Friday, December 26, 2008
The Libertarian Stance on Abortion
What can a libertarian philosophy professor teaching in a small, private, Roman Catholic college say about abortion? Good question! Although, there is no single libertarian stance on abortion we do offer a common approach to the issue. The first step in that approach is to personally decide whether the non-aggression axiom applies to early life: sperm, ova, zygotes, fetuses, and/or neonates. But even if abortion is deemed an “other-regarding action,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that abortion is unconditionally wrong. There might be circumstances when abortion (like killing in general) might be justified: beneficent reasons (euthanasia), rape, incest, or self-defense (save the life of the mother). Some libertarians defend abortion based on self-ownership and argue that sperm, ova, zygotes etc are “private property:” body parts that we ourselves “own.” Hence, one might argue that sperm and ova are “personal property” while zygotes are “joint-property.” Or one might argue that a zygote is the private property of the female owner of the uterus. But there is no single libertarian dogma that elucidates any of these issues. Libertarians also disagree as to whether abortion ought to be legal or illegal. Obviously, if a zygote is a “person” morally equivalent to an adult, then abortion could be viewed as a crime comparable to manslaughter, homicide, or even genocide. Even if post-conception abortion is outlawed, some libertarians would argue that the law itself would be much more difficult to monitor and enforce than other laws that relate to killing. What would it actually take to monitor every pregnancy in the United States? Would women be subjected to monthly uterine examinations to insure the safety of zygotes? Should these extraordinarily invasive laws be monitored and enforced by local, state, or federal government? Moreover, if government decided to expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to effectively protect early life, it would almost certainly lead to unregulated “black market” abortions. If you think black markets are easily controlled, check out the ongoing drug war. But the most compelling argument against outlawing abortion outright is that it becomes an arcane “legal debate” dominated by lawyers, judges, and juries. In fact, today the political debate over abortion has been co-opted by the Supreme Court, therefore most of the debate now centers on whom the next president will appoint to the court after the next judge dies of old age. My views on abortion politics are pretty straightforward. Abortion is an enormously complex moral issue that invariably invokes deeply held religious, political, and cultural debate. Rather than expending time, energy and resources lobbying government, I prefer rechanneling those efforts. If you have serious moral concerns for the well-being of ova, sperm, zygotes, and fetuses, then you have a personal moral obligation to work to reduce the number of worldwide abortions. As moral individuals, we can more effectively reduce that number by donating our time, effort, and resources to non-governmental organizations that focus on strengthening marriage and providing child care for the poor. Therefore, strategically, pro-life libertarians (in the John Stuart Mill tradition) prefer active participation in the moral debate coupled with personal voluntary action. The old strategy of paying high-priced lawyers to argue cases before a Supreme Court stacked with “old white men” has done little to reduce the number of abortions performed worldwide.