THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 173, May 13, 2002
YOU'RE ON MY LIST
Abortion and Libertarianism: A Conclusion
by W. James Antle III
Exclusive to TLE
The abortion debate needn't be an endless rehashing of political minutiae when it can serve as an occasion for reexamining libertarian first principles. It touches on humanity as the basis for individual rights and the prohibition against initiatory violence.
Libertarians reject aggression against other human beings, including lethal violence against the innocent. But some defend the killing of fetuses on the grounds that the fetus is a potential rather than actual human being, a human going to be rather than a human being as William Westmiller would say.
Those making this argument fail to show the biological, genetic or ontological difference between what kind of being the fetus is and what kind of being a newborn is. Certainly birth is a monumental event. But the being that was born is the same being that was in the womb just moments before -- what miraculous change in its fundamental nature takes place simply due to the trip down the birth canal? If the development of the fetus is uninterrupted, it is an essential part of its nature to make this journey. Developmentally, it seems more accurate to say that the fetus is a potential infant in the same sense that an infant is a potential toddler or adolescent. A new being is not formed, but one organism reaches a new stage of development.
Skin cells contain human life. So do gametes. But neither have the potential to become a complete human being on their own. At conception or the simulation thereof that is cloning, a self-contained, distinct physical organism comes into existence that, unless interrupted, will actively develop into the various more mature stages of the life of a member of the human species. Sperm, eggs and somatic cells will not.
One can say that they have fertilized eggs but only became a father upon their children's birth. But the act of fertilizing the eggs was a necessary prerequisite of that person's fatherhood and if any of those specific fertilized eggs had not been allowed to continue developing, the specific children that this father has would not be here today. That clearly shows an individuated being. We were all once fetuses and if we had been killed as fetuses, we would no more be in existence as the individuals we are today than if we had died as infants or teen- agers.
Sapience may be one of the characteristics that makes the human species unique, but it does not define an individual's membership in that species. Humans have the capacity to reason, but even after birth this capacity is not always actualized (infants, the severely disabled, the comatose). Some mock the claim that a fetus has any rights by pointing to the absurd spectacle of fetuses exercising their rights to bear firearms, own businesses or come up with innovative ideas. But it would be equally absurd to imagine an infant doing any of those things, yet few (Peter Singer comes to mind as an exception) would endorse killing infants. Why? Because we know infants are humans and as they continue to develop cognitively, humans have the capacity for all of these things. Humans have inherent worth on the basis of their humanity, which in turn is the basis of all rights -- the intrinsic value that necessitates individual autonomy.
Reason makes human beings different from other animal-organisms, but this does not imply some sort of soul-body duality. We are essentially animal-organisms, we don't inhabit organisms, and we thus come to be when the organism that we are comes to be.
Mr. Westmiller chides abortion opponents for divorcing the birth of new people from the "disgustingly pleasurable sexual act" that creates them. Yet it is his position that actually does that. This sexual act is in fact what produces the being that leaves the womb at birth -- there could be no birth if the being was not already in the womb. It is this sexual act that creates the parental responsibility. The stork does not bring new babies; the sexual choices of free men and women do. We recognize that because of this act parents have an obligation to provide support for their children and not evict them from the crib and let them die. Logically, it is untenable to suggest that no responsibility exists until the being they have brought into existence leaves the birth canal. Nor will it do to suggest this somehow implies that people have no recourse against sexual mistakes. It is simply the case that such recourses must stop short of intentionally causing the death of another human being that came about not by its own will, but by the voluntary actions of its parents.
What about rape? Many pro-choicers hold the confused view that if fetuses are to have any rights, then they must have more rights than other human beings. They can be forgiven for this because many pro- lifers seem to share this illogical notion. If human beings can legitimately be killed in self-defense, fetuses are no different. This case can be made in instances of rape, when the mother did not consent to the act that imposes parental obligations, and it is unassailable in instances when the mother's life is endangered. Where it is not legitimate is in the estimated 98 percent of the more than 1 million abortions that take place annually in the United States which are purely elective.
This misconception also explains the fear of "fetus cops." Simply because a few deranged child-welfare bureaucrats believe that preventing every possible parental activity that may place a child at even the most miniscule risk warrants unprecedented state intervention in every home does not mean the proper libertarian response is to proclaim a parental right to beat, torture and kill children. Similarly, just because regulation of every act by a pregnant woman that might conceivably put some fetus at risk would be undesirable does not mean that there is a right to destroy that fetus for any reason or no reason whatsoever. Reasonable distinctions can also be made between serving as governor of Massachusetts and delivering a crack baby.
A pro-life libertarianism respects the individual from the moment that the specific organism that each of us are comes into existence. Such libertarianism isn't contradictory, for it recognizes the rights of every human being, foremost the right to life. Government cannot "solve" the abortion issue. But libertarians must ask if an abortion right gives license to initiatory violence. If so, libertarians must not abort the basis of their own movement.
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