Liberty and pro-choice arguments

Abortion never struck me as a liberty issue. Fundamental ideas that inform libertarian thinking don’t pick a “side” for or against abortion, late-term or otherwise. Abortion is a random issue. But my pro-choice credentials face greater and greater scrutiny as I pal around right-libertarians and conservatives, and I’ve had to re-investigate my own decision-making process here.

I find each political side — abortion jurisprudence — wholly unconvincing. When a sperm and egg becomes “life” is so outside thousands of colloquial years of the word, there’s nothing analytic in the definition to illuminate policy choices; I don’t think medical science is going to answer the philosophical question of the concept of “life” either (“clinical death” violates what should be commonsense notions of death); etcetera. And then, of course, the pro-choice camp (which emphasizes parental choice) rarely cares about parental choice afterward, like in education, and the pro-life camp is an absurdly broad name for their legitimate concerns. The philosophy of abortion is probably interesting — the politics is a waste of time.

Here is what, I think, enforces my libertarian advocacy of choice. I am probably more radically pro-choice than most people I know, but this provides a basic defense.

If the question of whether or not life is “worth it” is a sensible question in the first place, then it is not one that can be answered a priori. Life is an inherently qualitative experience. This is clear enough by the fact that some people would rather choose to have died at age 60 after having lived to age 80, if we take their judgment as the best authority on their own life’s worth (and I do, and I think we should). Therefore, in advance, its not knowable if a person’s life will be worth it. People generally do enjoy living (more than they would otherwise?); this might not be the case if, for instance, the Nazis won and we all were born in camps. This is an accidental property of the current world. We live in a generally worthwhile time period, suggesting life is generally going to be determined to be worth it by each individual.

Since the worth of life is not a priori, the best guess in advance is that from local knowledge. Parents have the most local knowledge about the future of their child’s immediate life, before it gets unpredictable and the knowledge gets divided by millions of individuals who will impact their life and also understand ongoing trends. Therefore, parents are the best option to make a judgment call about whether or not their child’s life will be worth it — if they can care for it, if they will have a genetic problem, etc. Not politicians. Not voters. Not interest groups concerned with in utero life in the abstract.

Thus, parental choice.

It’s been said this is an “anti-human” argument. Lots of us came from lower income or impoverished households, myself included. Our lives are still found worthwhile. Why strawman, as if we’re in countries with terrible childhood obesity, malnutrition, drug addiction, gang violence?

It’s true that in general life is found to be worthwhile. But there’s no Leibniz-like principle that it must be. Nor does the aggregate data that people do, often, qualify life as worth living, mean that random individuals overcome parental ownership of the best localized knowledge.

This, I think, is a libertarian argument for choice. It depends on the point that abortion is a unique sort of event — we’re not talking about an old man’s caretaker, who must have the best local knowledge about whether or not we should pull the plug. The question need not arise about who makes important choices once someone is cognizant and autonomous. The argument rides on the point that there’s a vacuum in decision-making autonomy for fetuses by their very intrinsic nature, and we have to make proxy choices in advance.

We give parents plenty of other choices by law. When we are debating potential- or possible-beings still in the womb, before our language game definitively identifies them as “alive,” choice should default to the parents, and I should have no right to the woman’s body to make choices for her about a possible-being I will never see, feed, care for or otherwise worry about except to force the woman to take care of it for nearly two decades.

12 thoughts on “Liberty and pro-choice arguments

  1. I find your post well-argued, and while you touched on the rhetorical aspect of the debate, it seems as though you are sidestepping the issue of life. If you found an argument – not a “language game” – that persuaded you that a child in utero is no less “alive” than you and me, and therefore presumably worthy of protection from being killed, would it not be logical for third parties to prevent such killings?

    I understand that third parties (that is, not the parents or child) have no “interest” in the act. We do not have to care for “it” for two decades, as you say. But do we not have a moral interest, indeed a moral duty, to protect the vulnerable?

    • Thank you Tyler.

      I understand your question. In general, I would feel a moral duty to protect an innocent living human from attack if I were capable of intervention. Therefore, if I understood a fetus to be a living human, I should feel a moral duty to protect it.

      And yet, it doesn’t seem so simple. Because my “protection” of the fetus is different than my protection of the grown human innocent. I would intervene to protect the grown man if I understood the decision-making process of the assailant to be flawed, e.g., someone getting mugged. But the decision-making process of abortion is different — I can know, possibly, in individual cases. But I can’t know a priori to make a policy proposal.

      I might feel a moral interest or duty in specific cases, if I accepted the premise that the fetus was human life of the same quality of a grown adult. But it wouldn’t apply in abstract.

    • If anything, a fetus might be a human life of greater quality than that of a grown adult, since it has more potential life ahead of it. Moreover, the killing of it has greater effect: To kill all nonagenarians would have little effect on posterity, but to kill all fetuses would render humanity extinct in a single generation.

    • 1) The entire point of this essay was how we can’t place value judgments a priori on life in the abstract. You are as likely to be wrong as you are to be right.
      2) That’s not a libertarian concern, and so I don’t see any bearing here. Similarly, “humans generally eat meat, so birthing more humans means more meat consumption” would be a negative concern for vegetarians, but has no bearing here.

  2. The common-sense point for the beginning of human life used to be the “quickening” — the point at which the mother could feel the child kick in her womb. Once the fetus is moving, and its movements are big enough to feel, it is definitely alive and capable of sensation. One has to construct convoluted arguments if one wishes to deny that it deserves any sort of sympathy or has any sort of interests at that point.

    • This “quickening” is interesting, but from a little research it doesn’t seem to have done what you thought it did.

      How much sympathy? Enough for you to write a comment on a blog post? Yes. Enough to vote for policies about its fate? Enough that you would personally raise it, once born? Enough that you’ll contribute a percentage of your income each month, to organizations that fight on one side of the aisle? How much, a priori, for this possible- or potential-being?
      And if you insist it deserves some sort of sympathy, enough to compel action that it sees its way through to birth and life, what action are you taking now to ensure that similar micro-humans 12 inches on the other side of the womb are capable of living right now in the present? That is, if they deserve sympathy as well.

      Centipedes have interests; what do you mean?

    • Centipedes aren’t human. So, even if they have interests, they’re not persons, by some quite reasonable accounts.
      Many ethical systems care greatly about the welfare of humans, and much less about the welfare of non-humans. I would suggest this is quite reasonable. This makes it reasonable to grant a right to life to a fetus after it shows biological evidence of sentience.
      Note, I’m only saying this is reasonable. It’s more reasonable, in my opinion, than the idea that there should be a right to kill a baby that is near the point of birth, and obviously capable of life outside the womb, if we regard the taking of the life of a new-born baby as murder. That position strikes me as arbitrary to the point of absurdity.

    • To focus on a single point: there is no isolated “right to life” to a fetus, in the same negative-rights way of an adult.
      You can impose your feelings on the rest of the population, and criminalize abortion based on a fetal right to life. Now that you’ve done that, the potential-beings are born, they’re outside the womb. A lot of them will have good lives, and plenty will have terrible lives. How will you ensure that this “right to life” is meaningful, unless you’re completely unsympathetic to the outcomes of their lives you’ve fought to secure?
      If you care only about a “right to life,” I will assume you are content with a mother dumping her baby in the dumpster a week after birth. She didn’t murder it. She just didn’t care for it. After all, it’s only about guaranteeing “a life” rather than anything with quality. If you are not content with that outcome, what are you doing to ensure infants in general live quality lives after birth right now?

    • There is no “right to life” at all, whether for fetuses or full-grown adults, except what what the rulers or people of a given polity choose to designate as such. When it comes to these designated rights, some are more reasonable than others.

    • How do you plan on enforcing that in a free market legal system where half the population disagrees with you?

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