Should Libertarians Defend a Woman’s Right to an Abortion?

Individual Rights Trump the “Community”

By Jan Narveson

There are many important aspects to the abortion issue, but one of them is the most fundamental: varying facts apart, what is the fundamental right of anyone regarding abortion? Somewhat unfairly, we limit this to the point of view of the woman involved. (That is: the male partner has some input on the matter, but we will assume here that he does not fundamentally object.)

Establishing women’s right to abortion is mostly a matter of refuting (bad) arguments to the contrary. For surely we’ll agree that any given person has a basic right to do any given act, x, if x can be shown to involve no harm to others.

So: does aborting a fetus do any harm to anyone? Again, we must bypass any argument about persons with special claims: has anyone (the male involved, say) made any agreements with the mother-to-be that would limit her freedom of action? We will assume not.

In that case, the only possible claimant is the fetus itself. And about it, we have to point out that as of this stage in the process, fetuses do not have, and are incapable of having, any opinion on the subject. Whether it will continue to develop or not is entirely up to others, and especially the mother-to-be.

Since the fetus has, as things stand, no input on the matter, we have to ask how the fetus’s relation to anything in the future bears on the subject. But how would this work? There would seem to be only two possible ways. (1) it might be suggested that the person the fetus will become, if allowed to continue, would be harmed by being deprived of his life. (2) It might be argued that the community needs or at any rate would benefit from the production of this person.

Regarding (1): The problem is that the individual into whom the fetus would develop doesn’t exist yet; and if it is aborted, then it never will exist. So there is no individual whose objections are relevant if the potential mother opts for abortion. And regarding (2) the question is, why the “community” should be able to overrule the rights of the potential mother. If they cannot convince her that she should have this child, how could we justify its overruling her wishes? For surely they are primary: libertarianism is crucially about the rights of individuals.

Jan Narveson is a distinguished professor emeritus, philosophy, at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and chairman of the Institute for Liberal Studies. He is the author of seven books, including The Libertarian Idea, along with hundreds of articles, mostly on ethical and political topics. He is founder (1974) and president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, which puts on over 70 chamber music concerts annually.

Editor’s note: Narveson has submitted a follow-up rebuttal, published as a letter to the editor and with the headline, “The Non-Agression Principle Only Applies to Humans.”

Non-Aggression Is Pro-Life

By Daniel Smyth

EspañolMany libertarians support abortion because they believe it allows women to protect their bodily “property” from unwanted babies. For instance, when discussing 2014’s March for Life, Laurie Rice of The Atlas Society said the “pro-life [view] … means initiating force against women to separate them from the ownership of their…bodies.”

However, these libertarians are wrong.

For one, as John Walker argues in “Children’s Rights versus Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty,” claims that people “own” their bodies are nonsensical. Ownership of any entity requires that the owner can sell or otherwise transfer the entity to someone else. But a woman still possesses herself if she sells or gives herself to another in, say, slavery. As Walker concludes, “‘Ownership’ doesn’t apply to persons—it presupposes them.” Accordingly, women do not “own” their bodies, and so women have no property claim to “evict” unwanted babies from their wombs.

Regarding unwanted pregnancies, most mothers nevertheless invited their babies into their wombs through consensual sex. As Randy England’s book Free is Beautiful: Why Catholics should be Libertarian notes, even women using contraception consent to the possibility of pregnancy. Thus, most mothers assume the moral duty not to endanger their babies. For the exceptional case of rape, see Walker’s article “Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape.” He argues that children conceived in rape are innocent and women should never abort them.

Unborn babies have a right to life because, from the moment of conception, they are genetically-unique persons who are developing according to the normal processes of human growth. So all libertarians should realize abortion violates the non-aggression principle. As James Sadowsky’s article “Abortion and the Rights of the Child” notes, “If [an] abortion is successful, it is not a living, healthy child that leaves the womb. It is a corpse.” Even an “eviction” that would place a nonviable baby outside a womb to die of natural causes would be aggression.

All considered, pro-abortion libertarians should abandon their false “ownership” arguments and realize they should be pro-life.

Daniel Smyth is an independent researcher and cofounder of His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, the American Thinker, the Freeman, and other publications. Follow @DanielSmyth7.

Editor’s note: Smyth likewise has submitted a counter rebuttal, published as a letter to the editor and with the headline, “Unborn Babies Are People.”

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