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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

A Wrong, Not a Right: An Atheist Libertarian Looks at Abortion

A Wrong, Not a Right: An Atheist Libertarian Looks at Abortion

by Doris Gordon
Libertarians for Life
Copyright © 1983

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“A Wrong, Not a Right: An Atheist Libertarian Looks at Abortion” was published in Rampart Individualist, Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1983, as part of “Abortion: Two Libertarians Debate the Pros and Cons.” Wendy McElroy wrote the opposing view, in “What Does It Mean to Be an Individual? Self-Ownership Is Key to Abortion Issue” — a version of which can be found on Wendy McElroy’s Web site under the title, “Abortion.” Slightly different versions of “A Wrong, Not a Right” were published in Nomos, Summer 1983, and Foretell, 1993.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court in effect legalized abortion on demand until birth. On January 23, 1983, in an article marking the tenth anniversary of the decision, The Washington Post said, “To this day, many [legal experts such as John Hart Ely] who fully approve of the result seem uncomfortable” with the court’s reasoning. As this prominent scholar wrote in the Yale Law Journal, said the Post, this decision was “‘frightening… It is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.’ The court ‘simply announces’ a right to abortion.”

Even if abortion were constitutional, it shouldn’t be. For abortion is not merely contraception or termination of pregnancy; it is prenatal infanticide. Nothing in science or philosophy supports this killing.

When does human life begin?

When abortion is not the issue, even pro-abortionists agree on the biological facts. Babies are not made in heaven and then delivered at birth by storks; they arrive in this world at conception. Life comes from life, but the individual existence of each human being has its own starting point. Neither sperm nor ovum is a separate creature of the species Homo sapiens — but together they generate a new human entity; individually they cease to exist at conception (fertilization), when by fusion they produce a zygote, a unique human being.

Each of us begins his or her existence at conception with only one cell. This cell is special: All that which we will become later is essentially there; for this cell has the fundamental internal capacity to differentiate itself into the various organs of the human body. Even at conception, we were male or female human beings. Our hearts began to beat by the third week. Just seven weeks after conception, cell differentiation produced an integrated system of tissues and organs: blood, brain, and so on. By the end of the eighth week, all our body systems were present. As we grew in the womb, we responded to pain, cold, taste, light, and sound.

We developed human consciousness; woke, slept, and dreamed. Maturity came not at birth but gradually over years. No substantial change occurred in us by being born; birth was just a change of physical location, eating and breathing habits.

Some ask us to believe that the prenatal child, the fetus, is a “thing,” a non-human animal, or (at best) merely a “potential human being.” However, a fetus is an actual human being — with potential — a child in fact. (“Fetus” is simply Latin for “offspring,” including offspring of non-human species. “Child” means, more specifically, “human offspring,” born or preborn.) However much we may change throughout life, the human being we are now is the fetus and child we were then, only older.

But are preborn children “persons”?

If human beings are persons then, prima facie, all human beings, born and preborn, are persons, too. Biologically, there is only one generic class of human beings: everyone from conception until death. Bodies and minds mature and develop, but personhood either is or isn’t. Being a person is a matter of kind, not degree; some of us are not “more of a person” and others “less,” with some of us having a greater right not to be harmed and others less. Neither are there two classes of human beings: “persons” and “non-persons.” This dichotomy cannot be reasonable or just, for it’s not based upon any rational explanation of what is a person.

A “person” is a living entity with the inherent, internal capacity to develop reason and choice. Human beings have this potential at conception; they actualize this capacity as they develop. Being a person is not determined by what we are at any given moment but by what we are and shall be throughout life.

A human being is not a static thing but a changing entity. A human life is a spectrum of development, manifesting different abilities and achievements over time, all of which are the evolutionary products of the same individual that came into existence at conception. Selecting as the standard of personhood a test that focuses on a single development in this spectrum, or on a single manifestation of the evolving abilities that humans possess as a consequence of their genetic makeup, is merely arbitrary.

A particular test may be objective regarding the specific physical characteristic being measured (e.g., brain waves or “viability”), but this does not necessarily make it an objective test of personhood as a whole. No single line in the spectrum of human life sufficiently represents what life is, in all its complexity, to serve as the standard for conferring, or denying, the most important of human attributes: individual rights.

There is only one objective, non-manipulable test for personhood: having come into existence at conception as a human being. Human beings don’t become persons; human beings are persons. Our human nature on which our rights rest is acquired immediately and irrevocably at conception, when we acquire our human genes. To deny this basic fact of genetics is to subject our natural rights to the arbitrary opinions of others, after as well as before birth. Whatever the intent, the effect of this denial is that only might makes right and the concept of inalienable rights becomes meaningless.

Human life and human rights co-exist. Possessing rights is the consequence of being alive. Even pro-abortionists admit that rights end when an individual’s life ends. It’s perfectly reasonable to hold that rights begin — especially the right not to be killed — when an individual’s life itself begins at conception. Although the ability to exercise one’s rights may vary from person to person and time to time, being a person is a constant.

If pro-abortionists could find an objective test to support abortion, they would rally around it. Instead, they differ radically as to what test we must pass in order to be certified as persons. For various groups, the critical event occurs as early as implantation to years after birth (e.g., socialization). However, the premise implicit in these tests — namely, that our rights depend upon whether or not we can demonstrate an ability or an achievement to someone else’s satisfaction — is unlibertarian; it endangers everyone’s freedom. Requiring doctors and plumbers to be licensed is wrong, as libertarians insist. Imposing a “licensing” requirement for personhood is even more offensive.

Nothing happens at birth that “magically” transforms us into persons. If a person comes out of the womb, then one had to be there before birth. Twins are born one at a time. Can the first-born be a person but not the other minutes from birth? Is killing the second twin justifiable?

If the purely biological fact of birth is what transforms non-persons into persons, then what about non-human mammals? No one pretends that their mere birth transforms them into persons. Something more is both necessary and sufficient: such as being human.

Most of us see only born people, so thinking of preborn children as “us,” especially at conception, seems strange. Nevertheless, they look like what human beings are supposed to look like, and what we once looked like before birth. With technology, strangeness may turn to familiarity. Parents, as well as doctors, can now view children in utero with ultrasound. There are other means of observing them: fetoscopy, amniocentesis, hysteroscopy, and electronic fetal heart monitorinq — all new in the last ten years [before this article was written in 1983]. Movies about life during gestation have been shown on television. Doctors have operated upon preborn children in and ex utero.

Ironically, in some hospitals, while some doctors are struggling to save sickly preborns, other doctors are busy killing older but healthy preborns, merely because they are “unwanted” by their mothers. One of the dreaded consequences of abortion is that some children survive the procedure. May they be killed, or are they now home free? The fact is that their rights are being ignored and they are being killed.

But what about the woman’s right to control her own body?

It is never enough to talk about anyone’s right to control his or her own body when someone else’s body and rights are affected. But, some say, preborn children don’t count. They are not individuals but merely a “part of the woman’s body,” like her heart or other organs.

Biology provides no basis for this view. Mother and child are two individuals, for they are genetically distinct. They are not even attached to each other at conception. A “test-tube” baby spends the first few days in a petri dish, far from the mother. A baby conceived naturally does not connect to the mother at conception but [around 5-9] days later, after floating down her Fallopian tube into her womb. In neither situation is the preborn child a part of where he or she lives.

Even after implantation, the child becomes isolated inside his or her amniotic sac, and from that point on, makes indirect contact with the mother only by way of an umbilical cord and placenta. Siamese twins are directly attached to each other, yet even they are two individuals. Micro-organisms of various species live in us, but no one claims they are biologically a part of us.

Others argue, the preborn child — whether an individual or part of her body — is the mother’s property. How can this be? Property rights imply the right to retain ownership until one chooses to relinquish it. If preborn children were someone’s property, then birth would not change their status. Certainly, being on another person’s property doesn’t make one human being the property of another, in the sense that the owner may do whatever she will with the other individual. The woman’s physical power to control her child, as by abortion, doesn’t make the child her property in a moral or legal sense. If it did, then states could claim people as property, by right. But people are simply not property, ever.

Some say abortion is a woman’s right just because “it’s her body” which must supply the child’s needs. But what about after birth? Breast feeding is a natural means of providing infants with nutrition. In societies or situations where only breast feeding (as opposed to bottle feeding) is available, may the mother starve her child by willfully withholding her milk? Suppose no other milk is available?

Suppose children could be transferred from womb to womb or to artificial wombs? Would they become persons in transit only to become non-persons again? Might a child in an artificial womb be regarded as a removed appendix, as the woman’s property? Or the father’s property? Suppose children could be kept there indefinitely? Might we raise them as guinea pigs, or slaves, or for body parts? Does being a person depend upon some outside, accidental factor like the ability of scientists to do these things — or upon what we are, in ourselves, internally?

Is abortion ever permissible?

Bringing children into the world can present many difficulties for both parents. Sometimes the strain can seem impossible to bear. But even here we can’t turn our backs on the children in the womb.

What if the mother’s life is in danger? “Lifeboat” situations have no pat answers and are continuing problems for philosophy. But abortion is not normally a matter of self-preservation — however much some pro-abortionists wish us to believe it is. In the rare cases where it may be, proper medical care aims (and generally succeeds) at saving both patients. It does not kill the child on purpose, as most abortions do.

What of mentally and physically defective children? Because even severe imperfection is no excuse for killing born people, it’s no excuse for prenatal infanticide. Because nobody’s perfect, think of the possibilities now that we have started down this slippery slope.

What of rape and incest? If sex is consensual, no special consideration is needed in incest cases. There is no right to kill third parties for what two people have chosen to do with each other.

In rape, the situation of pregnancy is imposed upon the woman, but so is it imposed upon the child. Although the woman’s victimization is distressing, her life is not normally at risk. She can carry the child to term and thus continue the rapist’s aggression against herself; or she can herself aggress against her innocent child.

But just because the rapist has harmed the mother, that doesn’t entitle the mother to harm her child. Being victimized doesn’t justify victimizing others. Taking the child’s life is a greater evil than having to carry her child to term. Rape victims deserve our empathy and help, but never our “permission” to kill. Once the child is born, others may take the child if the mother wishes. That the rapist/father has obligations to both victims, ought to need no emphasis.

If they are “unwanted,” are preborn children aggressors?

All persons have the obligation not to aggress. Therefore, some pro-abortionists say, even assuming preborn children are persons, they have no right to live in the mother or at either parent’s expense. Abortion is self-defense, for unwanted children are “aggressors,” “parasites,” or “trespassers.” They may be evicted from the womb and abandoned, even if death results. Parents have no more responsibility to their own children than to children next door or halfway around the world.

There are three errors in the pro-abortionists’ position. It ignores the fact that most abortions, as they are done today, intentionally kill children before eviction. And, even conceding trespass or parasitism, neither is, justifiably, a capital offense. Finally, the fatal flaw in the argument: Preborn children are not aggressors in any form. As one Libertarians for Life leaflet explains:

“Aggression involves an act of will or an act of negligence. It can never arise from an act that is caused by existential forces beyond an individual’s control… [T]here cannot be aggression if human action, in the sense of purposeful behavior, is not involved at all.

“The creation of the fertilized egg and its attachment to the uterine wall are not ‘acts’ of the unborn child in the sense of being purposeful. They are the result of existential biological forces independent and beyond the control of the child (although not of the father and the mother), and brought into play by the combined acts of the father and mother.

“[Because] the unborn child cannot rationally be held responsible for its own creation, it cannot rationally be held to have committed aggression by coming into — indeed, being brought into — existence. Aggression implies responsibility; and no human being is responsible for his own creation.

“[As] the unborn child is not and cannot be an aggressor, the mother cannot invoke the privilege of self-defense against its continued existence in the one place in which, at that stage in its development as a human being, it is both logically and biologically appropriate for it to be.” (“If the Unborn Child is a Person Entitled to Rights, Abortion is Aggression,” Edwin Vieira, Jr.)

Children do not cause their own existence; parents cause it.

Parenthood and the obligation to prevent harm

Abortion is wrong because of the universal obligation not to kill innocent people. Moreover, as sex is voluntary (barring rape), parents also have the obligation to take care of their children. The needs of parents and child may conflict, but children have a right to this care.

Libertarians agree that one person’s needs are never, in themselves, of any compulsory obligation upon anyone else. Therefore, some conclude, until an individual initiates force or fraud, or violates a contract, obligations are optional. Until someone actually causes harm, there is no legitimate basis for compelling anyone to do anything.

But what about self-defense? We may use, or threaten to use, appropriate compulsion at appropriate times against anyone who causes us, without our assent, to be in harm’s way. Running the risk of harming people is not necessarily, in itself, aggression, but intentionally or negligently failing to prevent the harm from happening is. The obligation to prevent harm when we put others in harm’s way is not optional.

A child’s right to parental care is derived from the right of self-defense, the right to avoid being harmed. The choice to have sex includes the choice to risk bringing helpless babies into the world. Although this puts children at risk, no injustice is necessarily done. But if parents intentionally or negligently fail to take care of their children and harm results, they are accountable.

Life is a series of risks, but we have no right to impose upon others the consequences of the risks we choose and then compel them to bear the costs. Having used contraception, or not wanting children, does not exempt parents from their obligation to provide for them if they are conceived anyway. Even if we do our best to reduce the risk of pregnancy, most of us still know the risk remains. Once children are conceived, we may not make the additional choice to harm them years, months, weeks or even minutes later.

Dependent children are like “captives,” for they are in their parents’ control. There is no general right to choose to bring harm to innocent people in our control, especially if we caused them to be there, and parents have no special exemption from this principle. Taking care of our children until they can fend for themselves is not slavery, just as paying one’s debts is not slavery. Compelling a stranger to do so may be, but there is a big difference between being the parent and being a stranger.

Libertarians agree that we have no compulsory obligation to provide for someone else’s children; but, if we cause them (or anyone else) to be in harm’s way, we owe them protection. It follows that, as we are responsible for our own children’s very creation, we owe them at least as much protection (e.g., adoption). But when we choose abortion, not only are we denying them protection, we are making sure they are harmed.

If we may not choose to harm other people, how can it be all right to harm our own children, especially with violence? It isn’t, of course — and this is why many pro-abortionists admit they don’t like abortion and fervently insist they are not “pro-abortion,” only “pro-choice.” Many demand tax funds for abortion as well, thus making it doubly clear that by “pro-choice” they mean someone else’s “no-choice.” Not only are they killing the children, they are killing the language, too.


Libertarianism is strongly pro-choice, but never when there is a victim. Rights, including the right to choose, are limited by what justice requires: we may not choose to rob, kill, or otherwise harm peaceful people. We must honor our debts and agreements, return property wrongfully taken, and pay restitution when we cause harm. And when we voluntarily cause others to be at risk, when their part is not voluntary, we have the obligation to prevent harm from actually occurring. Abortion is a wrong, not a right. Under justice, it is unthinkable.

Where there are laws, they should oppose wrongdoing, not permit it. Some say legalizing abortion is “neutral,” but it’s not. Instead, it’s incredibly dangerous, for what about the victim? Should there be a class of innocent persons whose killing is permitted and protected by the law? Such an idea is one that both sides of the abortion debate should see as absolutely incompatible with individual liberty.

if we wish to defend individual liberty, we must protest aggression by individuals against individuals, as well as aggression by governments against individuals. The Libertarian Party Platform stresses defending individual liberty against governmental intrusion. While it also endorses “the right to life” and insists children have rights, unfortunately it also endorses abortion on demand at any time prior to birth. Not many governments cause well over a million deaths yearly. Yet this is the destruction abortion brings yearly in the United States alone. The death toll world-wide is staggering.

As a libertarian, I am particularly concerned. Libertarians are the leaders in the fight for individual rights. But if we continue to take part in this terrible injustice, to where will we lead?


Doris Gordon (1929-2014)
Doris Gordon, founder and longtime coordinator of Libertarians for Life, died on July 7 at Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring, Md., after a struggle with meningitis and other health problems. She was 85. Surviving her are daughter Julie Gordon, son Monte Gordon, and five grandchildren. She lost her husband, Nathan Gordon, in 1987. A Bronx native, Mrs. Gordon graduated from Hunter College and taught elementary-school students in New York City before moving to Maryland. She became active in the libertarian movement, and eventually quite active against abortion. She stressed the concept of parental obligation. “By causing children to be,” she wrote, “parents also cause them to need support; it’s a package deal.”