A Pro-Life Libertarian Case for Abortion Rights

A Pro-Life Libertarian Case for Abortion Rights

Partial birth abortion is now back in the national spotlight after the last presidential debate. Many of my most thoughtful libertarian friends are torn on the issue of abortion, particularly late term abortion, because it is a moral dilemma of a perhaps totally unique sort. The fetus is absolutely dependent on its mother for survival until at least the 24th week, and then after that for its health and development until around the 37th week of pregnancy. It’s difficult to get around that biological reality. Pregnancy is the only time in which another human being’s body is absolutely dependent on the body of another specific irreplaceable human being. And until artificial wombs are a reality, that’s where we’ll be stuck.

I’m in the morally pro-life camp and have been ever since I saw my oldest daughter on an ultrasound at 13 weeks. She had fingers and toes and by the 20 week ultrasound she was a little human being. At some point, no matter how you work it, fetuses become humans and we’re stuck with a conflict between fundamental individual rights. Walter Block famously tried to thread this needle with his theory of evictionism, which is a decent starting point except that most infants do not have great outcomes at the point of viability (around 24 weeks), so you’re not just evicting someone but substantially reducing their potential and quality of life moving forward. But at least his approach tries to wrestle with the conflicting rights of both mother and child.

Ultimately though, what interests me is not the morality of abortion, which I think libertarians can have widely different legitimate opinions on. What’s more troubling for libertarians is the practical issue of where they should stand on governmental interference in private medical decisions. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that many libertarians’ attitudes toward government power completely flip when it comes to the abortion issue. Many argue that late term abortions should be restricted or prevented altogether because at some point the procedure becomes murder, and the government’s (perhaps only) legitimate job is preventing harm to one’s body (or property) (here’s a brief discussion).

This argument seems reasonable until we apply that justification for prohibition to almost any other method of use of government force to prevent harm to individuals in practice. We could prevent many murders through mass surveillance or tracking, but libertarians aren’t comfortable with that. We could prevent many murders by locking up for life anyone convicted of a violent crime, but libertarians aren’t comfortable with that either. We could prevent many murders or serious cases of assault by forcibly sterilizing some people, but libertarians didn’t like that when it was tried 100 years ago and they don’t like it now. In fact, the libertarian attitude toward criminal justice reform is, largely, that we need reform because even if expansion of government power could prevent some violent crimes, the costs to freedom would be too great. Why don’t pro-life libertarians make this same trade off about abortion? Why is our attitude toward risk different toward the would-be criminals out in the real world than it is toward women making intimate and difficult decisions about their own bodies?

I suspect part of the disconnect is a lack of knowledge about who uses late term abortions and for what reasons. First, late-term abortions (any abortions after 20 weeks) are very rare.  Third trimester abortions are even more rare, and most are done because the fetus is incompatible with life. These parents choose late-term abortions, not because they want to kill their children, but to save those children pain and suffering (and here). Of course, there are probably a very small number of people who do use late term abortions in a way that most of us would consider to be morally irresponsible, just as there are people out there who harm others in ways that we cannot prevent without severely restricting the liberties of everyone else. But limiting late term abortions would not prevent many of those instances, because they are already very limited to begin with. It would, however, put families in heartbreaking and dangerous situations, including being forced to actually harm their child by giving birth to it. There is simply no way to limit late term abortions without harm being the primary side effect. Moreover, women who end up having abortions after 20 weeks (distinguished from those who have abortions in the third trimester for fetal health reasons) are more likely to be poor, have low education levels, and be victims of domestic abuse, all of which make it difficult to find a provider or pay for the procedure at an earlier stage of pregnancy. More restrictions on abortion will simply make it harder for vulnerable women to find care, which in turn makes them more likely to have to choose more morally problematic forms of abortion. Libertarians are usually the first to talk about the unintended side effects of government policies and limits on abortion should be a prominent case study, yet many pro-life libertarians are silent on this issue.

But I also think part of the libertarian blind spot toward the dangers of governmental intervention in abortion comes from the lack of women in the movement, which means there are not enough people involved in the debate who have actually carried another human being in their bodies for 9 months and experienced the discomfort, inconvenience, sickness (alongside a lot of beauty and meaning) of pregnancy. Sharing your body with another human being is no mild inconvenience. And the decision to end a pregnancy in the 7th, 8th, or 9th month of pregnancy comes with dangers of its own and requires a great deal of thought and medical attention. Women and their doctors do not make these decisions lightly.

I’m morally pro-life. I do believe that late term abortions represent the destruction of a human life. Perhaps if evidence emerges that women are choosing late term abortions in large numbers for the fun of it, we might rethink the tradeoff between government intervention and individual rights, just as we might push for stricter criminal justice standards in the face of a wave of violence. But we have no evidence that that’s the case. And like almost all libertarians, I do not think the government is well meaning enough, rational enough, far-seeing enough, or consistent enough to intervene in women’s private medical decisions in a way that does not do much more harm than good. I’d like my libertarian friends who are in favor of restricting access to abortion rights, even just restricting late-term abortion rights, to step back and ask themselves whether the government they believe can protect fetal life so effectively and fairly is the same government that they believe is woefully and perhaps irredeemably corrupt, inefficient, ineffective, and harmful in most other areas of human affairs. Or is it instead that they have inconsistent attitudes toward government intervention in this case because they have not adequately thought through what’s at stake? Either way, you can’t believe government is a dangerous Leviathan in 99.9% of cases and a unicorn in one particular case. Limiting government and encouraging freedom means accepting moral risk in an imperfect moral world.

Published on:
Author: Lauren Hall
  • Mike T

    At human conception we have a living human entity with “unalienable Rights” according to a physical law of nature known as the constructal law:

    • Neverfox

      So what? A “living human entity with “unalienable Rights” according to a physical law of nature known as the constructal law” still cannot be inside of someone else’s body against their will.

      • Mike T

        Thanks for sharing your philosophy. My focus is on the science and the reality of the laws of nature, the laws that make life possible; not one’s philosophy supporting death.

        • Neverfox

          Does this science and reality of the laws of nature allow me to be inside of someone else’s body, in a deeply intimate way, against their will? If so, why? If not, why is it different for between conception and birth?

  • Gurrie

    The writer makes an unwarranted leap to the idea of having government force used to “prevent” murder rather than simply outlawing it and punishing it if proven. The issue is — should abortion be considered to be murder in the first place? There seems to be no argument that, once born, a baby has constitutionally protected life, no matter what the economic burden or life style burden might be to the mother. The question should be “when and why does constitutionally protected life begin?”
    I happen to believe, as a matter of moral values, that a distinct and important life is created at conception, but I am undecided on the question of whether it should be constitutionally protected. After all, even murder, as to both its definition and its prescribed punishment, is still decided, mostly, on the state level. I’m not even sure that’s a good thing, but it is what it is.

    • Lauren Hall

      The analogy isn’t a perfect one, admittedly. But even going after doctors who provide late term abortions and women who have abortions after the fact creates a serious problem of unintended harms. And perhaps the better analogy would be outlawing protecting oneself with lethal violence because every so often one might kill the wrong person. Late term abortions are, at least in some cases, matters of self defense. So while we wouldn’t outlaw self-defense even if sometimes people kill the wrong people, we also shouldn’t outlaw abortions on the grounds that sometimes the wrong fetus might be killed. Maybe that gets closer to the problem. I’m still mulling some of this over.

      • Puppet’s Puppet

        Though you identify as a morally pro-life libertarian, I don’t think that your argument here speaks much to the beliefs of the typical politically pro-life libertarian.

        Your thesis is basically: (1) that some late-term abortion is morally justified, or rather, not an infringement on the rights of the fetus; and (2) that enforcing prohibitions on the morally prohibited cases only would be an impossible task for a state committed to respecting the rights of all. It certainly cannot be the case that late-term abortion is always an infringement on the rights of the fetus, and yet prohibitionist proposals are unduly intrusive. The demands of the American pro-life movement are quite modest: A simple legal abolition, akin to the 13th Amendment; the natural consequences of such a prohibition on tort, contract, and property law, etc.; a shuttering of practices where discovered; and a punishment of practitioners. There is hardly anything about these measures that is inherently problematic. We do not ask, for example, for the punishment of mothers, which avoids a great potential for intrusiveness. (I had actually been struggling with the objection that this provision had no justification that did not condescend toward the moral agency of the mother, so thank you!)

        People may feel that abortion is wrong for all sorts of reasons, but the typical political pro-lifer (certainly nearly all whose beliefs are guided by orthodox Christian doctrine; and, more to the point, nearly all those who identify as libertarians) operate under two beliefs: (1) The fetus has the moral status of a fully grown human being; and (2) nothing about the fetus’s peculiar circumstance renders its “innocence”–its right not to be harmed by others–forfeit. Much ink has been spilled about these points, but you don’t do anything to attack them here. For someone who has already accepted them, and who accepts the legitimacy the standard minimalist state, there’s not much elbow room.

        You spend the bulk of your post presenting arguments that we political pro-lifers have considered before, and that do not in the end threaten our position in light of the above beliefs. Babies may be born with defects. (We do not consider killing them to be a cure that respects their rights.) Women who abort late are often too poor or oppressed to have aborted earlier. (Assuming we believe that early-term abortions do not also infringe upon the rights of a person, that is certainly a tragedy, but it does nothing to take away from the fact that the person is now here in all its full glory and is none at all less wronged by killing it.) Pregnancy is “no mild inconvenience,” abortion is a heartrending decision, men do not know what it’s like, etc. (Again, we have heard these before, and considered them. It is with a heavy heart, an especially heavy one as libertarians, that we force a woman to carry another human being inside her for nearly a year. We just cannot see how this outweighs the right every person has to his own life; and you do not do much here to argue against it.) You are trying to pass off late-term abortion as potentially a “private medical decision” that might be intruded upon by the government, but we do not acknowledge this. To us, it is a rare example of a public, or rather interpersonal, medical decision. That is how we got here, us libertarians who would deny women the legal right to this procedure. You are not really coming up with some special new reason for us to change our minds.

        Moreover, your thesis is quite strong. You want the state to permit all late-term abortions. But you really don’t do much to argue per se that the government would have problems sorting permissible from impermissible cases in a way that was not unduly intrusive. (For birth defects, for example, we could permit the doctor to proceed with the abortion but demand that he make sufficient evidence available for investigation after the fact as to the abortion’s “necessity.” Since late abortions are so rare, we could certainly have the resources to investigate them as we do all suspicious child deaths.) Instead, I think you illegitimately import this notion of “women’s private medical decision” and the intuitions it may evoke. Look, if I think that late-term abortion illegitimately infringes upon the fetus’s right to life under these circumstances but not under those, I will push for a legal regime that prima facie aims to protect the fetus from being killed under the former circumstances but not the latter. The mother has no particular authority in adjudicating which is which; the fact that she is carrying the baby does not alter the facts of the matter or otherwise entitle her to sit in judgment of her baby’s right to life. We seem to be back to the basic thing that pro-choicers seem often not to fully grasp about pro-lifers.

        Late-term abortion is not, certainly not inevitably, a “woman’s private medical decision.” It is, at least some of the time, the unjustified killing of an innocent baby. If you’re going to argue, as you do, that the state can do absolutely nothing, under any circumstance, at least in terms of prohibitory enforcement, to protect these babies without infringing upon the rights of the mother (rights which do not at all include the right to kill her child under such circumstances), I think you’re going to have to do more.

        • Theresa Klein

          The mother has no particular authority in adjudicating which is which; the fact that she is carrying the baby does not alter the facts of the matter or otherwise entitle her to sit in judgment of her baby’s right to life.

          I could sympathize with your argument except for this statement.
          The pro-lie movement always seems to end up circling back around to the primordial position that a woman’s rights are subordinate to those of any baby she happens to be carrying, which means that her primary role in life is always as baby factory, and not as an independent human being who might have other ideas for herself.
          I mean, it’s only her body and her future health that are being put at risk, not like there are TWO people whose rights to life are involved here.

          • Puppet’s Puppet

            There are circumstances under which a mother violates her baby’s right to life by aborting him, and circumstances in which she does not. Perhaps one or the other circumstance sets is empty; I was not addressing that question with this portion of my argument. The point is that she may, in the latter cases (whatever they may be), decide whether or not to abort her baby for whatever reason she sees fit. Moral, personal, whimsy, you name it. It is none of the state’s business. That is the judgment she is entitled to, because it is her body and the fact of the matter is that her rights supersede under these circumstances.

            What I am merely saying, again, is that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether or not the child’s life is indeed forfeit under a particular circumstance–whether the mother, by virtue of rights she may hold (and she holds a whole bunch prima facie, it being her body and all that he is riding around in) has the right to kill him on that occasion. This is an inherently public question. The mother is not sovereign over the baby, like a lord over a serf, that she has any particular favored position in making the rules for this sort of thing. I am not ignoring the rights of one party over the rights of another. I am, rather, saying that their prima facie rights are in conflict under this situation, and that the job of the just government is to sort this situation out according to objective moral truth and protect the rights that exist when all is said and done. Surely you are not taking issue with this.

            The real $64 question is of course exactly what circumstances fall into which objective category. And here one may criticize a particular assessment as wrong; then one may indeed say, depending on which direction the claim seems skewed, that it doesn’t get it right but rather “subordinates the rights” of one party to the other. On this my point was that a lot of ink has been spilled on such matters, which pro-lifers have duly chewed over. We have come to our judgment on the matter; and, assuming we believe in states, we expect our state to recognize it and defend it as they do all other rights: with a sense of balance. To repeat, enforce our judgment, not the mother’s. If we really have concluded that abortion would violate the rights of the child under a circumstance, we no more care what the mother thinks about the matter than we would what the slavemaster thinks about his rights over the slave. For mother and child are as metaphysically distinct a pair of individuals as any other; the peculiarity of their arrangement potentially affects only the fact of the matter as to whether abortion would, objectively, violate the rights of the child; once it is determined that the mother individual would indeed violate the rights of the child individual, that is that, period. And I am saying that in this post you really don’t do much to either make a case about the well-trod question of exactly when, objectively speaking, the child’s rights (taking into consideration the mother’s as well, naturally) are violated, or to convince us of exactly how our modest prohibitionism would be impossible without violating genuine rights right and left. Instead, we get illegitimate moves like the conflation mentioned here: Having duly and fully considered the mother’s rights in light of her peculiarly burdensome and interconnected circumstance, and “ruled against her” nonetheless, we are asked to unjustly bring that matter under consideration again when determining whether the state should defend the (on balance, not prima facie) rights that we have already affirmed–degrading the child’s status as a full and distinct person.

          • Theresa Klein

            Is an unborn baby really a “full and distinct person”? Children in general are not really legally regarded as full and distinct people, parents are considered guardians who make decisions on their behalf, up to and including terminating life support if they are in a brain-dead comatose state. Again, these kind of absolutist positions don’t help us navigate between the beginning of pregnancy when the fetus is a blastocyst and the end, when it’s a viable baby. People don’t suddenly become full and distinct people at conception, or at birth, and we have never even treated them that way until the age of maturity. The law needs a middle ground in which parents are allowed to make medical decisions on behalf of their unborn offspring, and that should include deciding if the baby’s life isn’t going to be worth living.

          • Puppet’s Puppet

            Personhood is obviously a critical issue, a necessary consideration for a libertarian to even start debating abortion restrictions. But it appears to be bracketed by Prof. Hall, as it has been in many discussions of abortion, and I proceeded under this assumption. Obviously other positions are possible. If we do grant full personhood to the fetus, however, it becomes hard to permit killing it from a libertarian perspective.

            I would not quite describe the “pro-family libertarian” (i.e., not the sort who regards children as “legal adults” as e.g. Rothbard did) as regarding minors as having “degraded personhood,” though I suppose there is some sense in putting it that way. For instance, murdering them (no matter who is doing the murdering) is normally treated completely indistinguishably from murdering an adult. These sorts of things need to be carefully distinguished from the ways in which their status as human individuals is unmistakably degraded from its usual position in a libertarian society. In general, it is the difference between the question of to what extent they, as is a central default right for “full citizens” under such an outlook, have the right to be the sole agent of their own best interest, versus the question of to what extent they may even be said to have interests in the first place.

            Perhaps you believe that parents should have some authority to decide when their children’s lives are worth living, and to kill them otherwise. But whatever you think, it does not make much sense on this matter to limit this provision to “unborn children” as you do–to treat in a sharply different manner children who are about to have been born and children who have just been born. It may make a difference for considerations of what right the mother may have with regard to potential conflicts with her own prima facie rights–the “invader” status of the unborn and so forth. But it should not make such a sharp difference when it comes to the right of the mother to act in her child’s best interest–nor with the degree to which the child can be said to have interests that compel others at all, what I’ve been calling the “personhood” considerations strictly speaking.

          • Theresa Klein

            I agree that the moral status of the fetus doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change sharply at birth, however a big difference that happens at birth is that the baby is no longer physically inside the woman’s body, so it no longer poses a threat to her welfare. That changes the moral equation in a way that justifies a different, higher threshold for killing a newborn than for killing an unborn baby. Not that the baby is any less of a person, but that the baby is no longer imposing (as much) cost upon the mother.

            Incidentally, I’m also sympathetic to Peter Singer’s idea that neonaticide ought to be legal in cases of severe disability. Really, the same criterion should apply to newborns as fetuses, with the exception that if some other person wishes to adopt and care for the disabled newborn they should be allowed to step in and do so. That’s impossible if the fetus is inside the mother.

          • Lacunaria

            Are you overlooking the mother’s responsibility in creating the fetus? She took the risk of causing exactly the situation you now characterize as infringing her liberty. She has not done anything wrong yet, but she has put herself into a position of positive moral responsibility for the fetus’s life and health by causing it’s existential dependence upon her.

            This is why exceptions are made for forcible rape. In that case, it is the dilemma you describe where one person’s functional freedom is weighed against another’s right to life.

          • maleredfem

            You hear that, you filthy sluts? You knowingly and willingly chose to have sex, and in so doing made a Faustian pact, in which you forewent sovereignty over your own reproductive system, and must therefore be forced, through the violence of the state, to undergo the nine months of physical and mental hardship that is the due punishment for your disgusting, slutty behaviour!

            Fuck, you people make me sick! Fucking misogynistic pieces of shit, the lot of you!

          • Lacunaria

            What a vulgar and gross misrepresentation. Sex is not a Faustian pact. It’s an act with known and natural consequences. For what other acts do you indemnify the actors of responsibility?

          • maleredfem

            In what other cases do you believe it right to deploy the violence of the state against someone for seeking to prevent another person from undergoing the natural consequences of their actions? Furthermore, you clearly do see consensual PIV as a kind of Faustian pact, whereby the the person with the vagina foregoes any legitimate claim to sovereignty over their own reproductive system by virtue of consenting to sex, and you also see pregnancy under those circumstances as due punishment for the person with the vagina (as evidenced by your criticism of me as wanting to absolve them of responsibility for their actions), so don’t even try and fucking pretend otherwise, you piece of shit!

          • Lacunaria

            You didn’t answer my question and I don’t understand yours.

            If you perform the steps necessary to create a human life, then you are responsible for its circumstances. What other moral agent do you see here?

            You can argue that it’s not human life or doesn’t have a right to life, but if it does, then it is irrational and immoral to suppose that the man and woman aren’t solely responsible for its existence and dependence upon the woman for the next nine months.

            Pregnancy is not a punishment. It is a well-known result of sex.

            The state, like anyone else, can intercede in any injustice, including the murder of innocents.

            If you actually want to debate this, then please engage with what I am actually saying and stop with the insults.

  • Theresa Klein

    I’ll chime in as a female who is both a libertarian and a mother (I have a 1 year old daughter).

    I think you’re making a philosophical error by comparing bans on late-term abortion to global surveillance or pre-emptively locking up people convicted of a violent crime. But stopping punishing people for killing a 7-month old fetus is not preemptive in that way. Nobody’s talking about locking up pregnant women because they *might* have abortions. They’re talking about making actually killing a 7 month old fetus a punishable crime.

    That said, I’m generally pro-choice, although I’m sympathetic to the idea that ending a late term pregnancy for reasons other than fetal or maternal health should be illegal. Having given birth has softened my stance on that. There is no meaningful moral difference between a 28-week pre-term baby and a 28-week fetus. Beyond a certain point the medical literature says you can give birth at any time and the fetus will be just fine. Plenty of women have their water break at 30 weeks and have normal healthy babies. Sometimes they do it on purpose if the woman has pre-eclampsia.

    Which brings me to another point. You’re absolutely right that pregnancy is NOT a minor inconvenience. It is a highly risky condition to be in, (which should be really obvious when you recall how pregnant women historically are often treated like near-invalids). There are all sorts of medical problems that can crop up during pregnancy that can have long-term effects on a woman’s health. Common problems include pre-eclampsia, which can be life threatening , but is hard on the body even if not. Severe heart-burn is common (which is what I had), and can permanently damage the esophagus (GERD) (this happened to my sister). Gestational diabetes can trigger permanent type-II diabetes. Hypothyroidism can develop after pregnancy (I also got that). Basically, pregnancy can wreck your body in a lot of ways.

    Also, very importantly, almost 1/3 of all deliveries in the US today end in C-sections, which is major abdominal surgery and carries all sorts of risk with it, including the risk of perforating the bladder, or rendering the woman infertile due to damage to the uterus. Imagine being compelled to go through with a pregnancy at 14, having a C-section, and then finding out when you’re 28 that you uterus is too scarred to have any more babies.

    So it’s not like an “eviction”, it’s like an eviction of a squatter who is trashing your house. Thus, to my mind, the eviction argument works well, just set the threshold a bit later, when the medical literature indicates outcomes are closer to nominal. If the woman can trade off a significant amount of risk in the last couple of months for not much impact on the fetus, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to induce labor and put the child up for adoption. I would still allow late term abortions as well if the fetus is going to be severely disabled.

    • rowbigred26

      On the eviction piece, I’m not a huge fan of that comparison. A baby isn’t a squatter. It’s (99.99% of the time) an invited guest. And evicting it is more a kin to throwing a guest off a bridge into a fast flowing river. Sure, he might make it but his health will likely be adversely affected for the rest of his life. That said, I’m not a woman and don’t have a uterus (though I am a father of 3). I agree with your philosphical argument. Criminalizing abortion is not the same as a mass surveillance system to curtail murders.

      • Theresa Klein

        Even an invited guest can wear out it’s welcome. And I don’t think having sex is morally equivalent to an invite. Unwanted pregnancies are unwanted. Unless by “invite” you mean “inviting trouble” – as in having unprotected sex is like leaving your door unlocked and expecting to not get burglarized. I can see an analogy between having sex and leaving the door unlocked. But leaving your door unlocked still isn’t an invitation to squatters to move in and and trash your house.

        • rowbigred26

          I agree the analogy isn’t perfect. Like the author said, pregnancy is a unique relationship and is not easily compared to human interactions outside the womb. But I think unprotected sex is closer to inviting a guest than it is to a squatter just walking in through an unlocked door (that seems more analagous to rape).

      • Neverfox

        “It’s (99.99% of the time) an invited guest.” Invited from where? Where were they before being inside of the mother? What state of affairs were they in that the mother has an obligation to safely return them there?

    • Lauren Hall

      The preemption piece is rather that we would preventing everyone from having abortions because some people might have illegitimate abortions. My point is that if we want to prevent late term abortions we have to wrestle with the fact that some non-negligible number of late term abortions are legitimate, either due to dangers to a mother’s health or, more commonly, because the baby is incompatible with life. You can take issue on whether that’s a legitimate reason to terminate a pregnancy. I personally feel it is. My concern is that I don’t trust the government to make those distinctions and I certainly don’t trust the government to make those distinctions in a fair or impartial manner.

      • Theresa Klein

        I think you could establish some sort of regulated system though. And you could make the same argument about euthanasia, too. You don’t want to give doctors carte-blanche to euthanize people, but you also don’t want to completely ban euthanasia. We could have some sort of legal process where an authorized person has to certify that the abortion is being provided for legitimate reasons. The criminal liability then falls upon the authorized person if they are authorizing illegitimate abortions.

        • Lauren Hall

          My concern is that we have very few examples of systems like that that work well in real life. The euthanasia example works well so far (as far as I know) in relatively well-off states with very few cases. Do you really trust Mississippi or Alabama to engage in such a project with either good faith or adequate funding? I say this not to vilify those states but to point out that their health care systems are already incredibly strained and an additional bureaucratic layer in a state that’s largely against any abortion rights at all seems like a recipe for disaster. My issue is not that I can’t *imagine* a system like that that could work but that I can’t find any examples of such a system that work well in real life.

          • Theresa Klein

            Maybe it wouldn’t work well, but it might be a price worth paying, at least if you believe that 7 month old fetuses are human beings with a right to live. We put up with lots of crap in order to protect the rights of innocent people – jury trials and evidentiary rules included. Late term abortions are rare, so this layer of bureaucracy would only affect a small number of people, but it would protect a small but not zero number of innocent lives. Abortion is a complex and difficult issues, so perhaps it worth putting up with a bit of inefficiency.

          • Puppet’s Puppet

            Actually, the euthanasia case should be very easy for a libertarian. The stronger ones will say that anyone, under any circumstances, may take a contract out on his or her life. The weaker, no-selling-yourself-into-slavery ones will say that the state should not recognize such a contract (and thus exempt your killer from prosecution), but that another person can certainly procure the necessary tool for you as long as you do the actual killing. Under neither case do we encounter the way “assisted suicide” is conducted everywhere in the world it is legal today, in which doctors (“first, do no harm”) are put in the ghoulish position of judging for the state whether your life is, indeed, officially worthless enough at this point to justify your killing. So, yes, I trust Mississippi to manage the simple matter of legalizing narcotics, of making it everyone’s choice to do what they will with their own body, period. I do not trust them, or anyone else, with the task of deciding that matter for another human being–especially when it’s a government deciding when one of their citizen’s lives is, in their august judgment, no longer worth living.

            As for “trusting the government” when it comes to determining when abortion should be permitted and when it should not: Remember that we are not, in fact, talking about “trusting the government” to make such a judgment when it is indeed a “private medical decision.” (If we are already so assuming, then libertarians will not have to chew that one over very long at all! We do not acknowledge that the government has any right to do such a thing under any circumstance.) What we are actually concerned with is whether we “trust the government” with the matter of adjudicating whether one party is infringing upon another’s rights, and then protecting these rights with its police power. And this is a paradigmatic function of the minimalist state! And discerning the rights and the proper policy is very often hard, and the subject of heated debate among libertarians. We don’t very lightly throw up our hands and say, this one cannot or should not be solved; it certainly is not “more libertarian” to do so. We are keenly aware of the enormous inherent danger that the state poses by its very existence, and we do not trust it enough to take our eyes off it ever. But we have acknowledged the need for a state; in particular, we have acknowledged the need for it to prevent citizens from violating the rights of other citizens. This is a well-established role for our minimalist state; we are supposed to figure these things out. If you are going to mandate an abdication of this role under some circumstance, you have your case cut out for you. You can’t rely on the general notion that libertarians favor less government, or are skeptical of the state to get things right in practice. This is what the state is supposed to do. Let’s figure it out.

          • Theresa Klein

            I’m in agreement with the Puppet here. Protecting human being from violating other human beings rights (especially from killing other humans) is what the state is FOR, even with all of it’s inefficiencies and imperfections. If you can’t trust the state to decide when it’s ok to kill other people or not, then you should be a radical anarchist.

    • maleredfem

      To my mind, the fact that fetus can survive outside of the womb beyond a certain point in pregnancy further undermines the argument against allowing late-term abortion rather than lending support to it. After all, if a fetus can survive outside of the womb, then the justification for forcing the person with the womb to continue to provide that womb against their will to the fetus becomes all the more threadbare.

  • Kevin Vallier

    Yours is not an argument for abortion rights as much as it is an argument for not applying legal penalties to the mother, right? You are not defending the claim that women have a moral right to abortion. Is that right? If so, I think the pro life libertarian has a leg to stand on. I can say more.

    I do want to push back against the idea that having more women in the liberty movement would reduce opposition to abortion. Women are more pro-life than men, if only by a bit. And it is unclear how many women from each side the liberty movement would draw on.

    • Lauren Hall

      It’s less that I think having more women in the liberty movement would reduce opposition to abortion than I think having more women would clarify the issues at stake. Perhaps we do find that there’s some kind of strict line we want to make in the sand that some kinds of abortions should be prohibited and others not for X, Y, or Z reasons. But the arguments I’m seeing from some pro-life libertarian friends are simply: “government should step in to protect fetal life” without any recognition of the tradeoffs involved. Governmental action doesn’t just magically have no unintended consequences in cases where we feel it’s morally justified.

      And, to your first point, given what we know about the reasons women get abortions and how difficult it would be to tease out the medically-indicated abortions from “elective” abortions of a variety of kinds, I do think you have to protect doctors from prosecutions too. I am still working through that position, admittedly.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Thanks for the reply. Regarding penalizing doctors for performing abortions, I think the question involves two problems.

        (1) As you mention, there’s balancing the error rates – how often will penalizing abortion doctors save children, reduce their suffering, prevent mothers from harm vs. how often will penalizing abortion doctors hurt children, prolong their suffering, and harm mothers, etc.

        (2) But there’s also the great value of saving a life, so even if penalizing abortion doctors saved a small number of children, saving a small number of children could outweigh a great deal of harm to mothers, as long as the harm wasn’t deadly or debilitating for life. And I say this because we both agree that mothers have no *moral right* to abortion, so it’s primarily a question of preventing women from being psychologically and physically harmed by preventing them from having morally permissible procedures.

        My sense is that the sophisticated pro-life libertarian should argue that banning late-term abortion is the policy required by the combination of the error rate combined with the overriding moral importance of saving children from death. I don’t think your arguments should that this is the wrong position to take. The ultimate answer depends on the relative importance of saving children from death vis-a-vis preventing mothers from enduring harms that come from being unable to get the medical procedures that her condition requires.

        • Lauren Hall

          It seems to me (and correct me if I’m wrong) that #1 drops out in your final analysis. If penalizing abortion doctors hurts children, prolongs their suffering, and harms mothers, we would absolutely need to weigh that carefully against even the saving of a few lives, particularly when it’s not often clear ahead of time which lives might be which and when the incidences are very low. I would also rephrase your final sentence to something like: “The ultimate answer depends on the relative importance of saving children from death vis-a-vis preventing mothers [and unborn children] from enduring harms that come from being unable to get the medical procedures that her [or the child’s] condition requires.” In the case of third trimester abortions, harm to potential children ranks very high in the tradeoff. I might not be getting at the meat of your argument though.

          • Kevin Vallier

            I thought the primary harm to children in allowing late-term abortion is that their death will be less painful or prolonged, right? That matters a lot, given the moral rights of the child and the badness of suffering, but if you have to balance that against saving a child’s life, and so generally a life full of at least modest well-being in developed countries like ours, you’ll still want to wait the child’s life pretty heavily.

          • Lauren Hall

            Right, but the suffering might be severe or very prolonged. Moreover, it’s not a 1-1 tradeoff. Third trimester abortions are almost entirely used for the purposes of avoiding prolonged suffering. I’m not sure what the numbers are and I’m not sure anyone knows, but it would seem that you would have to weigh the life of a child very heavily against the suffering of many potential children. I personally have no idea how to weight those different values, and I’m not sure I would trust anyone else to do so either. Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t think the moral issue is important, but more that I’m not sure how you accomplish such a complicated and delicate weighing process as a matter of public policy. It seems, by definition, to be something that has to be done at the individual level. And by individual, I don’t just mean women. I mean doctors as well. Most doctors will not engage in behavior they believe harms their patients and so I think the most egregious forms of abortion would be restricted simply on the basis of lack of supply. I could be wrong, particularly if the price were high enough, but I still suspect the cases would be quite limited.

          • Kevin Vallier

            But aren’t we talking about a difference of days or weeks of prolonged child suffering at most?

            Also, and I think this is rather important, are we sure that laws restricting late-term abortions can’t create workable health exemptions?

          • Lauren Hall

            Nope, I’m not sure. But I doubt the good faith of lawmakers, particularly in heavily religious pro-life states, to make those distinctions in a way that adequately protects mothers. I’m admittedly struggling with this issue. I wish we had more data on who uses this procedure, when, and for what reasons. Until we have that data though, I’m disinclined to trust interested lawmakers to pass reasonable laws.

          • Theresa Klein

            I think it would be wise if our society had some better means to make decisions about when to terminate a life in general. There’s an absolutist position that no lives should ever be terminated, even those of severely disabled fetuses and braindead people on life support, and that’s about where our system is stuck. I think the needle should be moved significantly in the other direction. Some lives really aren’t worth living, and are extremely costly for parents and relatives to sustain. We should allow euthanasia, we should allow people to take comatose people off of life support, and we should allow abortions of severely disabled babies.

            Perhaps we should treat fetuses a bit like comatose people. A relative parent or spouse generally has power of attorney and can decide whether to end a person’s life if it is medically deemed that they are not going to recover. In the case of the fetus, the mother would be regarded as a person with power of attorney to make the decision on behalf of the fetus, and if there’s a medical determination that the fetus is likely to be severely disabled and/or not live very long, the mother should be allowed to make that judgement and terminate the pregnancy.

  • What’s more troubling for libertarians is the practical issue of where they should stand on governmental interference in private medical decisions. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that many libertarians’ attitudes toward government power completely flip when it comes to the abortion issue.

    This is a major misunderstanding of the pro-life position. To pro-lifers, a governmental ban on abortion isn’t “interference with a medical decision,” but rather “interference with a conspiracy to kill a human being.” Most people who believe there is a place for policing in a minimalist state would agree to give to the police the power to stop a conspiracy to kill someone.

    The rest of your piece, while well-reasoned and eloquently stated, falls short for me because it relies on this mistake.

    • Lauren Hall

      Right, but at least in some cases, and perhaps most cases at the end of pregnancy, it *is* a medical decision and I don’t trust the government’s ability to separate a legitimate medical decision from a conspiracy to commit murder. Assuming the latter cases are extremely rare, I see governmental intervention as likely to do far more harm than good.

      • So basically, you are just completely closed to the possibility that fetuses have a right to life. Fine, that means you’re pro-choice. But your argument fails to even address what pro-lifers believe, which is all I was trying to say.

        • Lauren Hall

          Wait, what? I’m totally open to the idea that fetuses have a right to life. Morally, I think they clearly do. But women also have a sometimes conflicting right to bodily integrity and I’m not sure the government is the best mediator between those two claims. I think it’s possible to argue that there are moral rights that the government is not well equipped to protect, at least not without serious side effects.

          • Sorry, I guess I misunderstood. When I said that pro-lifers consider abortion to be murder, not a medical decision, you simply reiterated that “in most cases” abortion is a medical decision, not murder. I’ll grant you that this doesn’t exclude the possibility that fetuses have a right to life, but one that ranks lower than a mother’s right to medical decisions. But come on.

            I suppose I could compare shooting someone to giving them an emergency injection of lead using a high-speed, spring-loaded delivery device not unlike a Kwik-Pen or a Solostar. In that case, who is the government to determine whether I murdered someone? Maybe I’m a naturopath.

          • Lauren Hall

            I wasn’t clear. I meant that most cases of third trimester abortions, which are what most people find the most morally problematic, are indeed made on the basis of medical need, usually the desire to avoid serious pain for the child. I’m interested in how one would navigate that decision. We allow parents to make a wide variety of medical decisions for children after birth, including withholding medical care in terminal cases. So why not pre-birth these as well? My secondary question is whether we want a woman and her doctor making these decisions or legislatures and bureaucracies, far away from what’s going on on the ground. My instinct is that decisions made in the latter way are much more prone to moral error.

          • Ah, now that’s a much better argument. I think a lot of people who consider themselves pro-lifers would be inclined to agree with you. I think the hard-core contingent still finds a lot of those parental decisions problematic and oppose them, but for the more mainstream pro-lifer, I think you may be onto something.

          • Theresa Klein

            Right, I think that the abortion argument tends to get sucked into these two extremes where the pro-life side adopts the position that life begins at conception, and you have these absurd arguments that killing blastocysts with Plan B is murder, versus extreme abortion right proponents who think that abortion should be completely legal and unregulated right up until the moment of birth. Maybe we can sort of acknowledge that at the beginning of pregnancy a fetus is definitely NOT a human being, and that at the very end it definitely is, and that what we ought to be debating is how we can navigate the middle. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a hard line where the fetus’s legal status suddenly goes from zero to full human being.

    • Neverfox

      Killing someone is too broad, as killing doesn’t necessarily mean murder. Self-defense is also killing but I doubt you think that should be policed.

  • Kevin Klein

    Your use of the term “pro-life” is pretty darn different from the way the actual “pro-life” movement uses it. You’ve basically just restated a stock argument of those who call themselves “pro-choice”.

    • Lauren Hall

      What I’m trying to tease out is whether there might be a distinction between believing that a fetus has a profound right to life and the belief that the government is the best way to protect that moral right. I do consider myself pro-life and I’m very troubled by the concept of late-term abortions generally. And I have plenty of pro-choice friends who think fetuses are not worthy of any moral consideration whatsoever, which is a position I reject. I’m willing to admit that the term “morally pro-life” might be different from the way most pro-life people think of themselves, which is fine.

      • Gurrie

        Actually, Lauren, you are doing a pretty good job of showing the back-and-forth internal debate that any thoughtful libertarian has when wrestling with his or her conscience. We can have thoughts about what is morally right or wrong, and then troubled thoughts about whether we can ever really trust government (organized and often dumbed down force) to come up with one-size-fits-all solutions.

        • Lauren Hall

          Thanks, Gurrie. It’s fair to say I’ve struggled (and will continue to struggle) with my position on this issue for a long time.

  • reason60

    Our laws and political culture demand clarity and bright lines of division.
    Our philosophy demands a special privileged place for humanity.

    Biology and the natural world unfortunately, don’t offer any such clarity or special privileged place.

    When life begins and ends, when childhood changes to adolescence changes to adulthood- these aren’t presented to us as clear and easily marked divisions.
    On a moral level, its difficult to look at an 8 month developed fetus and not see a living human; but its likewise difficult to look at a fertilized ovum and see the same.

    The concept of humanness at conception is a human invention, an idea driven by our own logic and constructed ideas of how the world should work rather than how it really does.
    The idea that humanness somehow arises without a bright line is troubling for us, since it conjures up disquieting ideas of a state that is human yet not quite.

    But the natural world is remarkably indifferent to our notions of humanity; time and again we are reminded of how fragile our bodies are, and how mortal we are how much of the natural world views us as merely food or a warm host. The a majority of fertilized eggs are disposed of in very early and unnoticed miscarriages and a certain percentage of fetuses will be stillborn or born with ghastly defects. The idea that every fetus will end up a cheery baby is mistaken.

    I think its this disconnect between our philosophy and the grimness of the natural world that is causing so much of the irresolvable arguments in this issue.

    • Neverfox

      Not sure what the problem is since being human isn’t a trump card here. We have the right to kill humans that are inside of our bodies against our will, don’t we? So what does it matter when it begins? It’s a non-issue either way.

  • Sharon Presley

    There are two issues I see missing from this discussion so far: 1)A discussion of what it means to be a “person.” that is, an individual with a right to life/ Being “human” is not enough, according to many philosophers and psychologists.; 2) The issue of the WOMAN’s right to sovereignty over her own body.

    The following is an excerpt from an essay of mine in progress that speaks to #1.

    The anti-abortionists also claim that a “person” is an animal with the potential for rationality. But “person” means more than this; several additional interrelated aspects of “personhood” that are generally agreed upon by philosophy and psychology are required. “In a general philosophical sense,” says the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, a person is “a self-conscious or rational being.”22 Reason is “the intellectual power or faculty which is ordinarily employed in adapting thought or action to some end.”23 That is, a person is an organism that can engage in what psychologists call “purposeful action” and philosophers call “making choices.”

    Thought not all philosophers agree with this definition of “person,” many do, enough to warrant the above definition in the Oxford Dictionary. Professors Martha J. Farah and Andrea S. Heberlein, writing in the Journal of Bioethics, point out that “Cognitive capacities such as rationality have remained important features of most subsequent accounts of personhood, including the two most influential accounts of personhood, those of John Locke and Emmanuel Kant.”x They go on to point out that Locke included three essential characteristics: “rationality, self-awareness, and the linkage of this self-awareness by memory across time and space.”x They also quote Kant, writing ““ every rational being exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will . . . rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves”

    Farah and Heberlein also offer a more modern perspective from philosopher Daniel Dennett, who uses the framework of cognitive science. Dennett describes six interlocking conditions that make human beings persons: 1. Rational beings; 2. Have intentional states of consciousness; 3. Are regarded as persons by others; 4. Capable of reciprocating with others; 5. Capable of verbal communication; 6. Self-conscious.

    Farah and Heberlein also quote several other contemporary philosophers to show their similarities to this functional definition of personhood.
    From Tooley(1972): something is a person “if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.” From Feinberg (1980,189): “persons are those beings who are conscious, have a concept and awareness of themselves, are capable of experiencing emotions, can reason and acquire understanding, can plan ahead, can act on their plans, and can feel pleasure and pain.” From Englehardt (1986, 107): “What distinguishes persons is their capacity to be self-conscious, rational, and concerned with worthiness of blame or praise.” From Rorty (1988, 43): “A person is . . . (a) capable of being directed by its conception of its own identity and what is important to that identity, and (b) capable of interacting with others, in a common world. A person is that interactive member of a community, reflexively sensitive to the contexts of her activity.”

    Mary Anne Warren who has written one of the most widely cited defenses of abortion, writes
    “Can it be established that genetic humanity is sufficient for moral humanity’? I think that there are very good reasons for not defining the moral community in way… I would like to suggest an alternative way of defining the moral community, suggest that the traits which are most central to the concept of personhood, or humanity’ in the moral sense, are, very roughly; the following: 1. consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain; 2. reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems); 3. self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control); 4. the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics; 5. the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both…

    All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of (1)-(5) was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is—perhaps because he had confused the concept of a person with that of genetic humanity…

    Thus, since the fact that even a fully developed fetus is not personlike enough to have any significant right to life on the basis of its personlikeness shows that no legal restrictions upon the stage of pregnancy in which an abortion may be performed can be justified on the grounds that we should protect the rights of the older fetus. And once there is no other apparent justification for such restrictions, we may conclude that they are entirely unjustified.”

    Coming from the viewpoint of the philosophy of psychology, philosopher Rom Harre writes

    Adopting the terminology used by Apter (1989) I shall work within a body of assumptions that could be succinctly expressed as: In displays of personhood, of our singularity as psychological beings, we express a sense of “a sense of personal distinctiveness, a sense of personal continuity, and a sense of personal autonomy”…

    This is far from a complete list of philosophers who define personhood based on cognitive functioning. Nor do all philosophers agree with this view. However we don’t have to completely depend on philosophers alone to define what personhood means.

    Since it is psychologists who actually empirically study human beings, I turn next to an examination of what psychologists think personhood means. Many psychologists agree with philosophers on what they think a person to be. “Our conception of a person (or psychological person) is an identifiable, embodied individual human with being, self-understanding (self), and agentive capability” say psychologists J. Martin et al. in Persons: Understanding Psychological Selfhood and Agency. They go on to say:

    “Finally, agency, in our conception of personhood, has two aspects, the latter of which conforms to standard philosophical conceptions of the reflective, deliberative agent capable of intentional action in accordance with his/her own authentic desires and choices (e.g., Frankfurt, 1971). More generally, however, we consider agency to refer to the activity of a person in the world and claim that the philosopher’s (and our own) reflective, deliberative agency emerges from prereflective activity as part of the developmental unfolding of an individual life within a collective lifeworld. “

    • reason60

      I don’t know why anyone should consider either Farah and Heberlein ‘s or Warren’s criteria applicable to fetuses.

      Several of the criteria depend on faculties that the fetus doesn’t have like speech and movement, and the others depend on faculties that themselves are dependent on observation (such as reasoning and self-consciousness).

      Many of the arguments for or against depend on making a metaphorical comparison- that the fetus is like a tenant, like property, like a child, like this or like that.
      It isn’t- like the author mentioned, our laws and concepts all assume a disconnect between person and object or between persons.

      We don’t have a good set of philosophical ideas that envision conjoined persons, or persons entangled with property, or non-persons that grow into becoming persons.

      • Sharon Presley

        “Several of the criteria depend on faculties that the fetus doesn’t have” Yes, that’s my *point.* Fetuses are not persons. Therefore they have no rights.
        *I* certainly don’t use the metaphor of the fetus as tenant. That’s silly. A tenant or a trespasser comes on the property intentionally which clearly the fetus does not. As for seeing the body as property, I find it a tiresome metaphor.. I’m a psychologist and am very tired of inappropriate economic comparisons. Yes, your bodies belongs to you but it is not economic property like a house or land.

        • Lauren Hall

          So Dennett’s persons are as follows:
          1. Rational beings; 2. Have intentional states of consciousness; 3. Are regarded as persons by others; 4. Capable of reciprocating with others; 5. Capable of verbal communication; 6. Self-conscious.

          What about people in comas? In persistent vegetative states? Do they not have any rights at all either? And if the determinative factor is #3, well then fetuses also fit that description, because many people *do* see fetuses have having rights. I’m also not sure how we can differentiate between the rights of a 30 week fetus and the rights of an infant born at 30 weeks. These two seem morally indistinguishable, so either both have rights or neither does.


      Newborns don’t have these capacities either, which is why Ms Warren and other philosophers who agree with you hold that they may also be killed if unwanted.

  • Sharon Presley

    “Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society,
    a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism.
    I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is
    a good thing for society and helping women obtain one
    is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a
    pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge.
    We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women
    have only the children they want and can raise well.”
    Katha Pollitt in PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

  • Sharon Presley

    As for issue #2:
    “In a libertarian tradition dating back to the 19th century, a person is a free moral agent with “sole dominion” over her or his life. This entails the right to make the choices believed necessary to a desired emotional or psychological, as well as purely physical, condition as long as that choice does not interfere with another person’s rights. (The right to control one’s body is meaningless, after all, without the right to control how what goes on inside the body and to control what affects the rest of one’s self.) To interfere with self-determination—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is to deny the human capability of moral agency, to treat a person as a thing. When such interference occurs on a systematic basis, we give it a name: slavery. It includes race slavery, forced labor camps, and conscription. Anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre spoke of “sex slavery.” I am arguing that both forced abortions and proscription of abortion are a kind of “sex slavery” because women are not allowed to make their own choices about what happens inside their bodies.
    They are forced to either give up a wanted child or to produce an unwanted child as if they were baby factories for the morality of others.

    The right to self-determination includes the right to determine what happens within a woman’s body otherwise the right has no meaning. Both forced abortion and making abortion illegal abrogate that right.”


    A couple of things. You say that abortions after 20 weeks are “rare.” That’s tricky to assess. The Reason piece you link to states that these represent 1.3% of all abortions, but that translates to about 12,500 a year, substantially more than the number of Americans murdered by guns every year. Are those deaths rare? I guess it depends on your perspective.

    More importantly, I think, you say: This argument seems reasonable until we apply that justification for prohibition to almost any other method of use of government force to prevent harm to individuals in practice. We could prevent many murders through mass surveillance or tracking, but libertarians aren’t comfortable with that…Why don’t pro-life libertarians make this same trade off about abortion? But unless you are a utilitarian, this analogy breaks down badly. Natural rights libertarians reject the policies you identify because we hold that citizens have rights against such intrusions.

    For pro-life libertarians, assuming that a 21 month fetus has moral standing, it also has rights against being arbitrarily killed. And, given that the women carrying such fetuses did not suddenly wake up one morning tethered to it, but in the vast majority of cases became pregnant voluntarily and elected not to terminate the pregnancy before 21 weeks, we might reasonably conclude that, relative to the mother’s convenience, this right is pretty stringent.

    Of course this right might be overridden by serious threats to the mother’s health or if the health of the fetus is severely compromised, but I see no obvious reason that such exceptions cannot be handled legislatively and judicially. How is this fundamentally different than our laws against murder, that recognize various complete legal defenses (such as insanity and self-defense) and mitigating circumstances. In short, I don’t believe pro-life libertarians are guilty of believing that “government is a dangerous Leviathan in 99.9% of cases and a unicorn in one particular case.”

    • Sharon Presley

      you say “For pro-life libertarians, assuming that a 21 month fetus has moral standing, it also has rights against being arbitrarily killed. And, given that the women carrying such fetuses did not suddenly wake up one morning tethered to it, but in the vast majority of cases became pregnant voluntarily and elected not to terminate the pregnancy before 21 weeks, we might reasonably conclude that, relative to the mother’s convenience, this right is pretty stringent.” First of all there is a typo–21 month fetus. But more importantly,your “reasonable” assumption is built on lack of knowledge so not so reasonable. The vast majority of 3rd term abortions come about because the pregnant woman has just found out that abnormalities are present that CAN’T BE SEEN until after the 20th week.So it’s NOT like these women frivolously waited till the last minute.I suggest you don’t talk about issues on which you are so obviously ill-informed.


        So, what % of the roughly 12,500 post 20-week abortions per year are because the fetus has serious health abnormalities? Note, this is a different question than what percentage of third trimester abortions (quite rare because of legal prohibitions) are due to fetal health issues–the point you raise. And, what part of my statement [“Of course this right might be overridden by serious threats to the mother’s health or if the health of the fetus is severely compromised, but I see no obvious reason that such exceptions cannot be handled legislatively and judicially.”] did you not understand? Real pleasure conversing with you.

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  • Nkaplan

    This post is bizarre. It starts by accepting that a fetus does, at some point seemingly relatively early on in the Ms Hall’s opinion, become a human being. It then goes on to suggest that, nonetheless, its a private decision whether or not to have an abortion and one which Libertarians (if they are to be consistent) ought to have very strong reservations about restricting.

    If you replace every reference to abortion in the post to ‘strangling a baby in its cot’ it should be quite easy to see where the argument has gone wrong.

    The only question at issue is when a fetus become a human, from that point on the same laws that we have against murder seem to me obviously to apply.

    • reason60

      Your question is correct, except that nature is bizarre. Two cells join to become one. Then at some point human consciousness and sentience occurs.

      When and how this transition happens is something we don’t really have a good grasp on answering. We barely have a good consensus on what humanity is, much less on when it arises out of nothingness.

      So any answer we have is going to be some variation of moral intuition.

    • Lauren Hall

      “If you replace every reference to abortion in the post to ‘strangling a baby in its cot’ it should be quite easy to see where the argument has gone wrong.” Except that the cot is another person’s body in the case of abortion. That’s precisely why abortion is a much harder case than infanticide.

      • martinbrock

        It’s harder but as not much harder as you suggest here. The other person’s body is designed to carry a passenger, and by the third trimester, presuming the carrier-passenger relationship voluntary is not unreasonable. Almost everyone agrees that homicide is justifiable in some scenarios, like self-defense. A woman choosing abortion over sacrifice of her life chooses homicide in self-defense, but justifying the abortion is no easier than justifying a similarly defensive homicide of an infant or an older child or an adult unless we presume the unborn child’s life less valuable.

  • peut-etre pas

    “Of course, there are probably a very small number of people who do use late term abortions in a way that most of us would consider to be morally irresponsible, just as there are people out there who harm others in ways that we cannot prevent without severely restricting the liberties of everyone else.”

    Very, very good point, and one I hadn’t thought of.

    Thanks for this, I’m only 1/2 way through, but it’s really good so far.

  • Jameson Graber

    I don’t understand this argument in the slightest. A law against abortion is not a law permitting the government to perform mass surveillance in order to prevent abortion. I don’t understand why prosecuting an abortion would be any different from prosecuting any other crime.