Of late, the abortion issue has taken stage-center in libertarian discourse, overshadowing, at least for the nonce, the great limited-government versus anarchy debate and other perennials. This is not surprising. After all, abortion goes to the heart of libertarian concerns: the individual and his rights. It is a matter quite literally, of life and death.
Unfortunately, the whole debate has become badly muddled, and more heat than light has been generated. The two contending camps, the proabortionists and the antiabortionists (or prolifers) have, it seems, made a fundamental error. Each has committed itself to its particular preference on the issue and then gone back to gin up some sort of philosophical justification for its "bias of choice."
Let us examine the question as dispassionately as possible. Let us see if a clear case can be made for or against abortion.
To do this, we must begin with the fundamental precept, the one philosophical postulate (sometimes it seems the only one!), accepted without reservation by all those committed to liberty—the nonaggression principle: under normal circumstances, it is improper for any person to initiate the use of force—threatened, actual, or implied (e.g., fraud)—against another person. To put it another way, force may not properly be used against one's fellows except in self defense.
If abortion violates the nonaggression principle, it must be condemned. If not, it is strictly a matter of choice governed by individual inclination. We may think it barbaric, we may shun those who sanction it, but we cannot condemn it as contrary to libertarianism.
So. Does abortion violate the nonaggression principle? To answer this question, we must first answer two others: Are the unborn "persons"? If so, are they aggressors?
Just what is a person? A common answer is that a person is an entity with a capacity for reason and choice. At this point in history, the only such entities known to us are human beings, members of the wildly improbable species Homo sapiens. But are all human beings persons?
There are those who argue that some of us are more equal than others when it comes to "personhood," that some level of "actualization" of the capacity for reason and choice must be achieved before one can join the club and thus be entitled to protection under the nonaggression principle. There is little agreement, however, on the qualifying level of actualization. And therein lies the rub. Who decides how high the "dues" will be? Who establishes the criteria by which one shall be judged? Can there be any objective standard?
Some will say that when reason is obviously manifested in purposeful action (action based on choice), personhood blooms. But what is "obvious" to one is not obvious to another. Others may hold that mere purposeful action is not enough, that "right" choices must predominate. But what is a right choice? On myriad matters, one man's "rightness" is another's "wrongness."
Another faction may argue for the construction of "objective" tests of IQ and such. Still others may opt for more rough-and-ready criteria: race, social standing, economic status, political/ philosophical preference, biological development. (An example of the latter is, "Fetuses / embryos / blastocysts / zygotes are only 'prepersons.'" This term appears in the title of Phillip K. Dick's powerful and controversial novelette "The Pre-Persons," in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1974.)
But suppose for a moment that there is some generally acceptable standard of what it means to be a person. What happens if a "person," through accident, illness, or what have you, looses his "standing," can no longer actualize his native capacity for reason and choice? Does he cease to be a person? And who decides?
A little thought makes it obvious that any attempt to classify human beings as "persons" and "others"—the former protected by the nonaggression principle and the latter fair game—is doomed to failure. Such distinction making is a Pandora's box of social and ethical ills. One need only consider Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Lebanon—and "affirmative action" in the good old USA—to see where it leads. We are entitled to our quirks, but we are not entitled to use them as justifications for aggression.
The only safe bet is to accord every member of our madcap race the status of "person," no matter what his stage of life and development. (An argument similar to the above is presented in Doris Gordon's "Abortion and the Question of the Person," distributed by Libertarians for Life.)
It has been suggested by many who seek to justify their proabortion views that the unborn are not human beings, not individual members of the class Homo sapiens, not persons. They argue that the unborn are, at most pre-persons—mere parts of or biological adjuncts to their mothers' bodies, parts that do not acquire true individuality, personhood, and the protection of the nonaggression principle until after birth. Since this is so, the argument goes, an unborn child can be disposed of at the mother's discretion without doing violence to the nonaggression principle. After birth we are human beings, persons; before birth we are merely "lumps of protoplasm."
If this were so, it would certainly make things easier. It is not so, however. From the moment of conception, the unborn is a new life, a unique individual and a member of a species having the capacity for reason and choice. A human being. A person. In his Freeman article (August 1972), Thomas L. Johnson, a professor of biology and chordate embryology, explains:
Human life…has its beginning (is viable)…when the necessary genetic information, half coming from the father and the other half from the mother, is brought together by the fusion of the released sperm and egg to form the single-celled zygote. This individual organism cannot be a part of the mother (it has an entirely different set of chromosomes), but is a separate and unique human life.
True, at this stage and throughout the nine months of gestation (and, for that matter, a long while after) this new person can only survive via a dependent relationship with another. (This is not a parasitic relationship. Biologically, a parasite is an organism of one species that lives on or within an organism of another species from which it draws sustenance.) It must remain within the mother's womb or an equivalent environment. But this, as Johnson argues, is a normal stage in the process of human life, roughly similar to the nymphal stage in the development of many insect species.
Metaphysically, by its nature, every new human life must spend the first months of its existence in an aquatic environment, within the amniotic sac, if it is ever to experience a later stage of human existence. No human life has ever bypassed this requirement, or ever will—at least not for many millions of years, if then, considering the present rate of evolution. Every new human life must also have first been a zygote, then an embryo, and finally a fetus before it is prepared to live outside the fluid medium. To contend that human life is only human at the time of birth, that the intrauterine entity is not an actual, but only a potential human being, is untenable.
For those who insist that human life begins only at birth, the question that must be asked is: What is this entity developing within the uterus if not an actual human being? Is it possible, by some magic, at the time of birth, that this alleged potential being is somehow, within a matter of minutes, transformed into an actual human being? To rational individuals, in possession of scientific facts, the answer is incontrovertible…at the time of birth, the child is merely moving from one required environment (aquatic) to a new required environment (gaseous) so that it can continue to develop into the succeeding stages of its life.
To claim that the unborn are not human beings is absurd—another case of arbitrary definition that does not fit the facts.
The unborn are human beings. And all human beings are persons. But are the unborn aggressors?
An aggressor is a person who, under normal circumstances initiates the use of force against another person. An aggressor willfully acts against his victim. He chooses to use force against an innocent party to gain his ends. Aggression is purposeful human action.
An unborn person does what he does, not through purposeful action, but through biologically imperative processes. It is the way things work in the normal course of a human life, a fact of nature. An unborn person is innocent of aggression.
So it would seem that abortion is not consistent with the fundamental principle of liberty. The unborn human being is a person and is not an aggressor. Therefore, the unborn human being must be accorded the same consideration that the nonaggression principle requires us to accord all persons innocent of aggressive behavior.
But wait, some have said, isn't an unborn person a trespasser? After all, he is occupying a woman's body, the property of another. Doesn't this make him an aggressor? (See Walter Block's article in Libertarian Forum, September 1977). [And in this issue of REASON—Ed.]
True, trespass is a form of aggression, the willful intrusion onto the property of another. If you take a short-cut through your neighbor's yard on the way to work, you are guilty of trespass. You violate his property rights by choice. But an unborn person has no choice. He is where he is as a consequence of the actions of others and the workings of biology. He did not choose to be conceived, nor does he choose to remain where he is in defiance of the wishes of the woman whose body surrounds him. His is a "passive" role and therefore not aggressive.
But what about rape? Surely the unborn person conceived through rape is guilty of trespass, aggression?
Once again, the answer is no. The rapist is the trespasser. He is the aggressor. The unborn child that results from his action is an innocent consequence of that action. To punish (kill) the unborn for what another did would only compound the crime.
There are those who have tried to justify abortion by claiming that it does not constitute an attack upon the unborn, that it is merely a morally neutral withholding of aid to a helpless stranger. It may be callous, even uncivilized, but it is not a violation of the nonaggression principle. (See Murray N. Rothbard in the Libertarian Forum, July 1977, and see Block.)
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Abortion is the purposeful use of force to deny a human being who is innocent of aggressive behavior the natural conditions required for continued life. There is nothing "neutral" about it.
The only neutral course is to let well enough alone. A normal pregnancy requires no extraordinary action on the part of the mother. Essentially, all she has to do is live a healthy existence, something any sensible person does anyway. She is not required to sacrifice herself to benefit another. If she takes care of herself, she will, willy-nilly, take care of the unborn person within her.
But if she chooses to abort, to kill the unborn child, she turns her back on neutrality. And, under normal circumstances, she embraces murder. To call it anything else, to attempt to justify it as merely an exercise of one's privilege to refuse aid to a stranger, is to engage in a particularly nasty bit of semantic sophistry.
But what if circumstances are not normal? Suppose a mother's life clearly is endangered by pregnancy—what then?
All persons have a presumptive privilege of self-preservation. As Ed Vieira explains, this privilege "permits an innocent individual to take the life of another innocent individual in an 'emergency' situation in which both cannot survive and the survival of one depends upon the denial to the other of the means of survival" ("Thoughts on the Question of Abortion," distributed by Libertarians for Life.) Thus, in the extraordinary instance in which there is good reason to believe a mother's life is endangered by pregnancy, she has the privilege of defending herself by means of abortion and can do so without violating the nonaggression principle. Of course, she may also choose to give up her own life to save the child. The choice is hers and hers alone. (This assumes that the mother did not engage in sexual intercourse knowing pregnancy was particularly dangerous to her and without taking reasonable contraceptive precautions. If she knew the danger and was careless, she would forfeit her choice and the unborn child's life would come first.)
The unborn are human beings. Unborn human beings are persons. Unborn persons are innocent of aggressive behavior. Therefore, except in a "lifeboat" situation, they must be accorded the protection of the nonaggression principle. And, therefore, under normal (nonemergency) circumstances, abortion is a violation of the cardinal principle of libertarianism.
Mr. Pflock is a freelance writer and a contributing editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "It's a Matter of Life and Death".