Debate: Libertarians Should Support Abortion Rights

Does a fetus have a right to live?


Joanna Andreasson

One of the oldest and most heated intra-libertarian disputes is over the ability to electively end a pregnancy. Historically, the pro-abortion rights position has had more sway. The first Libertarian Party platform in 1972 called for "the repeal of all laws restricting voluntary birth control or voluntary termination of pregnancies during their first hundred days," and it's not hard to see why a movement that holds such values as choice and autonomy sacred would come down on that side of the debate. Yet disagreement has proved stubbornly persistent: Ron Paul, the L.P.'s 1988 presidential nominee and a former obstetrician, identifies as "an unshakable foe of abortion." A Cato Institute study using 2008 American National Election Study data found that more than a third of the country's libertarians are pro-life.

At Reason, the presumption in favor of abortion rights has never been so rigid as to stop us from giving space in our pages to arguments both for and against. The affirmative and negative cases on this page are excerpted from a forum that appeared in the magazine's April 1978 issue.

Don't Sacrifice People for the Sake of Potential People

"Human beings have [life, liberty, and property] rights because they should live so as to further their own happiness, and it is the proper function of a legal system to protect and preserve these rights. When the exercise of these rights would conflict with some other value, the legal system of a good human community must give precedence to the exercise of those rights. In our case, a person's right to pursue his or her own life sometimes conflicts with the value of a potential human being developing into a young human being. Then, it is the rights of the actual person that must be protected, not the conditions of such development."
"The Morality of Non-Interference"

It's Almost Always Wrong To End the Lives of Innocents

"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.…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.…Except in a 'lifeboat' situation, [unborn persons] 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."
"It's a Matter of Life and Death"