Pro-Life Libertarianism

Recent discussions have raised doubts about the plausibility of a pro-life libertarian position. In this post, I will argue that the only conception of libertarianism I find plausible and coherent necessitates a pro-life position.

First, we must define terms. What does it mean to be pro-life, and what does it mean to be a libertarian? I would submit that as with virtually all political ideologies, there are different factions with different conceptions of what it means to adhere to that ideology. Within libertarianism there are generally recognized “right” and “left” factions, and others who do not find these distinctions useful. There are anarchists and minarchists, individualists and collectivists. And there are plenty in each camp that will declare the others not to be “true libertarians.”

Though some may have a problem with resorting to Wikipedia, I’m going to assume that interested libertarians keep tabs on it, and state – for what little it may be worth – that I find the definitions offered here to be consistent with what libertarian literature I have read on my own:

Libertarianism is the advocacy of individual liberty, especially freedom of thought and action.[1] Roderick T. Long defines libertarianism as “any political position that advocates a radical redistribution of power [either "total or merely substantial"] from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals”, whether “voluntary association” takes the form of the free market or of communal co-operatives.[2] David Boaz writes that, “Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others” and that, “Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property–rights that people have naturally, before governments are created.”[3]

On the face of it, I see nothing here that would contradict the pro-life position, which is simply that unborn human beings are worthy of the same defense mentioned here as born human beings. But one of our contributors has raised the following objection, re-stated in a manner I found a bit more understandable by one of our readers in the comment boxes (no offense to the contributor, who acknowledged this as an accurate representation of his views, intended):

[L]ibertarianism has no way of adjudicating between competing claims of rights–in this case [of abortion], the right to property versus the right to life–so that any adjudication of this issue must rely upon extra-libertarian premises. Perhaps the libertarian would say, “Well, the right to life is more basic than the right to property, so in cases where they conflict, the right to life would have to take priority.” But on what basis would he make this determination? (my emphasis)

This is certainly a worthy objection to raise, but I think it contains a crucial flaw: that “adjudication of this issue must rely upon extra-libertarian premises.” As I will show, there are libertarian premises that actually do provide for this very task, but they are not accepted by all libertarians. I would argue that libertarians who cannot accept these premises are the ones who are not “true” libertarians, in fact. Also problematic is the very notion that it is a right to life and a right to property that are in conflict; as I will argue below, this is not the case.

But first: In the definition we see above, there is a key word without which the edifice of libertarianism collapses: choice. To choose is to exercise one’s free will, and to possess free will is to possess an immaterial soul, of which the former is a property; finally, to possess an immaterial soul is to be a creation of God. If choice is an illusion generated only by our lack of knowledge of the multitude of casual factors that determine the outcome of every event – as materialism and determinism posit – then libertarianism is likewise a total illusion.

I reject the notion that there is no connection between metaphysical and political libertarianism, or a lack thereof. It is no coincidence that those who have rejected God and spirit for matter and determinism from Hobbes to Stalin have also had very little respect for the choices of individuals. If we are not choosers, we are simply compelled hither and thither by external forces. The state becomes one more “force”, usually the overriding one, to push and pull, to shape and to mold. Of course the leaders, from Leviathan to The Party, are always exempt from this unbreakable chain of causality – amazing what “class consciousness” can do.

Thus I would say that not only can there be a “Catholic libertarianism”, but that there can’t be a non-Christian or at least non-theistic libertarianism. Liberty is meaningless without choice; choice is an illusion without the soul; souls in turn are creations of God. We are free because God made us that way, and only because God made us that way. That many libertarians are in fact atheists and agnostics is irrelevant. Like many others in our society, they take for granted the religious and philosophical heritage that produced the ideas and the society that they operate with. Some may content themselves with the notion that free will is a product of animal evolution, but materialist science does not appear to support that claim.

In any case, my pre-political commitments are to God, His Church, and the certainty that I possess a soul and free will, that “I’” really exist because God wants me to exist. To me this not only allows for but necessitates at least a degree of political libertarianism, but it must also stop short of libertinism. Moreover, while not all metaphysical libertarians must totally embrace political libertarianism, I would argue that all political libertarians must embrace metaphysical libertarianism and all that it entails.

To begin with, God did not simply create men with absolute liberty; he established divine and natural laws to which our free will must conform. It is in examining these that the pro-life libertarian position becomes evident, since the very condition for liberty – God’s will – also establishes certain obligations.  First I will turn to John Locke, over whom there is an ongoing dispute on this blog, and who is arguably the founder of classical liberalism and libertarianism as we know it. I am certain I will be accused of misunderstanding Locke in some critical way yet again, but for the moment assume I know what I am talking about.

For Locke, the right to life is a corollary to the natural law of self-preservation, which is stated in the following terms:

“Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind” (Second Treatise, 6)

A natural right is a claim on that which we must possess in order to obey the natural law. Thus we have a right to our own lives (self-ownership), and to private property. We also have a right to charity in extreme circumstances, and to steal as a last resort (First Treatise, 41). Finally the natural laws, as maintained by Locke, are identical to the will of God. (ST, 135) This is (sound the controversy alarm) also what Pope Leo XIII says in Immortale Dei (3, 30). Any law that finds its source in nature has God for its author.

This is what the right to life amounts to: we have a right to life because God values our lives as His property, commands that we take responsibility for them while sojourning on the Earth, and that no one else take ownership or possession of or commit an act of aggression against,our bodies and souls.

All other rights follow from this one, either as corollaries (they necessarily follow), or as subsidiary rights (various civil rights). Chief among these corollary rights is the right to private property. Here is Leo XIII, from Rerum Novarum, doing his best impersonation of Locke:

The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live. (44)

[T]he State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them. (51)

I will be very interested to learn why and to what extent I am so grossly inept at interpreting these statements, but for now I am going to assume that I’ve got it right, and that Leo is arguing that the right to life necessitates the right to property. I would also argue that this is not only what Locke also argued in both Treatises (its so obvious to me that I can’t even believe it is disputed), but also what Aquinas argued in his Summa Theologica, when he states that what the needy thief takes becomes his property by reason of his need. Labor, industrious effort, legitimate work, etc. is the normal and ordinary way that a man takes what belongs to everyone in nature and makes it his own; begging or theft are the, shall we say, extraordinary ways that a man does so, under extreme circumstances. In both cases, however, what is appropriated becomes private property.

Now we come to the topic of abortion, which ought to be easier to adjudicate now that we have brought natural law back into the picture as the very reason for natural rights.  The unborn child clearly has a right to the resources required for life, which become his property when used by him. So we see that we are actually not adjudicating between a right to life and a right to property, but rather two claims to the same property; it so happens that one of the parties will die if denied their claim. In my view this automatically makes the unborn child’s claim to property in its mother’s womb stronger than the mother’s claim to that property. She will not die if her womb is occupied, but the child will die if evicted.

But how can the unborn child have a legitimate claim, if the principle of self-ownership excludes the ownership of any other person? As it should be clear, the unborn child does not actually have a claim to its mothers whole person, nor does it have permanent property in the part it does possess. Once the pregnancy is over, no one maintains that the born child retains property rights over his mother’s womb. It so happens that for a period nine months what is required for the life of the unborn child can only be procured through it’s residence in the womb.

I fail to see how his situation is any different than that of the needy thief (again, Locke, the classical liberal, acknowledged his rights as surely as Aquinas did). Radical feminist and pro-choice libertarians who approach the issue from a property rights standpoint do indeed view the child as an intruder, a trespasser and a thief, but this poses no problems for the Christian natural law libertarian. If a thief has a right to steal in order to live, and if what he steals becomes his property, an unborn child would have a similar right, and an even stronger right, to occupy and use the womb of its mother.

In the vast majority of cases, the child is invited into the womb by the freely chosen behavior of the mother. To invite someone into your home on the understanding that he will be using your resources for nine months, and then decide three months in that you don’t like the deal anymore and are going to evict him even if it means his death would be a transgression of the law of nature. The same applies if you carelessly leave the door of your home open to innocent beings that cannot comprehend that a possible consequence of their entrance will be their death. If you don’t want to share your resources with another person, lock your doors.

What about cases of rape? The child wasn’t invited in and he didn’t wander in – he was placed there against his will (in reality he is always there against his will, but not for the purposes of my shoddy analogy). If anything that gives him a stronger claim to his mother’s resources, no matter how traumatic and unjust the means by which he was placed there. The child is not the aggressor or the violator. If a someone invaded your home and left an infant behind, you wouldn’t have a right to kill it, but rather an obligation to care for it until at the very least someone else could do so.

Some may ask: if the right to life, and to that which is needed to sustain it, is a corollary to the law of self-preservation, how can an unborn child or an infant obey a law that it cannot comprehend, not having obtained the use of reason? How can it therefore have a right to property in its mother’s womb?

There is another provision of the natural law that protects the interest of the child, again recognized by both Locke and Leo: the obligation of parents to provide for their offspring. Both declare that children have a natural right to have their parents provide for them. Locke argues that children “have a right to be nourished, and maintained by them, till they are able to provide for themselves.”(ST, 78). Leo argues that “it is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten” (RN, 13).

Though Leo here is referring to the obligation of the father, to suggest that the mother has no similar obligation would be unfounded and obscene. Referencing Aquinas, he goes onto say: “and for the very reason that “the child belongs to the father” it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “before it attains the use of free will, under the power and the charge of its parents.” Thus the law of nature referred to here applies to the mother as well as the father. And it is really just an extension of the first natural law of self-preservation; what the child ultimately has is a right to the property of both of his parents, his father’s labor and his mother’s womb.

None of the foregoing matters, however, if one assumes that the unborn child isn’t a real human being subject to the same natural laws and therefore possessed of the same rights as born human beings. Fortunately we have seen this assumption become less and less pronounced in pro-choice rhetoric, since it is untenable.  The “personhood” diversion changes nothing either, since no one has been able to credibly demonstrate that an unborn child magically becomes a “person” upon exiting its mother’s womb, or even for several years after. Whatever denies “personhood” to a fetus certainly denies it to infants and possibly the mentally ill, all children below the age of reason, the comatose, etc.

What we have also seen more frequently is perhaps a conflict between a mother’s liberty and a child’s right. This often boils down to the obscene notion that what an unborn child “is” at any given moment – a valued member of the human community, or an unwanted parasitic intruder – and consequently, what we can “do” to it at any given moment, depends entirely upon the mother’s subjective and fluctuating wishes. Certainly such nonsense does not follow from libertarian premises; not even they argue that liberty can change fundamental facts.

On the other hand if we really are dealing with conflicting property rights, then we are dealing with conflicting human beings, since all human beings have rights. And once we’ve accepted that, it is hard to argue that the unborn child has the weaker claim or no claim at all in most cases. This is something more and more pro-choicers are coming to understand when they actually think about the issue instead of adopting the insane viewpoint in the last paragraph, and it’s probably why public opinion is steadily drifting towards the pro-life position.

A word on the discussion to follow:

I’ve done my best; I’m sure my argument is full of holes, errors, misunderstandings, etc. I’ve put these positions forward in good faith, in the hope that they can be discussed charitably without belittling assumptions about intent or ability. If I’ve said something that makes you scratch your head and think “how could anyone be so absurd!?”, I am always willing and happy to answer honest questions. And if I’ve made a complete factual blunder, I don’t need to be bashed over the head with it.

9 Responses to Pro-Life Libertarianism

  • I also want to add that this whole argument isn’t the only possible pro-life libertarian argument. From a paleo-libertarian standpoint abortion also undermines the social and moral order required for liberty to survive and thrive. But that would have been too much to get into.

  • Joe – I need to print and read all your Locke posts and this one before I make a judgment. This is good work though and I appreciate all your efforts.

    For your consideration refer below.

    Libertarian perspectives on abortion

    I would ask you to consider the Non-Aggression Axiom in your analysis. It might be helpful to research Rothbard’s and Block’s works.

    The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism by Walter Block

    Jonah Goldberg and the Libertarian Axiom on Non-Aggression by Walter Block

    Audio – The Lew Rockwell Show – 11. The Non-Aggression Axiom

    Evictionism: Abortion and Libertarianism (Walter Block)

    Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy by Walter Block

    Libertarianism, Positive Obligations and Property Abandonment: Children’s Rights

    Stem Cell Research: The Libertarian Compromise

  • Murray Rothbard on Abortion which references the Catholic position

    The Ethics of Liberty (Chapter 14: Children and Rights) by Murray N. Rothbard who references John Locke…

    Abortion by Walter Block

  • I will need time to digest this; however, there is one aspect of the Catholic Prol-Life position that you failed to analyze from a Libertarian Position. Thankfully, it is rather rare at this point, but it does occur from time to time. I don’t see how the arguments you put forward defend the life of the unborn in the case when the pregnancy proves to be a substantial risk to the life or health of the mother.

    To use your analogy of the invited guest. No one would generally deny you the right to evict a guest from your property should that guest come to threaten your life or health, even if the consequences of the eviction were dire for the guest.

  • But try telling that to a libertarian who is only such because he wants to make money and not be bothered about decency.

  • Maryland Bill,

    Consider what pro-life physicians have to say about this “hard case”:

    “When the life of the mother is truly threatened by her pregnancy, if both lives cannot simultaneously be saved, then saving the mother’s life must be the primary aim. If through our careful treatment of the mother’s illness the pre-born patient inadvertently dies or is injured, this is tragic and, if unintentional, is not unethical and is consistent with the pro-life ethic. But the intentional killing of an unborn baby by abortion is never necessary.”

    It may beg the question as to whether or not we could do it if it WERE necessary, but I don’t feel obliged to answer that here and now. It’s, as they say, academic.

  • Joe.
    With respect, it doesn’t just beg the question, that was the question to begin with. If we are going to accept the Catholic Definition of pro-life (i.e., deliberate abortion is under all circumstances prohibited), then for any political philosophy to be pro-life, two conditions (at least) must be met. The first is that the state has a duty to protect the life of all living under its jurisdiction equally. The second is that the state has the power to compel a mother to carry a child within her regardless of the circumstances of how the child got there, or consequences for herself.

    Now, if we accept your premises, then your first example clearly stands. I am not convinced that your second case necessarily does, but I am willing to grant it for the sake of the argument. However, unless you can show that the libertarian state should prevent direct abortions in all cases, you have not made your case.

    How pro-life doctors choose to approach treating patients is interesting but completely irrelevant to the question at hand. After all, I doubt many Libertarians are going to argue that doctors are forced to intervene if patients choose a different doctor.

    BTW, for the record, I am not convinced that the lack of God implies a deterministic Universe (quantum mechanics allows for a probabilistic universe). Further, I am not sure that adopting determinism necessarily rules out a libertarian political philosophy, since whether we have Free Will or not, we certainly act as if we do.

  • Bill,

    With due respect to you…

    “How pro-life doctors choose to approach treating patients is interesting but completely irrelevant to the question at hand.”

    Actually, that;’s not what we’re dealing with. What the doctors are saying is that it is – not in their opinion, but as a matter of medical fact – NEVER necessary for a doctor to take an innocent life through abortion.

    In other words, the “exception to save the life of the mother” is a smoke screen, a way to smuggle abortion in through the emotional appeal of hard cases.

    What other people choose to do with their doctors is the irrelevant thing here.

    As for this,

    “BTW, for the record, I am not convinced that the lack of God implies a deterministic Universe (quantum mechanics allows for a probabilistic universe).”

    I grant this, though the tyrants of recent memory still hold to ideologies that are deterministic in origin. But it still poses the same problem; instead of our free will being an illusion of ignorance, it would become an illusion of chance. Free will requires, well, a being with a will whose decisions are not the product of random quantum fluctuations either. They have to be chosen, and I’m not sure how a probabilistic universe without God would account for choice (though I’d love to read something on it).

    “Further, I am not sure that adopting determinism necessarily rules out a libertarian political philosophy, since whether we have Free Will or not, we certainly act as if we do.”

    Well, to be a libertarian and a determinism to me is something of a joke. We should hold to political philosophies that at least somewhat approximate to reality. To say we don’t have free will – to be a determinist – and then to say that we should have as much liberty as possible – to be a libertarian, is kinda like saying that people who don’t have stomachs should have a right to as much food as they can eat. It’s even worse really because such a person is saying he should be able to have something that cannot exist at all.

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