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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Abortion, Choice, and Libertarian Principles, Part 3

Pro-choice" was once a fine libertarian term. Today, it is a code word for abortion until birth. The libertarian meaning of the right to privacy also has been spoiled. The charge against abortion is that it is homicide, the killing of one person by another, and no homicide is a matter of privacy.

by Doris Gordon
Libertarians for Life
Copyright 1994 (December)


Part 1

Part 2

What about the woman's liberty?

Let's turn now to what abortion choicers claim is fundamental: the woman's right to control her own body. Many abortion choicers oppose a right to a dead fetus, particularly after fetal "viability." This is interesting, because what about the woman's right to control her body when her fetus is considered viable?

Strictly speaking, "viable" means "capable of living or developing in normal or favorable situations." To condition the right not to be killed on being able to survive in a hostile environment is like saying, "If you are in danger, and I'm the only one who can save you, I have the right to attack and kill you; but if you can fend for yourself, I have no right to kill you."

We must not confuse technical medical problems with philosophical problems. When artificial wombs are available, viability will start at conception. Besides, a viability test is arbitrary, for it hinges largely on the competence of medical personnel, which can vary. The fact that others lack the ability to maintain your life does not justify or excuse the deliberate taking of your life.

When a child is conceived, the child is helpless. This can put the needs of parent and child in serious conflict. But it doesn't put their rights to be free from aggression in conflict.

Some try to deal with their conflicting needs by pointing to the common understanding of the non-aggression principle: Although we may not aggress against one another, we have no obligation under rights to help one another.

They are overlooking at least two important distinctions. One distinction is between killing and letting die. The other is, who is causally responsible?

Killing versus letting die

Abortion choicers use such euphemisms for abortion as "pro-choice," "pregnancy termination," and "reproductive rights," because most of them recoil at a "right" to a dead fetus. Particularly among libertarians, some insist they favor only an "eviction" abortion, that is, where the child is evicted intact and alive; if she doesn't survive, that's too bad.

Letting die doesn't shut off the possibility of survival, however theoretical and remote this possibility might be. For example, in hysterotomy abortions (which are similar to Caesarian deliveries), children have come out alive.

In the real world, however, the evictionist's position gives only lip service to the moral distinction between intentional killing and letting die, and those who give such service are playing let's pretend with somebody else's life. Most abortions are meat-grinders, not simple "letting die" procedures. Abortions don't merely place children in grave danger of death. In fact, the point of abortion is intentional destruction of the fetus.

Nonetheless, the evictionist position must be addressed. In theory, we could have a law that limits abortion to simple removal. On the surface, such a law can seem to reflect the non-aggression principle. But let's look deeper.

Many abortion choicers insist that, even in an ordinary pregnancy, having to carry an unwanted child to term is slavery. The woman has no obligation to be a good Samaritan, they argue; her right to liberty is paramount.

One error in that argument is that liberty is not paramount. Life and liberty are equal rights; both are merely examples of the basic right: the right to be free from aggression.

Another problem with the charge of slavery is that it ignores the distinction between attack and negligence. When the cord is cut at birth, the parents can passively abandon their child by walking away. Eviction, however, is not passive; it is an active intervention against the child.

But we still have to address the heart of the eviction argument.

What if the mother could take off right after conception as easily as the father can? An equalizer here is in vitro fertilization. Abandoning a child so conceived without first finding a substitute guardian puts the child, of course, in harm's way. May the parents leave their child unattended in hazardous situations? If their child dies, is that simply regrettable, like famine victims dying because no one gave them assistance? For the parents as regards obligations, is there no difference between their own children and the children of strangers?

Interestingly, even most abortion choicers consider gross neglect and outright abandonment to be criminal behavior. When children have medical emergencies in the middle of the night, most parents don't go back to sleep saying, "So what if my kid might die? I have the right to control my own body, don't I?"

It is true that the means a woman must use to mother her child before birth are quite different from the means she uses after birth. But what difference does it make, in principle, whether her kid is in the crib or in her womb? When she nurses her infant or carries him in her arms, she is using the same body she used to carry that same child to term.

As even most abortion choicers recognize, the parent is not a good Samaritan; parents owe their immature children protection from harm. Well, why are they obligated to provide such support? Did you and I have the right, before we were born, to be in our mother's womb?

To nail down why we did, we have to take a further look.

Who's mugging whom?

A child's creation and presence in the womb are caused by biological forces independent of and beyond the control of the child; they are brought into play by the acts of the parents. The cause-and-effect relationship between heterosexual intercourse and pregnancy is well known. The child did not cause the situation. The parents are the causative agents of both the pregnancy and the child's dependence.

Who among us could have chosen not to begin life, or not to inhabit our mother's body when conceived? Inhabiting the mother's body is a direct byproduct of the parents' volitional act, not the child's. What the prenatal child does, she does by necessity. And this necessity is also a direct byproduct of the parents' volitional act.

As everyone knows, nobody survives without certain necessities of life, and very immature children can't obtain them without outside help. Childhood dependency is a fact of nature, like the liquidity of water.

Abortion choicers know that the stork doesn't drop children on our heads. Yet, many insist, parents are not responsible for "accidental" pregnancies.

This raises two meanings of "responsible for:" 1) being the source or cause of a consequence, and 2) being accountable to others for the consequence, owing them.

One cause of the child's existence, the union of a sperm and ovum, is natural. But it is dependent upon an antecedent cause, the human action that enables the two cells to come together. Nature can't do its part unless the parents pull the trigger, so to speak. What parents cause to be is not just a child but a child with needs; it's a package-deal. A child would not be in need of sustenance and of help if she didn't exist. And the stork did not do it.

The fact of parental agency refutes any assertion that the child is an aggressor of any sort, a trespasser, a parasite, or whatever. Since a prenatal child is where she is because of her parents' actions, she can be said to be acting as her parents' agent - which places her alleged "guilt" squarely on her parents' heads. We might even say that the mother aggressed against herself, except that aggression doesn't apply to actions against oneself. Let's note the two central aspects to conception that are relevant to rights: 1) It is voluntary on the parents' part, and not on the child's; the situation is imposed on the child. 2) The parents' power over the child is total; it is they who have set up and control the entire situation. If their child dies due to their negligence, they have not merely let her die; they have killed her.

To conceive and then abort one's child - even by mere eviction - is to turn conception into a deadly trap for he child: it is to set her up in a vulnerable position that is virtually certain to lead to her death. Conception followed by eviction from the womb could be compared to capturing someone, placing her on one's airplane, and then shoving her out in mid-flight without a parachute. The child in the womb is a captive, in the sense that she is in the situation involuntarily. The captive is not a trespasser on the captor's property, by definition.


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The non-endangerment principle

When abortion choicers liken the parent to the good Samaritan, they talk as if feeding one's own children is an act of charity. It is a kindness to give charity, because nobody has an obligation under unalienable rights to do so. Giving to charity is a matter of choice, by definition. But the good Samaritan is not a causative agent of another's need for support; good Samaritans are chance bystanders. In procreation, parents are not chance bystanders but active participants. Conception and pregnancy are foreseeable consequences of even careful sex.

When children are conceived in petri dishes, even then the parents are active participants in procreation. Here, of course, both parents can walk off without attacking their child. But to abandon one's child in the petri dish is like putting her on board one's airplane and then jumping out, leaving her on the plane to crash, and doing all this without the child's consent. Sure, maybe a stranger with a suitable womb will happen by who is willing and able to adopt her. But what if this doesn't happen?

Let's talk again about the non-aggression principle. Basically, non-aggression is a negative obligation, like don't commit robbery. If we commit robbery, we incur positive obligations to the victim for the harm done.

We can also incur positive obligations even if we have not initiated force. For example, a contract is not an initiation of force, yet by merely signing the contract, each party to it now owes each other performance. Failure to perform is an aggression.

The child's right of parental support does not arise out of contract or tort, or out of any aggression committed by the parents. It does not arise out of the biological relationship of parent to child. The child's right arises out of the non-aggression principle. To see why, consider the matter of endangering innocent people without their consent.

One example is lighting a barbecue in our back yard. The mere act of starting the fire is not aggression. But if the fire threatens to spread to our neighbor's land, we caused the danger. If their property catches fire, we also caused the harm and initiated force. Since we may not end up initiating force, we may not endanger others without their consent and then let harm befall them.

We could call this the non-endangerment principle: If we endanger innocent people without their consent, we owe them protection from the harm. Notice, although prevention of harm may require positive actions on our part, it is still essentially a negative obligation. And we can incur it even though no one has yet suffered any actual force.

Threats of harm, however, can be considered as forms of aggression. The kind and degree of prevention we must provide depends upon the kind and degree of the risk we impose upon others. When we drive a car, at the minimum, we must stay alert and drive carefully. When people drive drunk, we have no obligation to wait until they bash someone before we take them off the road.

The child's right to be in the mother's womb

Some abortion choicers say that life is a gift to the child by the parents, a gift that doesn't bind the parents. A "gift," however, implies the option to refuse to take it, and beginning life is not an option for the child. Her life is thrust upon her, and so her need for life support and so is her inability to fend for herself. Conception doesn't make a child worse off (or better off) than before, because children do not pre-exist conception, but she is created vulnerable to harm. For the parents to thrust this package upon the child and then take off is to thrust the child into danger, to threaten her with harm. If harm befalls the child because she was abandoned, it's the parents' fault, not the stork's.

The parent-child relationship is unique as a situation: it is the only one that begins when one side causes the other side to exist. But parental obligation is not unique as an obligation - the obligation to act justly towards others is a universal, rather than a special, obligation.

The source of parental obligation is the obligation to not aggress; parental obligation is simply a concrete example of this basic obligation. By caring for their child, the parents prevent an aggression that would take place if they were to willfully or negligently permit harm to befall her.

Conception is not, in itself, endangerment or a threat of aggression; it's a normal, natural fact of life, and pregnancy automatically protects the child against the possible dangers of an unsupportive environment. Yet by conceiving a child, parents give themselves a life-or-death power over her, and they get this control without her consent.

If parents intentionally or negligently use their power to put their child in harm's way (not feeding her, for example), they caused the danger without her consent. If the child is harmed (starves to death), they also caused the harm without her consent.

Even simple eviction from the womb initiates force and violates the child's rights. In most abortions, however, the child is first dismembered or poisoned, then evicted.

Killing a child either directly or by deliberate negligence is a wrong, not a right. Abortion - even a simple removal - is lethal child abuse.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go." It was a fun way of complaining about having to drag one's body to work in order to make the car payments. And it also taught a fundamental truth: the right to control one's own body doesn't justify the failure to pay one's debts.

You owe your own kid protection from harm; you must provide. She has the right, under individual liberty, to your support. Parents have no right to kill their children, and neither do they have a right to evict their children from home. For the prenatal child, the mother's womb is home; this is where she needs to be - and this is where she has the right to be.

The so-called "right" of abortion is not libertarian; it is a dogma in search of a rationale

These remarks were presented at the University of Chicago on November 10, 1994; the program was sponsored by the Pro-Life Association of the University of Chicago.

Reprinted by permission of Libertarians for Life.


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