Saturday, April 9, 2011

Abortion and Libertarians

Amidst the budget battle brinkmanship Harry Reid and John Boehner were entrenched in this week, contentious claims about Federal funding for health services provided by Planned Parenthood took on an unduly insular central role in a much larger fiscal debate (source).

Abortion.  It is an ultra-contentious issue in general.  And according to Free State Project spokesman Chris Lawless and correspondent John Stossel, there is no larger wedge issue for libertarians (source @9:35).  I am puzzled by how polarizing this issue is to otherwise liberty-minded people.  I will venture a guess: most libertarians come from the political right - an ideological domain in which being "pro-life" is a litmus test for conservative credentials.  Yet as a "progressive libertarian" who comes to the liberty perspective from the political left, I have a different position to share: being "pro-choice" on a woman's uterus.

Any serious libertarian understands that freedom starts with self-ownership.  That means the freedom to decide what we do with our own bodies, including controversial choices such as drug use, providing commercial sex services, or life-termination decisions (all of which I believe should be legal activities).  On these issues, most libertarians would agree.  Yet abortion poses a problem for many libertarians due to its apparent violation of the "do no harm" principal - that is to say one has the right to do whatever they choose so long as their actions do not harm another individual or their property.  This is a fair contention.

"Don't tread on my uterus!"
Clearly, the termination of a pregnancy is a unique situation for which no perfect analogy exists.  So please permit this admittedly imperfect one: property ownership.

If I am the owner of a property, I decide who is welcome and who is not.  If an unwelcome person persists in remaining on my property (an "intruder"), I have the right to use every means up to and including deadly force to remove this person from my property.  Naturally, I am going to seek out non-violent means to resolve this conflict first, however at some point if the person refuses to leave my property ("like it or not, I am living in your dining room for the next nine months"), I may choose to use physical confrontation to remove this person.  You see where I am going with this; if a woman has self-ownership over her body, then clearly she is the sole decision-maker as to whom is welcome inside her body.

Some would argue that by engaging in sexual activity, the woman is in fact "welcoming" another potential person into her body.  We can disagree about the purely procreative nature of sex, particularly in an era of readily-available contraception, but it seems inescapable that even a person welcomed in the front door can later become unwelcome.  It is probably unwise to allow unwanted people inside your house but just because a couple did not use contraception, does not obligate them to carry a pregnancy to term.  And while having the unwanted person live in someone else's dining room after nine months is one option ("adoption"), in a free society property owners should remain able to elect to use deadly force to enforce property ownership ("abortion").

Indeed, this can be a morally difficult scenario.  Being "pro choice" means having to make difficult choices on a variety of issues.  But let us consider the alternative: a government prohibition on abortion services.

As I have written previously (source), prohibition never works!  Minors have mouse-click access to pornography, escort services exist in every major American city, and there isn't a town between Seattle and Miami with a shortage of marijuana to smoke.   The "pro life" position necessarily forces the continuous demand for these services into an unregulated, overpriced, and frequently unsafe black market.  It is a position that requires government intervention in private medical decisions (like, um, "Obamacare").  It is a position that places the interests of an unborn person above the woman whose body is now the unwilling carrier of this person.  And most importantly, it is a position in which a government closely regulates the activities of a woman's uterus.  This is hardly a libertarian position - yet something like 50% of liberty-minded individuals fail to realize this.

I would venture to guess that religious dogmatism is largely to blame in blinding pro-liberty individuals in this debate - specifically the commonly-held theistic view that, in the arithmetic of souls, life begins at the moment two gametes form a zygote (apparently gametes do not have souls, but zygotes do).  Whatever unproven metaphysical claims one might make about the origin of non-physical beings, there is a reason we celebrate our birthdays and not our conception days.  It is for the same reason that we are named at birth and not at conception.  That reason is: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness begin at birth.

Libertarians should not support a mandatory welfare state inside a woman's body.

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