Abortion, the Conception of Life, and Liberty

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. – Thomas Jefferson, 1816

My blog post on freedom and feminism prompted a number of short but informative dialogues in the comments section, and I thought it would be a good idea to draw some of these arguments out a little more and really delve into the implications of what it means to be free.

My original post was meant to serve as a general outline of the major rift within libertarianism (and, by implication, the American Right) today: the cultural one. I think that the rift between libertarians on cultural issues is actually much less serious than the one between libertarians and conservatives, and the comments section highlighted this important disagreement. Instead of a mutual mistrust based upon suspicion of authoritarian tendencies hiding in plain sight, libertarians actively fight conservatives when it comes to the struggle between liberty and power.

Two key arguments will be exploited on this blog for the sake of showing Ron Paul Republicans and other, newer members of the libertarian movement just how nakedly aggressive and barbaric anti-abortion laws really are.

The anti-abortion crowd bases its arguments on two central pillars: the definition of life (it begins at conception) and, less frequently, the laws of God.

NEO, a blogger in Nebraska and a good representative of the first pillar, provides us with a cookie cutter argument in favor of outlawing abortion (and thus forcing services for this age-old practice into the black market):

A lot of us believe chemical or physical abortions are nothing less than the murder of a person, and obviously a serious intrusion on his rights.

Accusing a person of murder is a strong charge indeed. Very quickly: I am a libertarian for both practical and moral reasons. Morally, I consider the rights of individuals to be sacrosanct, but it has occurred to me that my moral intuitions may be wrong (I was once a Marxist after all!) and therefore I always yield to facts when a moral question is presented at my feet. It just so happens that libertarianism and facts are very, very compatible with one another. So, I always head into battle with my moral intuition in place, but I am more than willing to change my views based upon the pertinent facts. This formula, simple as it may be, has served me quite well: I succeed at one of the most selective universities in the world, for what its worth.

I bring up my own method of thought because I think it is important to note that I am more than fair when it comes to hearing other arguments. I like to chew on them for a bit. I like to consider the implications of the arguments. I like to think about where the other side is coming from before coming to a decision. This might be the cultural anthropologist in me, but I am never 100% sure that I am in the right and others are in the wrong. Therefore I also pay attention to the relevant facts of any given case that I happen to stumble across. This is, in my opinion, the only just way of coming to a conclusion.

Behind the opposition to abortion rights for women (and the millions of men whose lives would be ruined with an unnecessary burden; we do not live in a labor-intensive agrarian world anymore) is the idea that human life itself begins as soon as the sperm starts to fertilize the egg. Yet this belief seems entirely absurd to my skeptical self, and so I presented the following question to Neo:

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a human baby was born during the first or second trimester.

Would it be able to survive? If the answer is ‘yes’ then I think I might buy your definition. If the answer is ‘no’ then I think you’d have to seriously reconsider a position that takes away the choices of hundreds of millions of individuals in the free world.

The question has thus far gone unanswered.

If the hypothetical fetus is born during the first or second trimester is not able to live (and it is not), then the argument that human life begins at conception is totally fraudulent at worst, and totally irrelevant at best. This is simply a case of liberty struggling against power. The idea that hundreds of millions of people should yield their liberty to the beliefs of hundreds of millions of others is not only absurd, it is loathesome. The whole point of submitting to rule by law rather than men is so that the facts of a dispute can be presented and deliberated upon, rather than relying upon the traditions of a society and the knowledge of a select few. Precedence and history are guides for initiating change in an orderly fashion, they are not chains that bound a society to the laws of their primitive ancestors. Perhaps another angle can be utilized to illustrate my view: look at the places around the world where abortion is considered a right, and where it is still considered murder. The individual right to have an abortion is protected by law in the largely free West, and nowhere else.

There is an issue here that has not been dealt with yet: that of third trimester abortions. I find these to be nothing short of murder and that such a service should be performed legally only if the life of the mother is at risk. I find this to be a common sentiment among a sample population stretching from the student co-ops of Santa Cruz and Berkeley to the Protestant churches of the Sierra Nevadas to the Indian reservations of Arizona to the villages of Ghana to the lively streets of Barcelona to the Mormon communities of the Utah desert. The key here is to focus on the one situation where such a service should even be considered: when the life of the potential mother is in danger. Even in this situation the concern for the living and breathing trump the litanies of a barbaric past.

Libertarians have enough work to do as it is. Protecting the rights of living, breathing individuals against the imaginations of the mob is, and always will be, a no-brainer. It would be wise to accept that, in the case of abortion rights, the facts support the moral intuitions of individual liberty and move on to bigger and better things.

Speaking of imaginations, there is a less popular but nonetheless powerful argument that still gets traction within the anti-abortion crowd: that of God’s law. Operating under this assumption gives proponents of this theory a two-pronged advantage: 1) being on the side of an omnipotent being means the other side can’t possibly be right, and 2) history, precedence and all of the other analytical tools that humans have devised for legal jurisprudence over thousands of years become irrelevant in one fell swoop.

Pure brilliance! In fact, it is so brilliant that it took thousands of years for a small segment of the human population in the western corner of Eurasia to counter its munificence. It is so brilliant that even today large swathes of the world’s population still cower before its blinding Light! Billions of people in poverty-stricken areas around the globe still bow before its glory. And yet, this masterful display of human cunning and deceit falls apart quite quickly when the following question is asked:

what God?

Asking questions is the cornerstone of liberal arts, a distinctly Western tradition that is not given nearly enough credit for the West’s rise above the rest over the past few centuries. I think this has to do with the fact that, today, the liberal arts profession is a parody of its once-great self. Political Correctness and half-baked notions of inequality have destroyed the majority of the profession’s ability to ask simple but devastating questions. If you can’t ask simple questions, how can you even hope to combat the structures of power that make life miserable? This is the key to Right’s success despite its minority status in a democratic republic.

Questioning the very nature of God itself eliminates the theocrat’s first advantage. Asking this simple question immediately levels the playing field and shakes the very foundations of power. This is why the West is so prosperous today. It is not because of “capitalism” or the decentralized nature of its political institutions. It is because power’s antagonist, liberty, asks simple questions.

I am digressing. Since God’s existence cannot be proved, how can it be that he (or she?!) is able to create laws seemingly out of thin air? And why on earth would these laws have any legitimacy whatsoever? Does God simply whisper his laws into the ears of specially chosen servants who relay his divine message to the masses? One would have to be quite gullible indeed to believe such rubbish, such barbaric nonsense. Take this argument to its logical conclusion: if God makes the laws and specially chosen men simply relay them, then there is no need for historical precedence, and without historical precedence law is simply arbitrary. The logical conclusions of divine law explains well why so many non-Western societies, still under the yoke of organized religion, suffer from the despotic rule of the educated few. It also explains well why anti-abortion activists find it so appealing.

The fact of the matter is that the term “God’s law,” as it was used by Western jurists prior to the modern era and in today’s underdeveloped world, is nothing more than a condescending way of explaining civil and common law. In order for laws to be effective, they must have some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of those whom the laws are enacted for. If the laws of a polity are deemed to be unjust in the eyes of a populace, there are two paths to be taken: 1) disobedience of the laws that could either culminate in rebellion or irrelevancy, or 2) tyranny in the name of enforcing the laws. This is the general theme of historical study. Kings and conquerors were always loathe to undertake laws that would be unpopular, and as such unpopular laws were only undertaken during times of extreme duress, like war (“war is the health of the state” and all that) and other activities that sought to centralize power.

The laws espoused in the world’s  holy books are no different in this regard. Bans on killing, stealing, humping your neighbor’s wife, homosexuality and abortion were laid down not because God said so but because of the heavy demand for labor and reproduction that ancient and medieval life required. As labor-intensive industry, subsistence farming, and God himself became more and more irrelevant thanks to the industrial revolution in the West, so too did the need for laws banning things like adultery, homosexuality and abortion. As the world has changed materially, so too have the laws of men changed with it. Where the world has not changed much, like in the Middle East and Papua New Guinea, the laws have not changed either. The fact that some citizens in the West want to impose laws that mimic more isolated (i.e. poor and violent) parts of the world – and in the name of an imaginary, omnipotent being no less! – is telling. The primacy of the individual, the moral foundation of libertarianism itself, is threatened when the choice to have an abortion is attacked by the state. Persuade all you want, but do not force it.

Enacting laws that would restrict  individual choices based upon the words of an imaginary being is so aggressively violent and condescending that no self-respecting libertarian can support such a thing. The only explanation for support of these barbaric policies I can think of is a short-tempered reaction to the Left’s own hostile stance on abortion rights. We can do better than that. Indeed, we must.

10 thoughts on “Abortion, the Conception of Life, and Liberty

  1. Brandon. I have had blog posts brewing on this issue for some time. No drafts, as yet, but certainly ideas floating around. Ideas that I think that could satisfy many on both sides without necessarily violating the principles of either, that from a pro-life perspective save what they (and I, and not just because it is “God’s Law”) consider to be lives, and from a “neutral” perspective (as opposed to the “Left’s own hostile stance on abortion rights”) to save liberties. I don’t know when (or if it will even be soon) I will finally get around to writing them, but for now here’s my two cents:

    When you say,

    “I am a libertarian for both practical and moral reasons.”

    I agree. But rather than forming my beliefs in light of the facts, I interpret the facts in light of my beliefs. We can both accept the fact that giving birth and raising children can be painful/traumatizing/frightful/expensive (this is the practical justification for abortion, the moral one being that the fetus is not fully alive or fully human). Some use that to justify the simplest answer: aborting them early and often, and others hold that this is wrong. Among those that hold that it is wrong there are some that still realize that the state is not necessarily the best way to bring about a reduction in abortions, even if it can be shown that an unborn fetus is fully alive and fully human.

    “In order for laws to be effective, they must have some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of those whom the laws are enacted for.”

    I agree. And as you say, the laws seemed legitimate to those ancient Israelites at the time, (except for maybe the odd adulterer or homosexual.)

    “Bans on killing, stealing, humping your neighbor’s wife, homosexuality and abortion were laid down not because God said so but because of the heavy demand for labor and reproduction that ancient and medieval life required.”

    Even with this, I agree. But there is more. There are moral, RIGHTS-BASED arguments against these things that may have gone into these laws, not just practical considerations of increasing the population. Whereas adultery and homosexuality may not be shown today to violate any self-evident rights, it is clear that murder and theft always violate them (whether the laws against them seem legitimate or not to everyone). At a time and place (when there was, as you allude to, a relative lack of material well-being) where no woman and likely no child of any gender was safe from sexual predators without first CONSENTING TO BE GOVERNED by a father or a husband (in return for obedience, a small price to pay), adultery amounted to nothing less than FRAUD (you and I can agree that a death penalty seems harsh, but then I’m the kind of guy who even thinks the death penalty for murder is harsh), and homosexuality child abuse (there, I said it!!!). Not so today when women are liberated (and that happened a good while before the 1960s or even the 1920s, and has nothing to do with freeing them from oppression but freeing them from the need for all of them to have to consent, to avoid even greater oppression in the forms of rape and harassment, to GOVERNMENT by HUSBAND, again, due to the growth in material well-being in the west, which itself was driven by liberty asking questions of power) and most gay men have ceased being open pederasts (a nice archaic way of describing something much worse).

    I don’t think the same applies to abortion, because the only possible libertarian argument against it that works in all cases is that it violates the rights of the unborn (assuming they are fully alive and fully human at that time) to life. The fraud argument could only apply in the case where the father was expecting a child and then had it “stolen” from him by some act of the mother, who’s terms for receiving protection and sustenance from the father were obedience and homemaking.

    There is a whole slew of seemingly bizarre Biblical law out there. I doubt all of it could be defended in this same way, so if you want to corner me on something like bestiality or idolatry, I’m afraid you’ve got me for now.

    And I am sorry (I apologize because I feel if I did not bring it up you would call me on it) for not fully answering your question to NEO. You make it seem like it is some sort of gotcha question (and yet give the other side the benefit of the doubt that they may yet answer it) that has everyone stumped. And I can see the logic to that. But it assumes that the statement “the answer is ‘no’” is universal and absolute. That may be a safe assumption in a specific cross-section of time and space, but with future advances in medical technology, it may be proven entirely wrong. So the implication is that a fetus’ status as a human being does not really depend on which trimester it is in, but which historical era it was conceived during. I don’t know what to make of that. All I know is that a whole other can of worms to open, and in the meantime there are other problems to solve, some of which, once solved, would likely lead to a voluntary decrease in abortions.

    • Hank,

      You are in characteristically good form here, but for all intents and purposes you have avoided my question to Neo altogether. Here it is once more:

      Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a human baby was born during the first or second trimester.

      Would it be able to survive? If the answer is ‘yes’ then I think I might buy your definition. If the answer is ‘no’ then I think you’d have to seriously reconsider a position that takes away the choices of hundreds of millions of individuals in the free world.

      I suspect you are unwilling to answer this question because it strikes, quite ably, at the heart of superstitious beliefs that you (and billions of others) cling to.

      Here, again, is the general outline of my argument: a fetus taken from the mother’s womb in the first or second trimester would not survive on its own. It would be biologically incapable of sustaining itself (it cannot suck on its mother’s breasts, for instance). I understand that technology may someday help to create new alternatives and opportunities within the medical field, but for the last 100,000 years fetuses in the first and second trimesters have been incapable of life.

      This uncomfortable fact lays to rest accusations of murder in a most definitive fashion. One cannot murder something that is incapable of life in the first place. Like Jefferson’s ‘trinity,’ the notion of the ‘unborn’ is neither distinct nor reasonable.

      Again, taking away the liberties of hundreds of millions – nay, billions! – of individuals based on beliefs that have no factual merit is an incredibly barbaric stance. Doing so in liberty’s good name is unconscionable.

      One more thing. I did not say that I “form my beliefs in light of the facts.” Here are my words again:

      Morally, I consider the rights of individuals to be sacrosanct, but it has occurred to me that my moral intuitions may be wrong (I was once a Marxist after all!) and therefore I always yield to facts when a moral question is presented at my feet.

      I did not say that I form my opinions based on facts, but only that I am willing to acknowledge that I am ignorant of a great many things and therefore keep an open mind when facts are presented before me. If the facts are statistically and logically sound, and they present a challenge to my own opinions (a rare case indeed!), then I yield to superior knowledge. This is how Hayek morphed from a socialist into a libertarian. This is how Rothbard morphed from a conservative into a libertarian. Understanding this distinction is very, very important. It is what separates the truth from sophism, statesman from demagogue, leader from follower, and scholar from believer.

    • You are right. I jumped the gun in misrepresenting your words. The question was “will it be able to survive?” The answer is no (for now). Your conclusion must be that doing something about abortion limits freedom for the sake of a non-living (or non-human?) organism. I don’t buy that. Why? Because it defines life only biologically, and still arbitrarily at that. During the first 100,000 years perhaps a two year old was physically (biologically, maybe he is not tall enough to reach fruit or strong enough to strike an animal or smart enough to start a fire) incapable of feeding himself without some aid. What makes him different that the fetus? Clearly, where he is at, OUTSIDE OF THE WOMB (therefore, the question of whether he has a right to live or not rests not on what he is capable of, but on whether he, as a person is an coercive intruder upon, or as an object is an inconvenient burden upon, the mother). Not whether he is capable of sustaining himself or not. This argument has probably been had before, and I’d wager that pro-choice scholars have an answer to it. I don’t know what it is. But I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it that it is consistent with their other (qua libertarian) arguments.

    • Another thoughtful response, as usual Hank. We are finally beginning to whittle away at the pomp surrounding abortion and forming what appears to be a distinction of some sort. Now we can go on to start reasoning. Jefferson would be proud. Life can only be defined biologically. There is no other way to define it. Bringing spirits, ghosts, or fairies into the debate is not only disingenuous, but also insulting to freedom’s clear-eyed advocates.

      Likewise, there is nothing arbitrary about my definition. I use standard medical definitions that have been used by the Western medical establishment for centuries. Though places in the underdeveloped world do indeed define life according to their imaginations.

      The answer to my question is obviously ‘no.’ It has been the answer for 100,000 years. Not 10,000 years. Not 1,000 years. Not 100 years, but 100,000 years. At least. And, of course, this will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future as well. The last thing we need is to replace a fetish of the past with a fetish of the future when it comes to reproductive rights.

      Libertarians use reason and facts to guide their thoughts, not appeals to an unforeseeable future or an omnipotent being (see my original post). Here is the heart of Hank’s argument:

      During the first 100,000 years perhaps a two year old was physically (biologically, maybe he is not tall enough to reach fruit or strong enough to strike an animal or smart enough to start a fire) incapable of feeding himself without some aid.

      From this thesis stems a number of points that need not be addressed once I help make an important distinction. I understand that a two year-old is incapable of feeding himself. This was not my argument. Hank’s hypothetical two year-old is biologically capable of sucking on his mother’s breasts, or eating what is put in front of him, whereas the hypothetical second trimester fetus is not. That is what I mean when I say that a fetus is biologically incapable of life. It cannot breath, eat, drink or cry. A second trimester fetus would not even qualify as an invertebrate from the Jurassic era (an era, coincidentally, that many proponents of barbarism argue is merely a Leftist conspiracy to discredit the Holy Word of the Bible). Invertebrates, at least, are capable of reproduction and feeding themselves.

      Hank and other proponents of barbarism conflate reason with superstition, liberty with power, and biology with humanity. No wonder the liberty movement is in such shambles.

      Perhaps an olive branch can be of some use to us. Given that abortion is not murder, in any sense of the word, and given that fetuses are biologically incapable of life, Hank and other so-called libertarians have thus begun to argue that abortion doesn’t have to be prohibited by the state. They say that avoiding abortions can be done at the voluntary level. So far, so good.

      Yet, I am suspicious. Here is why: most anti-abortion activists, even the so-called libertarian ones, want to repeal Roe v. Wade. To me, this sounds suspiciously like wanting to repeal the second amendment. If “libertarian” anti-abortion activists are only concerned with avoiding abortions on a voluntary level, then why should the protections afforded individuals (including this straight, handsome male from California) in Roe v Wade be repealed?

  2. I’m personally against abortion, but I see that as just a grundnorm preference. I wouldn’t want to see that grundnorm preference made into law. The reason I’m against abortion law is because polycentric law makes abortion law impractical. In polycentric law, people would group themselves into law codes based on grundnorm preferences. You can enforce law within a law code, but to enforce your grundnorm preference against people who disagree with you requires extra-legal action. Thus, the only practical way I see to decrease the quantity of abortions is through free market strategies like paying mothers to come to term, free market adoption, marketing of alternatives, etc.

    My ideas about a possible libertarian treatment of abortion, in more detail:


    I like your blog, by the way.

    • Oh, this post is out of control. It takes me way back.

      Thanks for the heads up to your link, too. I bookmarked it and hope to read the whole thing by the end of the week. Keep up the great work!

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