I have been struggling with the question of abortion and libertarianism for some time now, and while my instincts tell me that abortion would probably be at least tolerated in a libertarian society, I am not sure whether it is compatible with the strict logic of libertarian thought.
I’m therefore quite pleased to have found Wendy McElroy’s thoughts on the issue, and while they are probably not the last word on it, I think they make a good case that libertarians have no choice but to support the right to abort foetuses, regardless of their status as human beings:
Abortion is still hotly debated within libertarianism. This has always seemed odd to me since I believe libertarianism is based on self-ownership and that a pregnant woman has an unquestionable right to her own body, including the right to expel the fetus or have any other body part amputated. This right has been subjected to critical scrutiny by anti-abortionists in the movement who claim the fetus is a human being with full individual rights that are violated in an abortion. Basically, anti-abortionists pit the woman's rights against the alleged rights of the fetus, and give the latter priority.
The argument is a weak one and open to attack from several directions. But my purpose here is a bit different. I want to explore some of the implications of the anti-abortion position because they are usually ignored even though they are vicious in nature.
Implication #1: If the fetus is accorded individual rights, then the aborting woman and anyone who assists her are murders and must be subject to whatever penalty society metes out for that crime, up to and including capital punishment. The punishment should be applied to past abortions as there is no statute of limitation on murder. If anti-abortionists shy away from this conclusion, then they do not really consider abortion to be murder. Note: it does not matter that the woman didn't view the fetus as a child; if her state of mind exonerates her, then it follows that a racist should be exonerated for killing blacks.
Implication #2: if a woman cannot 'kill' her fetus because it is a separate human being, then she also cannot injure it. If she does, she should be prosecuted in the same manner as if she assaulted an innocent bystander. If she ingests harmful substances, then the law should view the act as though she had strapped down a child and force-fed a toxin to it. Thus, the pregnant woman is vulnerable to criminal prosecution based on her diet, her lifestyle choices, etc. If anti-abortionists do not follow their own logic this far, it is not because the logic doesn't lead here. It is because the conclusion makes them uncomfortable.
Implication #3: if a woman wishes to abort or to take actions that will harm the fetus -- e.g. smoking crack -- then she should be imprisoned or otherwise forcibly restrained from inflicting death and/or injury on the innocent "child." Constant monitoring would be required -- presumably by the state; the woman would be a slave to her fetus. Anti-abortionists must explain how -- short of totalitarianism -- they intend to protect fetuses in peril.
Implication #4: anti-abortionists are effectively defining pro-choice libertarians out of the movement. If anti-abortionists are correct, then pro-choice libertarians are morally sanctioning and/or legally encouraging the deliberate mass murder of defenseless children. If there is any line that cannot be crossed without losing all claim to the word "libertarian", then surely the advocacy of mass murder is that line.
Implication #5: anti-abortionists are destroying the concept of natural righs itself which claims that every human being properly has jurisdiction over his or her own body. It is only because each human being is a self-owner that is is improper to initiate force against another. But if the fetus possesses the right to live off the pregnant woman's body functions -- to share the food she eats, the blood her heart pumps -- then this is tantamount to saying that one human being can properly own the body functions of another. It is tantamount to saying one human being can properly enslave another.
Implication #6: anti-abortionists are destroying the idea of "a natural harmony of rights" between human beings. If rights are based on being human, then everyone has the same ones to the same degree. The self-ownership of one person in no way violates the self-ownership of another; my freedom of religion in no way violates yours. Consider if human nature were different, however. If I had a biological need to eat human flesh in order to live, then the structure of universal rights would make no sense. One man's life would require another man's death. This would be Hobbes' "war of all against all" and to demand the non-initiation of force would be to condemn mankind to extinciton. Similarly the anti-abortionists posit a fetus whose right to self-ownership is in direct opposition to the self-ownership of the pregnant woman. They posit a biological disharmony of interests. Although such disharmonies can occur in nature -- e.g.. Siamese twins -- these occurences are extremely rare and not commonplace, like pregnancy. If they were not rare, then the idea of natural rights or "harmony of interest" would have no application to human nature.
Implication #7: anti-abotionists are claiming, "The fetus is an individual with rights" and, so, the onus of proof logically rests on the one who asserts a claim rather than upon those who see no evidence for the assertion.
Implication #8: if a pregnancy threatens a woman's life, anti-abortionists must legally require the woman to remain pregnant even if it means her death. Otherwise they do not take their own argument seriously. If the fetus is a separate individual with full rights, then the ill woman has no more right to kill it to save her life than a woman who needs a liver has the right to kill another person to secure a 'donor' organ. You cannot kill an innocent bystander just because your health requires it.
Implication #9: pregnancies that result from rape must also be brought to term. Anti-abortionists who make exceptions for e.g. a 12-year-old who becomes after being raped are saying that it is alright to kill an innocent baby under the 'proper' circumstances... which denies their entire argument, of course.