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Libertarianism and Abortion

Note: I stole this idea from Mike Adams, but took it in a different direction.

Many libertarians oppose restrictions on abortion, because restricting behavior, even behavior that is noxious and immoral, is restrictive of liberty and so should be avoided.  This concept, while generally sensible, doesn’t apply well to the abortion issue.

The correct libertarian position on abortion is that it should be restricted except when the mother is at significant risk of death or significant health problems if the pregnancy continues.

Note:  This is essentially my position, but I come at it for more religious and less libertarian reasons.  However, I do take issue with the standard libertarian pro-choice position because it doesn’t make sense.

The word libertarian comes from the word liberty, and libertarians believe in the primacy of individual liberty.  The typical libertarian analysis of abortion fails to recognize that there are in fact two individuals whose liberty must be considered.

In the libertarian ideal, you are free to exercise your liberty, and I am free to exercise mine.  But what happens when they conflict?  For instance, you wish to play loud music in your backyard, and I wish to enjoy my backyard, which happens to be next to yours, in peace and quiet? Or you wish to dump toxic chemicals into the river, and I wish to have clean water to drink. Or (more to the point here) you wish to kill me, and I wish to not be dead. Resolving such conflicts is the essence of police power, and is one of the few legitimate roles of government.

When a woman is pregnant, there is a second individual, alive, in the womb.  That individual (the baby) has rights, in particular the right to remain alive, just as the mother has rights.  Those rights are in conflict when the mother no longer wishes to have the baby in her womb. This is one of those conflicts which government should regulate and resolve.

When the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, abortion is acceptable from a libertarian point of view.  The baby’s right to remain alive cannot have precedence over the mother’s right to remain alive. This is clear from a libertarian point of view, although those who oppose abortion for religious reasons typically do not agree. The same is true when the pregnancy will seriously compromise the future health of the mother, although “serious” is difficult to codify.

It is clear from this perspective that abortion should not be used to eliminate a child of the wrong gender, a child with genetic issues (such as Down’s syndrome), a child of mixed race, or a child with other characteristics that the mother doesn’t appreciate.

Less clear is the situation when some other right of the mother is being compromised by the pregnancy.  In these kinds of cases, the right of the baby to remain alive is in conflict with some other right of the mother. For instance, how important is the right of the mother to avoid the physical impacts of pregnancy? Or the right of the mother to be free from the possibility of a child given up for adoption showing up unannounced in 20 years?  Or the right of the mother to rid herself of an abusive man, by whom she has become pregnant?  In these cases, the primary, foundational right .. the right to remain alive .. must take precedence.

Note: Libertarians do not hold that life is “sacred”, or that the right to remain alive is absolute. But life is a necessary for liberty, so is more important.

Also less clear is when pregnancy causes (or exacerbates) suffering for the mother. Pregnancy resulting from rape or incest is a clear example of this case.  Although emotionaly haunting, these cases must be considered from the perspective of conflict between the rights of the two individuals.  If the suffering seriously harms the mental health of the mother, a libertarian cannot object to abortion.  But if the harm is not serious, then the right of the baby to remain alive should take precedence, and the libertarian should support restricting abortion. I certainly do not pretend to know how to make the distinction.

Just as important to the libertarian is who should make the decision about whether abortion is permissible.  This is where the libertarian perspective differs from the mainstream. A fundamental libertarian tenet is that government meddling in our lives should be minimal.  The libertarian crafts the guidelines, enforces the extreme case, but leaves the difficult choice in the hands of the mother and doctor, rather than in the hands of government.  The mainstream perspective has specific and restrictive guidelines which attempt to enforce every case, and so puts the choice in the hands of the government.

Note: NPR has an informative (and surprisingly neutral) article on the barbaric procedure known as “partial-birth” abortion. While it adds little to this discussion, it is worth reviewing for perspective.

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  1. Tilly Holmes says

    I am always against abortion because it is a sin to kill an innocent child..-‘

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