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

Abortion: Is Pro-Choice a Libertarian Position?

Abortion: Is Pro-Choice a Libertarian Position?

by Dr. Joseph S. Fulda
Libertarians for Life
Copyright © 1995 Dr. Joseph S. Fulda

Those who favor abortion on demand use the rhetoric of libertarianism to justify their position. Hence, there is much talk of compulsory pregnancy, forced childbirth, lack of control over one’s own body (bodily parts), absence of reproductive choice, and so on. Faced with such language pro-lifers often retreat into a discussion of liberty vs. license, liberty vs. order, or the primacy of the right to life over other rights. These arguments, while not without merit, yield far too much ground to the abortion advocates. For the simple truth is that freedom is not counterbalanced by a higher (or even simply other) good when abortion is proscribed. Liberty, recall, is the absence of originative coercion — while abortion, of course, is an act of initiatory coercion. Hence, to outlaw abortion is merely to array societal forces against private coercion, a legitimate retaliatory use of force in the libertarian tradition. Indeed, it is rather a contradiction in terms to speak of “the liberty to rob, rape, or murder” since such actions are all very definitely coercive interventions in the lives of others and can hardly be justified by a doctrine of noninterference.
Writing in Power and Market, economist-philosopher Murray Rothbard points out the sufficiency of “Every man may act as he freely chooses” as a definition of liberty. The proviso usually added — “provided he respects the like freedom of others” — is rendered redundant by the universal quantifier “every.” For, as Rothbard notes, if one man’s freely chosen action is the assault or robbery of another, then the victim is deprived of living or acting as he chooses and liberty does not obtain.1 This is just the situation with abortion: The control being sought is not over one’s own body but over another’s. That is not freedom, there being no coherent notion of freedom for all which includes the freedom to coerce.

This brings us to the question of choice. No movement is more on the side of reproductive choice in its fullness and strict control over one’s own body than the pro-life movement. Indeed, the essence of the pro-life position is respect for the reproductive choice made by the couple and flowing directly from the control the woman had over her own body. The abortion advocates, in contrast, do not respect the choice made in its fullness and seek control over the body — indeed, the very life — of another.

Thus far, we have twice provocatively referred to the unborn as “another.” But the central question in the abortion debate is whether the unborn is, indeed, “another”; human life, that is, individuated from that of its mother. It is, of course, not independent of its mother (not even viable outside the womb early on, yet), but then neither is a neonate and supporters of infanticide cannot be joined in this debate anyway.

Whether the unborn is individuated human life is a theological question and a scientific question. Life becomes individuated, theologically, when God infuses the unborn with a soul, making it a child. Hence, when considered as a spiritual being, the time at which human life is individuated depends on one’s religious beliefs: some say conception, others say later.2 In a secular society, however, it is not the place of the State to decide this question. Fortunately, however, when considered as a strictly material being — as a mass of chemicals mediated by electrical impulses — there can be no question, as George Will so eloquently pointed out,3 that human life is individuated at the moment of conception, since from that moment, “a new DNA complex … directs the ontogenesis of the organism.”4 That is, as soon as the zygote is formed, a new organism with its own genetic blueprint exists, and it is that blueprint — and not that of the mother — that directs the growth and development of the child.

Thus, talk of compulsory pregnancy or forced childbirth is little more than an ideological distraction. To be sure, the pregnancy might have been an undesired consequence of the desired sexual intimacy. But that is compulsory or coercive only in the sense that a man who throws a baseball a great distance for the pleasure he receives can claim that the resulting damage done to a neighbor’s window was “against his will” and that the untoward consequence was “imposed” on him. It used to be understood that the laws of nature were not subject to legislative repeal or voiding by the courts and that natural results flowing from voluntary actions are in no meaningful sense “imposed.”

The contrary of this simple enough proposition undercuts all of Western moral and legal theory, one reason of many why the abortion debate is not just another social issue. If our civilization is held together by any single notion, it is surely that the two senses of “responsible” are inextricably intertwined: If a man is responsible for an action in that he performed it, he is responsible for it in that he is liable for its consequences.5 The religious belief that virtue is rewarded and sin punished — if not immediately, then eventually — is so premised. Our system of free enterprise is also rooted in this idea: Every man receives neither an equal return on his labor, nor one based on need, nor one deemed fair by social theorists or experts in so-called comparable worth, but rather one based on what has been done for others as they see it. Reward flows from fruitful efforts, profits from successes, losses from failures: How could it be otherwise? Always, in the Western tradition, it has been tacitly accepted that responsibility in one sense flows from responsibility in the other sense. That is what makes social cooperation possible, the single principle which makes association with our fellow human beings other than fraught with continuous and overwhelming uncertainty, risk, and danger.

Yet it is just this central, civilizing principle that is under attack by those who wrongly label themselves “pro-choice.” The relation between the dual notions of responsibility leaves no doubt as to whether a parent is responsible for the care and life of the child that he or she is responsible for bringing into the world.

It is not choice the abortion advocates desire, but the revocation of choice and its natural consequences. They wish to roam the world acting as they will and be “free” from the oppressive consequences of their own actions — to be responsible for everything, yet responsible for nothing. This we cannot allow. It is not liberty, not choice, but escape from both.6

Copyright, 1995, Joseph S. Fulda, reprinted with permission. Originally published in The Lincoln Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, Summer-Fall 1995 (The Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20036; 202/223-5112).

Dr. Fulda is the author of Eight Steps towards Libertarianism (Free Enterprise Press, 1997). He is a Contributing Editor of The Freeman, Associate Editor of Sexuality and Culture: An Interdisciplinary Annual, and columnist for Computers and Society. He has been frequently published in scientific journals, mathematics journals, law reviews, philosophical journals, and journals of opinion.

Joseph S. Fulda
701 West 177th Street, #21
New York, NY 10033

Read comments on this article.


See Murray Rothbard, Power and Market, (Institute for Humane Studies, 1970), p. 179. Curiously, Rothbard himself supports abortion rights on highly dubious grounds. See John Walker, “Children’s Rights versus Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty,” Libertarians for Life.
Orthodox Judaism maintains that this occurs forty days following conception, for example, but still well before the embryo becomes a fetus. However, although after this point abortion is homicide, whether it is murder is a complicated question of Jewish canon law and, in general, it is not capital murder.
George F. Will, “The Case of the Unborn Patient,” Newsweek, June 22, 1981, p. 92.
Walker Percy, M.D., quoted by Will, ibid.
American College Dictionary (Random House, 1970), p. 1034, definitions 3 and 1.
I would like to acknowledge the perceptive, critical comments of Doris Gordon and John Walker of Libertarians for Life.


Libertarians for Life always welcomes comments on its literature, and that applies no less when we carry materials from outside LFL. It is particularly true when we do not agree with all of a writer’s views, since a fuller discussion may be helpful in clarifying how LFL’s reasoning differs from others in the libertarian and pro-life movements.
In the case of Dr. Joseph Fulda’s article, “Abortion: Is ‘Pro-Choice’ a Libertarian Position?”, we received comments from a poster at the University of Virginia. Following are the text of those comments with Dr. Fulda’s reply included, and links to comments by LFL, which follow at the end.

Comments from poster, with Dr. Fulda’s reply, followed by LFL comments in hyperlinked footnotes.

Comment from the poster at UVa:

Just a couple of statements I thought were worth refuting in your paper:

1. In the second paragraph: “The control being sought is not over one’s own body but over another” as a contradictory statement that pro-choice advocates make their arguments under the premise that choice is freedom and control over one’s self.

True, freedom is allowed provided it does not infringe upon the rights of another (such as assault and robbery) however, the author of this paper has failed to make an essential distinction; that is, the fetus is inside the woman’s body! 1

Unfortunately for your cause, you cannot treat every situation with one set of rules and values (some of which are only your values, and not others’). Assault and robbery would carry a whole other image if it occurred inside one’s own body.

And since the author has brought up such technicalities, I thought I’d reply with one as well: The mother has produced the fetus from her own biological materials (or those which she has consumed and digested), and thus, she has sole control over it, and if she feels the need, can revoke her givings. 2 Is the author suggesting a mother should be punished for not eating properly, or consuming alcohol, or smoking during pregnancy, all which would most certainly damage if not kill an embryo? 3 Please.

Dr. Fulda’s reply:

First of all, yes, a pregnant mother can be, in fact as well as in my opinion, charged with abuse for behaving during pregnancy in a manner likely to cause harm to the fetus: Specifically, I support penalties for mothers whose babies are commonly known as “crack babies.” Also, when such children reach the age of majority, they should be able to sue for negligence, recklessness, and/or intentional wrongdoing. The pregnant mother does indeed have a responsibility to her child. 4

Second, the child is made of the mother’s (and father’s) biological materials — so does that mean we can kill infants? Of course not. So the key point is your earlier one, not that the child is of mother (and father) but that the fetus, the unborn child, is within mother. Now, this is a distinction which makes no difference. I cannot, in general, kill an invited guest in my home, nor, for that matter, can I kill an intruder 5 — an exception is made for intruders who might threaten my life, and that exception, I hold, applies to abortions, also: If the child threatens the mother’s life, it should (not may) be aborted — given that suicide is prohibited and forcibly prevented, when possible. 6 Yes, it is terribly inconvenient for a woman to have to bear a child to term that she intends to give up for adoption, but that is the consequence one is left with for one’s sexual liaisons — we cannot allow killing the child because of this inconvenience. The life of the child when weighed against the inconvenience to the mother is surely paramount.

Third, one cannot revoke what one has given when what one has given is life. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre (Penguin Books–Signet Classics, 1982, Chapter 14, p. 141), “The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted,” and the revocation of life is surely one of those powers. 7

Comments from UVa, continued:

2. The third from last paragraph: Suggesting that carrying a pregnancy to term is a consequence of one’s own action. Is a newborn baby a consequence!? A person who becomes pregnant must suffer the “consequence” of her actions. What a horrible way in which to treat people. 8

Dr. Fulda replies:

Yes, a baby is a consequence of sexual activity — everyone knows that nowadays. No, there’s nothing “horrible” about insisting that freedom brings responsibility — indeed, how could it be otherwise?

Best wishes,


Dr. Fulda is the author of Eight Steps towards Libertarianism (Free Enterprise Press, 1997). He is a Contributing Editor of The Freeman, Associate Editor of Sexuality and Culture: An Interdisciplinary Annual, and columnist for Computers and Society. He has been frequently published in scientific journals, mathematics journals, law reviews, philosophical journals, and journals of opinion.

LFL’s comments on both:

The post notes “the fetus is inside the woman’s body!”

But location does not determine what sort of a being we are dealing with, whether inside the womb or out. The purpose of abortion is a dead fetus; if the fetus is not the sort of being that has rights, then there’s no libertarian objection to abortion. If they do have rights, however, it seems one is at least going to have a good explanation for the right to kill them as a simple matter of preference. Perhaps we might better discuss that root question. (For LFL’s position, see our literature list.)

The post notes, “The mother has produced the fetus from her own biological materials…. if she feels the need, can revoke her givings.”

Again, if there’s no person with rights there, she can do anything she wishes. If there is a person there, however, then if she owns the body now, why not equally after birth?

The post asks what about punishment for “not eating properly, or consuming alcohol, or smoking during pregnancy, all which would most certainly damage if not kill an embryo?”

First, note that these activities do not generally harm the child, although they increase the risk. Risk, as opposed to negligence or attack on the child, is unavoidable in life. The question is, can the mother act absolutely without concern for what she does to her child? Is it all right for her to take thalidomide? If the child is injured by it and born deformed, is it the same as if it had been an accident? Baby Anna Rodriguez, whose arm was ripped off in an abortion attempt — does she have no claim, no right to sue? Most people would have no trouble in admitting the child’s claim in cases of such prenatal attacks. Most people also make a clear distinction between recklessness and negligence on the one hand, and accidents on the other, and demand a firm standard of proof. At least some cases can meet those standards.

That gets into enforcement, however. LFL’s main point is to discuss the rights of prenatal children — without agreement on that, discussion of enforcement leads nowhere. See #4 below, for more on enforcement.

Dr. Fulda notes that he supports penalties for negligent mothers, specifically mentioning “crack babies”.

The problem here is that the statutory questions of enforcement are almost invariably raised as a way to avoid discussing rights, personhood, etc. It’s either raised as a scare tactic (“pregnancy police”, etc.), or to demand a detailed list of specific laws to cover every conceivable situation. Either way, it’s a diversion. For the moment, suffice it to note that the pregnancy police was never suggested when abortion was illegal, and is justifiable only under a philosophy of law that demands that government absolutely preclude the very possibility of breaking the law. That’s a philosophy of law rather more popular on the abortion-choice side than anywhere else.

Dr. Fulda notes that one cannot kill an invited guest, nor even an intruder.

That’s certainly true, but the case of the preborn is even stronger: They’re certainly not intruders. moreover, the “invitation” was not one they could refuse. Causation and volition in causing their existence are totally on the side of the parents. The children are more like captives. (Note “like”: Similar in the absolute power the parents, dissimilar in that while the relation arises without the children’s consent, it is not “against their will”.)

Dr. Fulda expresses the view that, “If the child threatens the mother’s life, it should (not may) be aborted.”

This is a point on which LFL disagrees with Dr. Fulda. At the minimum, an “obligation to kill” does not seem to arise out of the nonagression principle. Additionally, the child’s actions are not voluntary. A threat to the woman can arise only because of the initial, voluntary, actions of the parents. It seems odd to say that we have the obligation to kill someone because they are in a situation in which we put them.

That does not say that the mother may not attempt to preserve her life. Such cases are “lifeboat” situations, where at least one must die. We don’t punish people fighting to survive in such cases. But neither do we act as if the one killed to save the life of the other is a criminal or an animal. Such cases are rare, but doctors must still remember that they have two patients, not just one, nor one and an aggressor.

Regarding the Brontë quote, LFL does not use religious arguments. But that is a nice quote. 🙂

The post asks, “Is a newborn baby a consequence!? A person who becomes pregnant must suffer the ‘consequence’ of her actions. What a horrible way in which to treat people.”

The poster may not have noticed, but Dr. Fulda’s article distinguishes two senses of “responsible”: 1) performing an action, and 2) being liable for the consequences. The child is clearly not a mere “consequence”; but just as clearly, the child’s existence is a consequence of performing the action of sex, as the child’s resulting needs — for which, the parents are liable. Nor are children “punishments” (“suffering” the consequences).

And if carrying the child to term is a “horrible” way to treat people, what about the trials of parenthood after the child is born? Or should the child “suffer the consequences” — pay the price — of the mother’s and father’s actions? With capital punishment? Before or after birth?

The poster probably does not intend such a conclusion. But that may only mean — as noted above — that we should be discussing the root questions of whether the fetus is a person with rights and whether parents owe their children care and support.

Copyright © 1995 Dr. Joseph S. Fulda

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.”