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Abortion and Libertarianism's First Principles

by John Walker and Doris Gordon
Libertarians for Life
Copyright 1996

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The essence of libertarianism is not the right to do whatever we choose. Instead, it's the negative right to be free from aggression — the initiation of force or fraud. To be more exact, the essence is the negative obligation not to aggress.


Non-aggression and non-endangerment

The non-aggression principle has an immediate consequence. Just as we may not initiate force, so we may not endanger the innocent without their consent.

So, basic to libertarianism is the non-endangerment principle. Non-endangerment, also a negative obligation, is implicit in non-aggression.

In one sense, endangerment is not, in itself, an initiation of force, but endangerment might turn to harm, by definition. The right of defense doesn't require people to wait until they get bashed before they may defend themselves.

If we set fire to our field, our neighbor's field won't burn unless the fire reaches it. Yet we have set in motion a process that will initiate force against them, unless someone or something (rain, say) intervenes to stop it. Nobody has a right to endanger innocent persons without their consent, and our neighbors have no obligation to let us endanger them without their consent.


You endanger them — you protect them

Having set the fire, we immediately incur a positive obligation to our neighbors to prevent actual harm — we must protect their property from our fire. And if their property gets burned — whether because our efforts have failed, or because of our negligence — then we have initiated force, and we owe them compensation. Failure to pay a debt is itself aggression.

If we endanger the innocent without their consent, we have no right to let them get harmed. For if the harm happens, we not only caused the danger, we caused the harm and initiated force. We have no right to initiate force, because the obligation not to aggress is not optional.

Therefore, also implicit in non-aggression is the protection principle: if you endanger people, then you owe them protection from the harm. The protection principle is a vital point, but it is being overlooked by proponents on both sides of abortion.


Parental obligation: a protection obligation

Non-endangerment forms the foundation of parental obligation (both before and after birth). Causing children to be is not aggression, but it does put children in harm's way, for to be helpless and dependent is to be in harm's way. Parental obligation doesn't arise because the parents have harmed their child. Rather, it arises because of the general obligation not to endanger anyone without their consent, and if we do, to ward off actual harm.

Conceiving a child and getting pregnant are generally voluntary for both parents. Although pregnancy is not voluntary for the mother in pregnancy due to rape, the mother is still bound by the non-aggression principle. (See "Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape," by John Walker, available from LFL for $1.)

However, the situation is never voluntary for the child. By the very act of conception, parents voluntarily acquire a life-or-death control over their child; the child is like a captive. To be a captive is to be unable to fend for oneself and, thus, to be in need of protection from harm.

Pregnancy is automatically protective to the child. Termination of pregnancy terminates the protection and gravely endangers the child. But not wanting to be a parent doesn't excuse us from the obligation to protect the children we cause to exist. The right to choose doesn't exempt anyone from the non-aggression obligation.

The point of abortion is to kill the child, and most abortions dismember and/or poison the child. But some abortion choicers frame abortion as merely termination of the pregnancy; if a child dies because she can't survive being evicted into the hostile environment outside, that's tough, they say. Still, eviction is clearly gross negligence, and if it results in harm, all who participated in the eviction caused the harm and violated the non-aggression principle.

The first question in abortion is, of course, personhood. Since prenatal children are persons, we have the same obligation to them that we have to adults: not to aggress against them. Given prenatal personhood and the you-endanger-them/you-protect-them obligation, the abortion-choice case evaporates. Prenatal children have both the right not to be killed — and the right to be in the mother's womb.




LFL explains and defends the libertarian case against abortion choice. Our reasoning is expressly scientific and philosophical rather than either pragmatic or religious, or merely political or emotional.

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