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Libertarians, Abortion, and Natural Rights

Reason held a panel last week on libertarian perspectives on abortion featuring their own Katherine Mangu-Ward and Ronald Bailey, alongside the strongly pro-life Mollie Hemingway. The video is above.

All seem to agree that viability is a sliding scale that is difficult to use as a starting point for policy. Bailey, however, isn’t ready to reject it entirely because “that is the point at which someone else can decide to take care of the entity, the baby, the fetus, or whatever you like, as opposed to imposing the burden on the woman who’s carrying the fetus to maintain.”

Mangu-Ward throws up her hands: “At some point we have the biological distinction of birth, which I don’t think necessarily has strong moral weight but has very very strong customary weight, and that up to that point it’s essentially an individual decision.”

Ben Domenech makes the important point in yesterday’s Transom that all prominent politicians who identify themselves as libertarians—Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie—are pro-life, and calls Bailey and Mangu-Ward’s views “fundamentally anti-libertarian”:

Bailey, who certainly considers himself libertarian, says that he believes “personhood” and the fundamental rights that come with it don’t begin until the government decides that you are “viable” and/or have “significant enough brain development to have some sense of self-awareness”. Viability is an incredibly arbitrary threshold for when life begins, particularly when you consider that medical science is moving the point of viability ever earlier. Most babies are really not mentally with it for the first several weeks, and sometimes months (As one recent father told me: “They’re like a potato – they have no real personality.”). Are they that different than they were, brain-wise, at 22 weeks? By using Bailey’s “self-awareness” standard, shouldn’t we really accept Peter Singer’s conclusion that you can kill your baby legally until around the 2-3 month mark? Also, what is viability really? What percentage of children have to survive in order for them to be viable? One child? 20 percent? 50 percent? Why is thinking the government should decide this a libertarian position?


Along with Domenech, I was also troubled by Mangu-Ward’s glib dismissal of natural rights as the “magical” investiture of rights at the moment of fertilization. I’m probably as skeptical about them as she is (for reasons similar to thesehere), but they’re an undeniably useful, perhaps indispensable concept for libertarians.

Also, Roe v Wade isn’t mentioned once during the debate, so are we to assume everyone’s starting point is that it was an unconstitutional power grab? Mangu-Ward says at some point that given the ethical complexities involved, decisions about the legality of abortion should be made at the lowest possible level. So does that mean Roe v Wade moved in the wrong direction?

Abortion is the issue that most complicates Reason‘s narrative that libertarianism, defined as social permissiveness and fiscal restraint, is on the rise, for two reasons. One, Americans are not moving towards the pro-choice position with nearly the speed they are on other issues, and there’s considerable evidence they’re moving the opposite way. For another, that definition of libertarianism assumes a neutral deference to science’s ability to define questions like viability, and government’s ability to police them, and that libertarian ideas about non-agression end at the womb.

For many libertarians this is unsatisfying, I’d suggest far more than the one-third that Nick Gillespie throws out for the number that are pro-life. And not just because they have incidental traditionalist views, but because the right to life is integral to their understanding of liberty. At P.A.U.L.Fest in Tampa last year I watched Walter Block—no natural rights slouch, him—give a speech on his theory of a woman’s right to evict a fetus but not kill it, citing competing rights to autonomy and life. This is an old debate, and Block has been trying to square the circle with his “evictionism” idea for some time, but until the invention of artificial wombs it’s entirely theoretical. In Tampa, he was booed for even explaining it. Urbane libertarians often think of the Paulista contingent as the “swivel-eyed loons” of libertarianism, but the rift over abortion is bigger than they admit.

about the author

Arthur Bloom is the former editor of The American Conservative online. He was previously deputy editor of the Daily Caller and a columnist for the Catholic Herald. He holds masters degrees in urban planning and American studies from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Spectator (UK), The Guardian, Quillette, The American Spectator, Modern Age, and Tiny Mix Tapes.

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