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Abortion: Is Pro-Choice a Libertarian Position?

by Dr. Joseph S. Fulda
Libertarians for Life
Copyright 1995 Dr. Joseph S. Fulda

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Those who favor abortion on demand use the rhetoric of libertarianism to justify their position. Hence, there is much talk of compulsory pregnancy, forced childbirth, lack of control over one's own body (bodily parts), absence of reproductive choice, and so on. Faced with such language pro-lifers often retreat into a discussion of liberty vs. license, liberty vs. order, or the primacy of the right to life over other rights. These arguments, while not without merit, yield far too much ground to the abortion advocates. For the simple truth is that freedom is not counterbalanced by a higher (or even simply other) good when abortion is proscribed. Liberty, recall, is the absence of originative coercion -- while abortion, of course, is an act of initiatory coercion. Hence, to outlaw abortion is merely to array societal forces against private coercion, a legitimate retaliatory use of force in the libertarian tradition. Indeed, it is rather a contradiction in terms to speak of "the liberty to rob, rape, or murder" since such actions are all very definitely coercive interventions in the lives of others and can hardly be justified by a doctrine of noninterference.

Writing in Power and Market, economist-philosopher Murray Rothbard points out the sufficiency of "Every man may act as he freely chooses" as a definition of liberty. The proviso usually added -- "provided he respects the like freedom of others" -- is rendered redundant by the universal quantifier "every." For, as Rothbard notes, if one man's freely chosen action is the assault or robbery of another, then the victim is deprived of living or acting as he chooses and liberty does not obtain.1 This is just the situation with abortion: The control being sought is not over one's own body but over another's. That is not freedom, there being no coherent notion of freedom for all which includes the freedom to coerce.

This brings us to the question of choice. No movement is more on the side of reproductive choice in its fullness and strict control over one's own body than the pro-life movement. Indeed, the essence of the pro-life position is respect for the reproductive choice made by the couple and flowing directly from the control the woman had over her own body. The abortion advocates, in contrast, do not respect the choice made in its fullness and seek control over the body -- indeed, the very life -- of another.

Thus far, we have twice provocatively referred to the unborn as "another." But the central question in the abortion debate is whether the unborn is, indeed, "another"; human life, that is, individuated from that of its mother. It is, of course, not independent of its mother (not even viable outside the womb early on, yet), but then neither is a neonate and supporters of infanticide cannot be joined in this debate anyway.

Whether the unborn is individuated human life is a theological question and a scientific question. Life becomes individuated, theologically, when God infuses the unborn with a soul, making it a child. Hence, when considered as a spiritual being, the time at which human life is individuated depends on one's religious beliefs: some say conception, others say later.2 In a secular society, however, it is not the place of the State to decide this question. Fortunately, however, when considered as a strictly material being -- as a mass of chemicals mediated by electrical impulses -- there can be no question, as George Will so eloquently pointed out,3 that human life is individuated at the moment of conception, since from that moment, "a new DNA complex ... directs the ontogenesis of the organism."4 That is, as soon as the zygote is formed, a new organism with its own genetic blueprint exists, and it is that blueprint -- and not that of the mother -- that directs the growth and development of the child.

Thus, talk of compulsory pregnancy or forced childbirth is little more than an ideological distraction. To be sure, the pregnancy might have been an undesired consequence of the desired sexual intimacy. But that is compulsory or coercive only in the sense that a man who throws a baseball a great distance for the pleasure he receives can claim that the resulting damage done to a neighbor's window was "against his will" and that the untoward consequence was "imposed" on him. It used to be understood that the laws of nature were not subject to legislative repeal or voiding by the courts and that natural results flowing from voluntary actions are in no meaningful sense "imposed."

The contrary of this simple enough proposition undercuts all of Western moral and legal theory, one reason of many why the abortion debate is not just another social issue. If our civilization is held together by any single notion, it is surely that the two senses of "responsible" are inextricably intertwined: If a man is responsible for an action in that he performed it, he is responsible for it in that he is liable for its consequences.5 The religious belief that virtue is rewarded and sin punished -- if not immediately, then eventually -- is so premised. Our system of free enterprise is also rooted in this idea: Every man receives neither an equal return on his labor, nor one based on need, nor one deemed fair by social theorists or experts in so-called comparable worth, but rather one based on what has been done for others as they see it. Reward flows from fruitful efforts, profits from successes, losses from failures: How could it be otherwise? Always, in the Western tradition, it has been tacitly accepted that responsibility in one sense flows from responsibility in the other sense. That is what makes social cooperation possible, the single principle which makes association with our fellow human beings other than fraught with continuous and overwhelming uncertainty, risk, and danger.

Yet it is just this central, civilizing principle that is under attack by those who wrongly label themselves "pro-choice." The relation between the dual notions of responsibility leaves no doubt as to whether a parent is responsible for the care and life of the child that he or she is responsible for bringing into the world.

It is not choice the abortion advocates desire, but the revocation of choice and its natural consequences. They wish to roam the world acting as they will and be "free" from the oppressive consequences of their own actions -- to be responsible for everything, yet responsible for nothing. This we cannot allow. It is not liberty, not choice, but escape from both.6


Copyright, 1995, Joseph S. Fulda, reprinted with permission. Originally published in The Lincoln Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, Summer-Fall 1995 (The Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20036; 202/223-5112).

Dr. Fulda is the author of Eight Steps towards Libertarianism (Free Enterprise Press, 1997). He is a Contributing Editor of The Freeman, Associate Editor of Sexuality and Culture: An Interdisciplinary Annual, and columnist for Computers and Society. He has been frequently published in scientific journals, mathematics journals, law reviews, philosophical journals, and journals of opinion.

Joseph S. Fulda
701 West 177th Street, #21
New York, NY 10033

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Endnotes

  1. See Murray Rothbard, Power and Market, (Institute for Humane Studies, 1970), p. 179. Curiously, Rothbard himself supports abortion rights on highly dubious grounds. See John Walker, "Children's Rights versus Murray Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty," Libertarians for Life.
  2. Orthodox Judaism maintains that this occurs forty days following conception, for example, but still well before the embryo becomes a fetus. However, although after this point abortion is homicide, whether it is murder is a complicated question of Jewish canon law and, in general, it is not capital murder.
  3. George F. Will, "The Case of the Unborn Patient," Newsweek, June 22, 1981, p. 92.
  4. Walker Percy, M.D., quoted by Will, ibid.
  5. American College Dictionary (Random House, 1970), p. 1034, definitions 3 and 1.
  6. I would like to acknowledge the perceptive, critical comments of Doris Gordon and John Walker of Libertarians for Life.



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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