Abortion has long been a topic of debate among Libertarians.

Abortion and Libertarianism: Why the Ambiguity?

Link to the July 2022 Michigan Libertarian

The Libertarian Party has no formal position on abortion, and the opinions here are the opinions of the author. The author’s intent is to explain the ambiguity of the libertarian view on this controversial issue in terms of the movement’s core philosophical standards such as the non-aggression principal.

By Scotty Boman, Editor

The recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion has caused the topic to become more legislatively relevant for candidates seeking state and federal offices.  It will also motivate more voters to inquire into the Libertarian Party’s view on the issue.  This is especially true at a time when voters favoring legal abortions find the major party options unacceptable in light of their responsibility for an economy dominated by hyper-stagflation.

This is also the first election cycle in which the national Libertarian Party has no platform plank addressing the issue. This is because at the 2022 National Convention, delegates voted to remove the plank which read:

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.

On the one hand this language was neutral in the stated opinion of “all sides” of the issue, but it also had the effect of supporting legalized abortion by stating government, “should be kept out of the matter.” I recall one delegate, Jon Coon, supporting the language at the 1992 convention in Utah by arguing that if Libertarians can’t agree on the issue, then we can’t have the government deciding for us.  The key theme here is disagreement among Libertarians.

Abortion Neutrality Among Unconventional Conventionists

This theme carried over to this year’s convention.  The main argument, expressed, for removing plank 1.5 wasn’t to favor any prohibition on abortion, but rather to affirm neutrality by removing a de facto “pro-abortion-choice” plank. This continued neutrality is further addressed by a post on the Libertarian National Committee (LNC) website.

Part of the post reads,

“As ever, Libertarians approach this topic differently than the status quo. As the ruling political tribes have sprinted toward their extremes and taught their members to see all others as their enemies, the Libertarian Party has remained consistent, and yet nuanced in the face of a difficult issue that deserves careful thought and debate — not the political football treatment it gets from Republicans and Democrats.”

“Consistent but nuanced,” sums it up as well as it confuses anyone on the outside looking in.  So why are Libertarians so collectively ambivalent on an issue that is so cut and dry to liberals and conservatives who see “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps as opposites?  Why does this issue stand in stark contrast to other issues, like guns, vice laws, and taxes where Libertarians are strongly opinionated and unified.

The key is in understanding how Libertarians approach issues.  Unlike the old major parties, Libertarians normally derive opinions on issues from first principals. There are variations here, but one of those principals is the Non-Aggression Principal (NAP). Stated positively as supporting the supremacy of personal choice. This is also expressed as support for liberty from aggression… especially from aggression by governments. As a result, libertarians are likely to use different pro and con arguments than people outside the movement.

Assumptions of the Left-Right Paradigm

The establishment left’s view is often presented as an application of the non-establishment clause, and that abortion restrictions violate the separation of church and state. However, it would be a mistake to simply call the advocates of abortion prohibitions “theocrats.”  I know atheists who think abortion is murder. Why?

To Libertarians, a rational argument must be based in fact.  These are facts:

  1. A healthy fetus or embryo is alive. By any biological standard, a fetus qualifies as living. It has cells.  This isn’t a more ambiguous thing like viruses or artificial intelligence.
  2. If an embryo or fetus is conceived by humans, from human gametes, it is human. It isn’t a fish, chimpanzee, dog, or any other species. It is definitely not a plant.
  3. It isn’t just human cells, but a developing human because it is a complete zygote following a growth pattern that is continuous all the way to the time of death (be that before or after birth).

Notice no specific religious, mystical, or spiritualist beliefs are needed here.  Certainly not a belief in God. So if your argument against abortion laws is that they are only backed by theocratic premises, you have lost the argument.

So the argument against becomes, “Homicide means killing a human, and since abortions kill humans, it’s murder.”  There is a counterargument here, but you need to stay with reality to present it fairly.

Defending Rights

There are valid arguments in favor of permitting abortions, not as a right on it’s own, but as being implied in other rights.  It isn’t a natural, fundamental, or even Constitutional right:

Humans have a right to defend themselves from aggression and seek the aid of others in so doing. Lethal force may ethically be used to defend a victim’s life.  So at the very least, a person has a right to chose to kill a human if one has a reasonable belief that said human will end one’s life.  So if medical circumstances make death by pregnancy highly likely, homicide is justifiable, and self-defense is NOT murder.

The above argument was commonly accepted by a number of conservative abortion prohibitionists including Ronald Reagan*. Unfortunately, the left-vs-right establishment has become so polarized and dogmatic that both the left and right wings, of the statist bird of prey, insist on doubling down on crazy.

Libertarians may differ on what degree of force is permissible in responding to aggression. In the first argument, no specific intent, by the threat, needed to be invoked to justify the homicide; it was simple self-preservation.  Of course the  unborn has no “intent.”  So I am using aggression here as a behavioral outcome rather than a pre-meditated act. Most people would say lethal force is acceptable to defend ones-self from severe injury.  So those who believe that, would need to concede the right to abortions if they are needed to avoid such injury.

A counter-argument to the above is that a person consents to certain hazards if one choses to engage in activity that is likely to cause pregnancy (like sexual intercourse between fertile people). However, rape victims don’t consent to such activity, so the hazards of pregnancy can be viewed as a continuation of the rapist’s aggression.

A variation on the self-defense argument is that when the health of each is threatened, the life of person carrying the fetus takes precedence of that of the fetus.

Libertarian Grey

Then there are practical considerations and compromises.  Much of the debate regarding specific types of birth control and the morning after pill could be sidestepped by only considering ends to post-implantation pregnancies as abortion.  While the zygote is human, it is only a few cells.  A distinction I set aside at the start of this analysis is that there is a difference between a human and a person; personhood implies some level of sentients. The concept of personhood is more abstract than identifying human life, so Libertarians (as with the general population) have a large number of opinions on this matter.

Unlike other issues, that libertarians tackle so easily, the abortion issue presents us with a natural conflict of interest.  That is why libertarian philosophy doesn’t drive us directly to an obvious and simple conclusion.  It is easy to apply the principal that “Your rights end where my nose begins,” when one person’s nose isn’t inside of the other person. So, to be clear, Libertarians are pro-choice on everything, but that begs the question, “Who’s choice?” Libertarians are pro-life, but that begs that question, “who’s life takes precedence?”

In the long-term, medical innovations will make the debate less relevant.  Improvements in birth control will make unwanted pregnancies less likely among sexually active people.  Improvements in incubation and care for premature births will make it possible to end pregnancies, without ending lives, at earlier stages of development.

Meanwhile, the debate continues.


* Reagan also considered it to be “self-defense” to have abortions in cases of incest. I have never heard anyone attempt to explain how aborting the descendent of two close relatives qualified as self-defense. Normally the practice is defended as a form of eugenics since children of close relatives are more prone to certain birth defects. I have never heard a Libertarian make that argument.

Link to the July 2022 Michigan Libertarian

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