extremely rare. It can’t be the case used to set the general rule for abortion.
In most instances both parties chose to have sex. For a libertarian, that should transform the issue. The fact that one does not intend a result does not mean one bears no responsibility for it. If one takes an action that risks creating another human being, one has some moral obligation to it.
Libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard contended that the pregnant woman can change her mind. As he explained, “the mother, as the property owner in her own body, has the right to change her mind and to eject it.” The right to change one’s mind is fundamental but not absolute. Take a passenger up in your airplane and you cannot order him out if he insults you. Embark someone on your cruise ship and you can’t dump him in the ocean if his check bounces. If you create a baby, you can’t rip him or her out after deciding you don’t want to carry to term.
Loyola’s Walter Block adjusts the argument, but the result is similar. One may “evict” the baby so long as one does not directly kill him or her. If the inevitable result is death, however, there is no difference in practice. I may not kill you, but can I push you, uninjured, out of my airplane? If I take an act with an inevitable result, I can be charged with intending the ultimate result even if I don’t precisely “want” it.
One can imagine libertarian legislation providing for “eviction” so long as the baby is viable and will be cared for. Indeed, that seems like almost the perfect libertarian solution. But a great thought experiment for an LP convention is not necessarily a good guide to practical legislation.
Is having moral responsibility for a new life enough to warrant government prohibition of abortion? If so, what is the proper penalty and for whom? Abortion does not yield easy answers. There is good reason to answer yes to the first question, since life is at stake. Figuring out who to hold responsible and to what degree is much tougher, especially given the wide differences among those seeking an abortion. Should the rule reflect their situations, intentions, and reasons?
Much depends on circumstances. The response requires prudence and nuance. And this is a good reason to lodge the issue of abortion in legislatures, which can weigh contending interests and seek a reasonable balance. Roe v. Wade was bad constitutional law and helped trigger a half-century “culture war.” Returning the issue to the states would vindicate the Constitution and yield better policy. As such, overturning Roe is merely the beginning of a new round of abortion debates, in which philosophical libertarians should freely participate.
Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington. A graduate of Stanford Law School, he is a member of the California and Washington, D.C., bars.
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