A Libertarian’s Thoughts on Abortion

After five years of being a libertarian, abortion is still the one political issue I haven’t made my mind up about.

That government has no business legislating one way or another is for me a given – but if abortion is murder, then libertarian ethics kick in, and the mother may be initiating violence.

Whether the Non-Aggression Principle is indeed violated depends entirely on whether abortion is murder. Since I’ve still not made up my mind about this, I’m going to spell out the arguments and thoughts I have on this topic, even though they are a work in progress.

When Does Abortion Become Murder?

Since it is murder to kill a newborn, it can be likewise said that aborting a fetus a day before the due date is also murder. After all, a C-Section performed at this time would result in a living newborn. The same is true if a C-Section is performed a week, or even a month before the due time.

On the other hand, an aborted fetus just a day after conception is probably not murder, since the development of the fetus is by then minimal – just a small cluster of cells.

Abortion, at a certain point in the development of the fetus, clearly becomes murder. But at what point? Where do we draw that line? What is it about a human being that makes it wrong to murder them?

Is it the fact that humans feel pain? I don’t think so. There are humans who, for various reasons, feel no pain. Killing them because of it is no less murder.

Is it the ability to think and reason? No, because that would make the murder of retards acceptable.

Or is it the fact that it cannot survive on its own? If a C-Section would result in an infant incapable of surviving, then perhaps the line could be drawn there. If the fetus cannot survive on its own, then it isn’t murder.

But I don’t think this is valid either. After all an infant, while capable of surviving in the immediate sense of not requiring an umbilical cord to feed it, would die in a few days without someone to look out for them. An infant cannot procure its own food, cannot seek shelter… it cannot even walk. Independence and the ability to survive are then not the defining characteristics of what makes someone human, either.

Some people might say it is the “soul”. I’m not religious in the least, and I do not see any evidence for belief in the existence of a soul. If a soul is some kind of spiritual entity separate from our bodies, I have seen no proof of it. As far as I can tell, the idea of a soul is a feeble attempt by humans to comfort themselves with a sense of immortality.

As such, positing the existence of a soul raises more questions than it answers. Occam’s razor would go against such an explanation. The soul is too much a leap of faith to be a good argument in a discussion based on reason.

Besides, merely believing in the existence of a soul still leaves the initial question unanswered. Now the question becomes “At what point does the soul enter the body?” Is it at conception? At a certain point in the development of the fetus? Now we have the initial problem, plus the problem of proving a soul exists.

So far, I have not found a satisfactory answer as to what it is specifically that makes killing a human murder, and hence at what point an abortion becomes murder. Have I missed something?

The Parasite Argument

The parasite argument comes from the self-ownership principle. Since the woman owns her body, the fetus can be thought of as trespassing on her property. And since the fetus is, when unwanted, a parasite that requires an umbilical cord to survive, the parasite argument states that the mother can “evict” the fetus.

For a while, this argument actually seemed like a fairly decent idea. It solved the problem through property rights, and seemed to put the question of what exactly makes killing a human an act of murder aside.

But then I realized that this argument does not apply if the fetus was invited in the first place.

Since no contraceptives are perfect, by having sex, even protected sex, the mother consents to the possibility of becoming pregnant.

Now since consent is the difference between sex and rape, a woman who is raped and did not consent to the act, did not consent to the pregnancy either. In this case, eviction of the fetus through an abortion is justified. This would confirm what most people believe: that abortion in case of rape is morally permissible.

But if she did consent to the possibility through sex, is eviction appropriate?

If I invite someone to my house, and then (for example because of their behaviour) decide I don’t want them there anymore, I can reasonably ask them to leave. If they insist on staying, I am perhaps justified in using force against them. After all, this is my property.

But what if they are unable to leave?

The fetus is that unique case. It is the case where an invitation may be given, but not rescinded until after a certain period of time, because the fetus becomes dependent on the mother for its survival. It cannot leave voluntarily. Eviction would require murder.

The Presumption of Innocence Analogy

Within the legal system, there is a certain bias. It says that better ten guilty men walk free, than an innocent man be caged.

To minimize the chance of innocent men being incarcerated, the general rule states that you are “Innocent until proven guilty”. This presumption of innocence puts the burden of proof on the prosecutor.

Let me construct an analogy with abortion:

I would rather not advocate an abortion even though the abortion would not have been murder, than advocate one and risk it having been so.

That’s basically where I’ve arrived at so far. Abortion is okay if no invitation was given (in case of rape), but not okay under other circumstances.

Frankly I’m not very satisfied. I feel like I’ve missed something. Do you have additional arguments? Please leave a comment if you have something to add.

4 thoughts on “A Libertarian’s Thoughts on Abortion”

  1. At the end of your first section, you asked what makes killing a human murder. I think a satisfactory Libertarian answer would be that the person owns their own body and damaging or killing them would be initiating force. Does that help at all?

  2. I consider the parents to be responsible for the offspring. Until the child is capable of making his/her own decisions, the parents make the choices, and no one has the right or responsibility to interfere.

    This position does still have some flaws, but I find that it answers most of my own uncertainties on the issue. If the choice results in the death of a child, it is tragic, but the consequences provide the punishment.

    Scientifically, life begins at conception, since the cells are alive. The cells, however, are incapable of choosing whether to live or die; they live and divide because it is their nature. Until the cells produce a being capable of perceiving and comprehending consequences, the parent bears full responsibility of choice.

  3. I find your supposition that having sex is comparable to inviting a stranger into your home. It is more like inviting a stranger (your sexual partner) into your home, and a third guest arrives, through no invitation of yours, simply because the door was open. This is like saying that simply because you opened your door, anyone can come in and can be expected to not be evicted if his life, then, depends on staying in your house. The action of opening the door creates the risk that an intruder will enter, but that does not mean that intruder was invited, nor does that mean the invitation extended to he who was actually invited (in this case, the sexual partner) extends, automatically, to anyone who manages to enter the door while the invited party is being received.

    1. Carlos,
      The more exact analogy you refer to would be akin to inviting a stranger into your home KNOWING that there is a small possibility of another stranger tagging along as well. You hope the other stranger does not come, but you KNOW there is a possibility as such. This analogy requires no ignorance unless the inviter truly has a mental disorder and cannot reason.
      One can not claim unless they are an imbicile, that pregnancy is NEVER a real possibility even with the best of contraception. Until there is a 100% proven guarantee, every couple who engages in sex takes this risk. Proof? All birth control labels give exact figures as to the rates of pregnancy. One does not read labels? Buyer (behavior engager) beware. That is the cost of freedom and choice is it not?

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