The Libertarian Party’s Intellectually Lazy Official Position on Abortion

The Libertarian Party platform establishes the following stance on the issue of abortion:

1.5 Abortion

Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

While couched in libertarian language, this plank of the platform leaves much to be desired, particularly if it is to be used as a reference or even a premise by which libertarian policy should be pursued.   The issue of abortion is obviously a contentious one, and there are indeed good-faith views on all sides of the issue. However, as the party of principle, it is imperative that the Libertarian Party offer a position on the issue that is grounded in principle, and from which reasonable libertarian policy can be derived.  The wording of the platform with regard to this issue does not provide this guidance, instead, it seems to be content with side stepping an issue that the libertarian philosophy is uniquely qualified to address with clarity.  The inability to directly address an issue through the platform encourages the false dichotomy of the “pro-choice/pro-life” divide to infect the party.  The platform position does not address the issues of life or liberty that are fundamental to the abortion debate, and that the libertarian philosophy is perfectly suited to address.   Finally, the libertarian position on abortion overlooks and dismisses an important issue for women.

Libertarian thought has provided a great deal of useful direction regarding the issue of abortion, however, much of it has fallen into the same rhetorical trap as the left/right paradigms.  The specifics of the abortion debate within the libertarian context are primarily focused solely on one’s assertion regarding when human life begins.  There are two camps that generally create the ideological chasm that divides this debate (both inside and outside the libertarian context), those who believe that human life begins at conception and those who do not.  In general, those wishing to capitalize on the abortion debate exacerbate this chasm to create the political capital that can be extracted from this kind of dichotomized identity politics.  In fact, abortion is one of the primary issues used to generate this kind of political capital (“political capital”  in this sense is the value to the politician derived from those issues that can provide perpetual campaign material by exacerbating a problem, dividing the electorate over proposed solutions and of course never providing them).  This kind of capital ought to be an anathema to Libertarians, particularly because it is created by fiat and then vanishes along with all of its value as soon as actual solutions are implemented, and likewise because it is a tool specifically designed to promote a two-party paradigm.  The goal of the libertarian platform regarding abortion, and all issues that perpetuate the absurdity of political capital, should be to offer at least a premise for solutions, based on reason and principle.

The Libertarian Platform as it currently written does nothing to provide a foundation for solutions, let alone to provide principle or reason by which to deprive those “political capitalists” of their mammon.  While it is true that only in Libertarian circles are there actual constructive arguments occurring that attempt to address the issue of abortion with an end to providing solutions, much of the material currently being produced is only furthering the dichotomy surrounding the issue within the party; attempting to establish similar “pro-life” and “pro-choice” ideological camps.  This leaven of the political capitalists threatens to infect the party with an ideological divide that splits it right down the middle, and in doing so relegates those divided camps to simply siding with the left or the right in pragmatic attempts to attract new voters absent a principled stance that offers an actual way forward regarding the issue, which ought to be the hallmark of libertarian policy.

First, let’s quickly explore the two “sides” to this issue and the problems built into them.  As mentioned, the issue of abortion is generally argued from a perspective that life either begins at conception or at some later date in the development of the child.  This is an important distinction particular within a libertarian paradigm because at the point that human life begins, it is argued, is when rights, and therefore also any legitimate protection of the state would attach. This is the point at which the non-aggression principle would define how the individual should be morally interacted with. The pro-choice side of the argument simply dispenses with the issue by asserting that the fetus is not a human life; that it is a part of the woman’s body and therefore she is free to do with it what she pleases without consequence.  The pro-life side then makes the opposing claim; that the fetus is an individual at conception and at this point is when rights also attach, and generally this is also when the mudslinging begins.   Both sides to the issue have serious oversights within their premises particularly with regard to protecting both life and liberty.

On the “pro-choice” side of the issue, a problem presents itself as to when the fetus becomes an individual human being.  Since babies are born and survive at earlier and earlier stages of pregnancy it cannot simply be said that any unborn child is not human, unless the argument is that the act of birth, or removal from the womb, is what makes one human.  The genetic information alone presents a very strong argument that the individual exists as soon as those new genes are created.  Other factors such as brain development and our understanding of when consciousness begins can also speak to this determination.   As the fetus develops the argument that an individual, with individual rights, is not present quickly loses any connection to reality.  What is left with this argument is a cold and dismissive stance that rejects the nature of human gestation and of the unique intertwining of the rights of two obviously distinct individuals: mother and child.  This argument cannot be said to have its premise in nature, as it dismisses the nature of pregnancy altogether and it also completely dismisses the rights of the unborn child in favor of the rights of the mother.  

Pro-choice arguments tend to dehumanize or even criminalize the unborn child in an attempt to justify their position. Regarding the gestating child as nothing more than one of the woman’s internal organs, or even as a growing cancer is an example of this dehumanization.  A better, but still depersonalizing approach is the “eviction” theory put forward by Walter Block, which treats the unborn child as a trespasser inside the woman’s body, and argues that the woman has the right to “evict” the unwanted being, as long as she does so without harming them.  The eviction argument is a much better approach addressing both the rights of the woman and child, but it still falls short as it paints the child as a criminal, when no criminal intent is evident or even possible and when the woman is likely responsible (except for cases of rape) for the child’s presence in her womb in the first place.  The “pro-choice” side is not alone in its mistreatment of the issue, however, as the “pro-life” side is equally guilty of this unbalanced approach.

The “pro-life” side of the abortion argument within the libertarian context asserts that life begins at conception and therefore the individual must be treated as such at that time.    Using both religious and scientific arguments, a strong case is made that the individual exists from conception and that killing the individual is equivalent to murder.  However, when it comes time to put pen to paper to develop policy based on this premise, problems quickly arise.   What should the punishment be for a woman who aborts her child?  If we legally equivocate abortion to murder, as many do, then legally the mother should face life imprisonment or even execution in some states for the crime.  Regardless of the libertarian stance on the death penalty, the fact of the matter is that it does exist and equating abortion to murder legally does put the death penalty on the table as a potential sentence for the crime.   The interesting opposing position here is that while the “pro-choice” side tends to criminalize or dehumanize the unborn child, the “pro-life” side is faced with having to similarly paint the woman as a criminal for her actions.

More problems arise with regard to so-called “personhood” initiatives put forward primarily by pro-life political capitalists. These initiatives aim to legally recognize a person from the point of conception yet rarely go on to explore the legal ramification of such a policy.  The state has an obligation to police capital crimes such as homicide if they are to be enforced seriously, and if this is to apply to a person at the point of conception, then it will certainly be necessary for the state to at least investigate occurrences of early terminated pregnancies, whether they occur from abortion or by a miscarriage of some other cause.  Doctors would need to report miscarriages and the DA would need to investigate to determine whether charges should be filed.  If a husband and wife were trying to conceive and the wife missed a menstrual cycle but failed to give birth, it is conceivable that the husband, or anyone else for that matter, could report this potential crime to the state in order to be investigated, as one could and should in any suspected case of homicide.  Pro-life advocates, especially libertarians, quickly retreat from such conclusions, however, they do so without offering any alternatives. Ultimately the pro-life camp also fails to take into consideration the unique nature of pregnancy, and simply places the focus on the unborn child and completely disregards the rights of the mother.

The divide between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” is well developed and has been clearly defined with a litany of regurgitated rhetoric usually ending in one side calling the other side “baby killers” or “woman haters”.  The Libertarian ought to step back and realize that this is a rhetorical trap whose purpose is of course to manufacture political capital and ideological divides for campaign fodder.  To solve the problem of abortion we need to concern ourselves not only with when life begins but also with when the law begins.   The issue of abortion with regard to public policy is an issue of jurisdiction.  At what point does the state have the natural moral authority to intervene?  Fortunately, libertarian thought that addresses the natures of both life and liberty provides a sturdy structure by which to frame this debate.

Children are naturally dependent upon others for their survival.  This dependency, like all dependency, naturally limits the liberty of the individual. The limitation of liberty caused by dependency is, in fact, a primary source of all political power.  This dependency is why the law allows adults to encroach upon the liberties of children in ways that they would not be able to do upon another adult.  A certain degree of sovereignty exists because of the dependency.  However, an appropriate application of the law would also guard against abuse or neglect.  Children are not property, they are dependent individuals, and as such one has a duty to provide for their dependency instead of subjecting them to harm.  For instance, a parent could be reasonably charged with a crime for not feeding or clothing their child, or for being abusive and mistreating them.  The expectation is that a caregiver has a duty to protect the rights of the dependent person either by providing for the dependency or by transferring the dependency to another person or institution.  The law is reasonable in this regard: since the dependency can be transferred, it should be, and if harm comes at the hand of the caregiver, either by neglect or by a willful act, then they can reasonably be held accountable for it by law.

Pregnancy is unique in nature, so the dynamics governing the interaction between mother and the child growing inside of her have to be considered apart from other human interaction.   Prior to viability (the point at which the child can survive outside the womb), the child is completely and exclusively dependent upon the mother for survival.  This dependency cannot be transferred to another person or institution.  The mother is completely sovereign over the child by nature of the dependency; it is an awesome power and responsibility unique to motherhood in all of nature.  The state then oversteps its natural authority and steps upon the natural authority of the mother if it intervenes to punish her for causing harm to someone whose dependency cannot be transferred to someone else.  The jurisdiction of the state is naturally limited.  This limitation of jurisdiction does not define the morality or immorality of the act.  One can still clearly see abortion as an abhorrent and immoral act while also recognizing that the state has no natural authority to intervene prior to the viability of the child. This is a sobering recognition of the limits of government which should come naturally to a libertarian.

Laws regarding the dependent, and particularly children, are often presented as such for the sole purpose of expanding state power.  “It’s for the children” is all but a mantra for statist policy makers looking to justify their new encroachments. The abortion debate, even in conservative and some libertarian circles often echoes this mantra.  While this should send up a red flag for libertarians, the fact of the matter is that the nature of children, and of their dependency does naturally create a social duty of sorts. The social duty is not in the sense of the ambiguous “social contract” often used to justify a never-ending list of government social services.  This social duty is objectively evident in our nature as beings that must be nurtured by someone else through our childhood in order to survive.   Caring for the dependent among us is not only virtuous, but it is also an important consideration for the continuation of the human species. It is a natural part of our existence.  The policy of cold hearted “rugged individualism” is as unnatural as “social contract” theory is ambiguous and both are simply lazy attempts to side-step complicated policy issues.  Rejecting the concept of social duty with regard to the issue of abortion is simply an intellectual shortcut that certainly has no place in what should be a well thought out document like the Libertarian Party Platform.

Children are not property, and an unborn child is not simply a bodily appendage that can be cut out amorally.  We can safely and clearly make these assertions without the fear that it also justifies an inappropriate expansion of the state, but to do so we must recognize the limitation of the natural authority of the state and also recognize and trust women with their natural authority.  The limitation of the state’s jurisdiction in the matter of abortion does not belittle the matter, in fact, it magnifies its moral significance.   In the state of pregnancy, we have a unique situation where one person is completely and exclusively sovereign over another, and only the individual and God can rightfully adjudicate their actions.  In the delicate few weeks prior to viability, an awesome power is given to a woman, and human laws intent to usurp that sovereignty are not only impotent but also will result in an unnatural unraveling of human liberty.  It is a mistake for the Party not to give this issue the thorough consideration that it deserves.  The Libertarian Party’s unwillingness to address the issue of abortion according to the fundamental precepts of Life and Liberty that it represents certainly must turn some away from the party, and possibly, specifically women.

The Democratic, or left wing position on abortion is attractive to women because it specifically addresses women’s rights.  It recognizes the autonomy that a woman ought to have over her own body and specifically advocates for policy to protect it.  However, it dismisses almost completely the rights of the unborn and often is accused of promoting social deviance via a perversion of the natural procreative process.   The Republican or right wing position on abortion focuses on protecting unborn children, this position is attractive to many, including women, because it establishes a position and purports to fight for the rights of children.  However, it is often accused of being self-righteous and dismissive of women’s rights.  The Libertarian Party’s platform simply punts on the issue, even while it contains within its own philosophy a principled and reasonable premise that can actually be used to develop real policy solutions that both protect the rights of women as well as the unborn.  This dismissal could be received as a dismissal of an issue important to many people, particularly to women, and could also possibly be a hindrance to the Party being taken seriously by people in general.

In conclusion, it appears obvious that the Libertarian Party’s oversight regarding the issue of abortion in both unnecessary and possibly damaging to the Party’s credibility as a source of serious policy.  The libertarian philosophy is rich with wisdom by which to address the issue of abortion, and the issue of abortion must be addressed from a policy standpoint. It is irresponsible simply to say “it’s none of the government’s business” when principle, politics, and public opinion clearly indicate that it is.  Additionally, the relationship of this contentious issue with that of women’s rights makes it foolish to dismiss, particularly when considering the Libertarian Party’s need to be relevant outside of its traditional demographic.  The platform does not have to settle the issue of abortion; that is what policy debates are for, and even then it may never be done.  However, the platform should at least frame the issue within the principles of the party so that people can clearly see the libertarian philosophy can provide wisdom and insight that directs smart policy on the matter.

1.5 Abortion

The issue of abortion entails the fundamentally important precepts of both life and liberty intertwined in the unique condition of pregnancy.   Recognizing the autonomy and sovereignty of women over their own bodies, as well as the nature of how human life comes into being, the Libertarian Party believes that abortion policy should be carefully considered to both protect life as early as humanly possible while simultaneously limiting the scope of government from meddling into issues exclusively within the natural, individual sovereignty of a woman over her own body.  While public policy is an important aspect of this issue, ultimately we turn toward the free market and toward free individuals to provide solutions that protect and promote both life and liberty.

2 thoughts on “The Libertarian Party’s Intellectually Lazy Official Position on Abortion

  1. Pingback: The Libertarian Party’s Intellectually Lazy Official Position on Abortion – Oklahoma Grassroots

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