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

Abortion, Choice, and the Future of the Libertarian Party

[This was originally distributed at the Libertarian Party’s National Convention held in Anaheim, Calif., June 29-July 3, 2000.]

In two different planks (Population, and Women’s Rights and Abortion), the Platform of the Libertarian Party gives unconditional support to abortion choice — at any time, for any reason, partial-birth abortion, the works. Even many who support abortion choice recognize the need to delete those provisions from the platform.

In discussing abortion and the Libertarian Party, the practical political question for LP members is pretty simple: Do you wish to consign the LP to the periphery of American politics for as long as you have any influence on the party?

I’m pro-life.[*] A majority of you reading this probably call yourselves pro-choice — even though many of you have severe misgivings about late-term abortion, about partial-birth abortion, and about the inflexible dogma that these are fundamental human “rights.”

If you vote or work to continue the LP’s unconditional support for abortion until full-term birth is completed, then you will be acting as if that dogma is right — that there’s nothing more important in life than “the right to a dead fetus.”

I joined the LP shortly after it was formed; in those nearly 30 years, I have seen it grow, spread — and stall. A Presidential vote of one percent seems to the LP’s glass ceiling. Abortion is not the only reason, but it’s Exhibit A. There is a significant constituency in America who agree with the basic principles of libertarianism — that the only real justification for the use of force is defensive, and that government ought to be severely limited to that sphere.

Can the LP go anywhere (except to a footnote in the history books) if it continues to close out that constituency?

Who make up one of the LP’s natural constituencies?

The problem is, people who are perhaps the LP’s natural constituency take the nonaggression principle more seriously than many who call themselves libertarian. That constituency finds it difficult to put much confidence in a party and a platform that figure homicide is perfectly all right so long as it’s committed in the first nine months of life.

Now, you may say that you don’t think abortion is homicide (although, again, many of you stifle your misgivings or outright disagreement about the status of the fetus late or even midway in pregnancy). But those folks out there do think abortion is homicide, and they think homicide makes a difference.

Some of those folks call themselves conservatives, some call themselves independents, some even call themselves liberals. They include home schoolers, people who think the Second Amendment is a very good idea, people who worry about government reaching into every sphere of their lives, people who don’t like the idea that government will tell them what to approve of and what not to approve of. They’re ordinary people who have seen other ordinary people get shafted by government with everything from sex and drug laws to business and tax regulations.

They may not do drugs or even booze; they may be boringly monogamous; and their reading materials may make the Puritans look loose. But they have absolutely no difficulty telling the difference between aggression and victimless “crimes.”

But the LP and its relentless support for abortion leave them out in the cold. Again, they don’t see this as a matter of sexual immorality, loose living, or as a “social issue.” Again, they see it as homicide. They also see it as the first step to a “right” to infanticide. (And, let’s face it, so do some supporters of abortion choice.)

How badly does the LP need a plank supporting abortion choice?

I think at this point, some of the more insistent supporters of abortion choice will be saying that the LP doesn’t need the people I’m talking about; you’ll also hear that unconditional, absolute support for abortion choice is essential for the LP to exist. Take away abortion, it will be said, and no one (except a handful of pro-life nutcases) will vote Libertarian.

Do the facts bear them out?

In fact, when some abortion choicers go orbital at the thought of the LP waffling on abortion, methinks those ladies and gentlemen do protest way too much.

Ask some questions:

1) In the population at large, how does the randomly selected hardcore supporter of abortion choice stand on issues important to libertarianism?

2) How do those who tend to vote with libertarians tend to vote on abortion?

3) How do current LP members stand on abortion?

Abortion and libertarianism?

1) How does the abortion-choice movement stack up on libertarianism?

Are you serious?!

The principles of the abortion-choice movement have been described quite succinctly: “Exhausted from controlling, regulating, censoring, zoning, policing, taxing, sanctioning, and proscribing, these pinpoint libertarians toss a dart and pick out abortion as the one human acivity worthy of all-out defense against the encroachments of the state. Their motto could be: If it’s not pregnant, regulate it.” (“Selected Skirmishes,” “Mario’s Choice,” Thomas W. Hazlett, _Reason_, June 1990, p.58)

And do you think the leadership of the abortion movement really sees this as a “women’s rights” issue? How many years did it take to get some of the hardcore to admit that the People’s Republic of China had a policy of forced abortions?

2) How do free-marketers, etc., tend to stand on abortion?

This isn’t as obvious as the politics of the abortion movement, but it’s close. Get the Congressional ratings from a pro-life group (or an abortion-choice group). Compare it with the ratings from a libertarian group. The correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s basically clear: free-market, limited-government types heavily tend to be pro-life; pro-lifers tend to be against big government. (Among pro-lifers, I’ve also found that the exception proves the rule: In state and local politics, liberals and big-city Democrats who are pro-life tend to be a lot easier to live with than the usual liberal ideologues.)

3) What about LP members?

As far as LP members are concerned, I think many of you already know that things are a lot dicier than the Platform and the press releases would indicate. When libertarians and LP members have been polled, the odds have been pretty stable: In roughly ballpark terms, a third are pro-life: they say we’re persons with rights from fertilization onward, and abortion is aggression; it can be outlawed. Yes, there are points of difference and emphasis, but the basic agreement is there.

Another third are the hardcore of abortion choice supporters: Regardless of anything else, they insist that there should be no restrictions on abortion at any time up until birth, maybe even until the umbilical cord is cut. Here, too, there are points of difference (such as infanticide), but the basic agreement is there.

And finally, there’s the middle — where everything is differences and there’s hardly any basic agreement at all.

I do not mean that things are a tidy 33-1/3 percent each, but the odds hover in that neighborhood. Pro-lifers are sometimes down to 20 percent or so; the opposite side likewise. The middle is never less than a third.

So where does that leave you?

The point here is that those of you in the middle invariably vote with the hardcore supporters of abortion choice. Some of you are brow beaten; the hardcore can be, shall we say, “insistent.” Others of you figure there are these raving pro-life fanatics who will install a pregnancy police like something out of science fiction. (Note: We didn’t have one before Roe v. Wade; and the one that really exists is in China.)

Whatever the reason, you’ve felt you had to compromise your own principles for years now.

But you may worry that if the party so much as thinks about moderating its unconditional support for abortion, then the abortion choicers will all reject the LP — as some of them have insisted they will.

All right, take them on their word: What are their priorities? Libertarianism? Or abortion? Their opposite numbers, pro-lifers, outvoted for years, have stayed around because they figure principles are more important. They have had a tough row to hoe, making clear to voters what they know to be right, and that the LP Platform disagrees with them on one very important point.

You, in the middle, have it easy. If the Platform were to go merely silent on abortion, leaving candidates to their own consciences, you wouldn’t have to compromise your principles at all.

OK, but take the “worst case” and assume that the hardcore abortion choicers all leave, and there are these hordes of pro-lifers who will sweep in and install a pro-life platform plank.

In some respects, I might love to think that was realistic, but it’s not. When I talk about natural constituencies for libertarianism, I don’t mean some magical Silent Majority merely waiting a call to battle. I simply mean people who are on our side in principle. We and they have lots of people to convince before we have to worry about being inundated by false friends.

If I wanted to be paranoid, I might worry about the Buchananites, but he has the Reform Party as his playpen, and he and his supporters find libertarianism to be anathema. There’s no way they’re about to sign a membership form that says “I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of political or social goals.”

Nonetheless, what about the “worst case” from your perspective? If the hardcore supporters of abortion choice all disappeared, and there were really lots of pro-lifers to replace them, then you might see a pro-life plank.

OK, then those of you in the middle would be compromising your principles in a different way than you have so far.

But don’t you think it will be just a little bit odd if the hardcore do take a walk? Why would silence be a threat to them? Is it that they need the LP to ratify their views? Or is it that the LP comes in a poor second to abortion?

Seriously, we all know very well that most of the hardcore supporters of abortion choice will stay, regardless of whether the platform is silent on abortion. (The Democrats may agree with them on abortion, but on little else.) Within the LP, they’ll still be able to run for city council or US Senate or whatnot; they’ll still be able to leaflet and campaign for referenda; and they’ll still be able to work to keep abortion legal, with no objection from the platform.

The big difference is that there will be more pro-lifers in the LP working on issues on which all libertarians are agreed.

The question for you is whether you want that to happen. Or whether one percent of the Presidential vote, and a handful of local wins is as far as you want the LP to go.

[*]John Walker is Research Director of Libertarians for Life; he joined the LP shortly after its formation, and is currently a member of the District of Columbia LP.

John Walker
John Walker is Research Director of Libertarians for Life; he joined the LP shortly after its formation, and is currently a member of the District of Columbia LP.