Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers
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Doris Gordon’s Introduction to Prolife Libertarianism

A prominent libertarian writer once told me he was confused and conflicted on abortion — and requested that I not try to unconfuse him. The articles in this issue are not for such as him. They are for people willing to examine substantial arguments showing why abortion is not libertarian.

If you have read articles by libertarians on abortion, chances are what you read supported keeping it legal. However, libertarians are very divided on the subject. A significant minority is pro-life, and even the abortion-choice side is itself divided. One can find even within their ranks a wide spectrum of conflicting opinions, and many of them keep hoping in vain to find a middle ground for all libertarians to stand on. If any of the abortion-choice factions had a substantial argument for their position, such a disarray would not exist.

But you might be unfamiliar with or might not care about libertarianism. If so, you might be wondering why you ought to spend any effort to examine a libertarian case against abortion. Those of you who disagree with libertarianism may already have lost interest. Yet it is precisely the reason why many disagree with libertarianism that makes the libertarian case against abortion important.

The reason is, in brief, that libertarianism would place severe limits on governmental action — too severe, many would say. From the libertarian perspective, government may act only against clear violations of strict commutative justice. It may act only to prevent or retaliate against aggression — against murder, rape, theft, fraud, and the like. If laws protecting prenatal human offspring against abortion can be justified within a libertarian framework, then the abortion debate is over, philosophically.

In order for libertarians to want government to stand against choice on abortion, the pro-life side has to make the hardest, clearest case of all. To libertarians, the fact that something is popular or unpopular, moral or immoral, wise or unwise, democratic or undemocratic is insufficient to invoke government action. Libertarianism demands the strictest test before we would say that government has a just power to prohibit or to compel an act. It should do neither, unless what we are dealing with is clearly a matter of aggression, an initiation of force or fraud. Libertarians would not outlaw victimless, i.e., consensual, “crimes.” To be subject to the use of government force, an act must be the sort of case where each of us as individuals would have the right and the just power to intervene with force on behalf of the victim.

The debate over abortion is ultimately that sort of debate: Is abortion a victimless crime — or is it the unjust killing of an innocent human being? Is compelling a pregnant woman to carry to term slavery, or is it not? In other political philosophies, such questions are often sidetracked into questions of personal morality, religion, personal or public benefit, etc. Libertarianism discourages such digressions as being irrelevant to justice and unalienable rights.

Within the libertarian movement, there are some who wish to reject or weaken the libertarian non-aggression principle. However, the intellectual atmosphere of libertarianism is usually so open, they tend to do so explicitly. Such openness allows everyone to confront the component issues raised in abortion or in any other debate. Abortion, more than most issues, can try everyone’s patience and good will. Libertarianism is intellectually a very contentious place; at times, being there can make one really appreciate its non-aggression principle. In thinking about abortion, both libertarians and non-libertarians can learn from that willingness to confront hard questions – a process I had to go through myself.

How I Got Involved

I came to the libertarian movement in 1959 through Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It was her book Atlas Shrugged, arguably the most influential novel of the Twentieth Century, that got me started. Rand, who claimed the being in the womb was “nonliving,” supported choice on abortion. Following along, so did I. Later on I realized why the onset of a human being’s life, biologically, is at fertilization. I remained abortion-choice, however, because of women’s right to control her own body. I saw unwanted pregnancy as slavery, or at the very least, as an insoluble conflict of rights between her right to be free versus her offspring’s right to life, to not be killed.

In 1967, I co-founded Students of Objectivism, a Washington, D.C.-area study group that met monthly in my home. One speaker I invited to our meetings was a practicing abortionist. He was proud that he had done abortions even in the eighth month of pregnancy. As I recall, nobody objected, not even me.

In 1971, the national Libertarian Party began to organize. When I joined in 1973, I helped organize the LP of Maryland. I have attended almost every national LP convention since 1975 as a Maryland delegate. During the Vietnam War, I was an anti-draft activist. In 1975 at the national convention which met in New York City, I persuaded the Platform Committee to call for the exoneration of draft evaders and other war resisters. I wrote letters and did television editorial replies on this and other issues.

Also at the 1975 convention, I joined the Association of Libertarian Feminists (ALF). Responding to a call from Sharon Presley, one of its co-founders, I helped publicize its panel at the 1976 LP convention held in Washington, D.C. The ALF panelists’ abortion-choice views were aired on NBC-TV, much to my distress. By then I was no longer an abortion choicer; I had become pro-life.

What pushed me over the line? Ironically, it was Objectivism. One article in the December 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter was on what parents and children owe each other. I had returned to it to see if they were talking about morality or rights. There it was. They said that the support born children receive from their parents is theirs “by right.” Given that human offspring begin life when conceived, and then given parental obligation, it follows that parental obligation begins not at birth but at fertilization. I had to conclude that even given women’s right to control her body, prenatal human offspring have the right to be in the mother’s womb.

Wondering whether my heretical views on abortion had merit, I timidly began to share them at the 1976 convention. I spoke to the author of that Objectivist article on parental obligation, Nathaniel Branden. In a letter he wrote me earlier that year, he had denied that parental obligation pertains to a fetus, because, he said, “A fetus is not a human being.” I asked him how he would define “human being.” He and Rand taught me the importance of defining one’s terms, and perhaps he and I were defining the term differently. But instead giving me his definition, Branden asked me how I would feel if my fifteen-year-old daughter got pregnant. In Objectivism, evasion is evil. I was stunned.

I wanted to discuss my change of mind with Presley, too. She begged off, pleading exhaustion. More importantly, she told me she felt herself unprepared to argue the issue. Such intellectual inability didn’t fit the picture I had of her as a competent spokesperson for libertarianism. (To her credit, Presley eventually co-authored with Robert Cooke a paper for ALF, “The Right to Abortion: A Libertarian Defense.”) But she kindly referred me to her “expert” on the issue, ALF panelist Lucinda Cissler, a co-founder of NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Cissler gave me time to ask her only one question: “Is the fetus a human being?” She replied with one word, “Yes.”

If I was correct and they wrong, then something was terribly amiss. If, however, I was wrong and they correct, I wanted to know why. I had spent many years investing a lot of myself in libertarianism, and I wanted to build on my investment, not lose it. I didn’t just fret; I decided to do something. I decided to found Libertarians for Life, one reason being to provoke serious debate. To my knowledge, there had been hardly any debate on abortion among libertarians before then.

Fortunately, I soon was able to round up other pro-life libertarians who were knowledgeable in fields relevant to abortion, such as biology, philosophy, Constitutional law, and religion. LFL’s articles focus mainly on the substantive issues central to the pro-life libertarian case, such as the ethical foundation of rights, the libertarian non-aggression principle, personhood, the killing- eviction distinction, parental obligation, the proper function of government, and what happened – – who did what to whom.

In arguing that abortion should not be legal, pro-lifers generally focus on proving that a human being’s life begins at conception. Although essential, this argument does not confront another crucial argument: the right of the woman to control her own body. Many pro-lifers talk as if they have lost the rights argument — or worse, that they can never win it — and they end up painting rights as irrelevant and running away from it. Turning this weakness on rights to their advantage, abortion choicers contemptuously attack abortion opponents as “anti-choice” and claim that to be anti-legal-abortion is to be anti-liberty. Actually, however, pro-lifers own the libertarian high ground. The articles in this issue will show you why.

Libertarians for Life’s argumentation is logical, consistent, and comprehensible. We do not merely assert the position that abortion violates rights; we demonstrate how we arrive at that position. Abortion choicers have the intellectual obligation to take our arguments on their merits — and disprove them on their merits. Of course, both sides have the intellectual obligation of proof. If you find any serious or fatal flaws in LFL’s case against abortion choice, please let us know.

About the articles

In “Libertarianism Is Pro-Life: An Introduction,” Bruce Earnheart explains that libertarianism is not a general code of morality for human action. It is, rather, about one moral principle: the obligation not to aggress. This principle is libertarianism’ s starting point, its basic premise.

In “Being Pro-Life Is Necessary to Defend Liberty,” Ron Paul explains the fundamental importance of the abortion issue to everyone’s rights. Mincing no words, he attacks the abortion- choice side’s two-tiered attitude toward human offspring under rights as statism at its worst and argues that “a wrong-headed libertarian is very dangerous.”

How I Became Pro-Life: Remarks on Abortion, Parental Obligation, and the Draft,” is a talk I gave at a Maryland Right to Life convention. Its focus is not on personhood but on areas in which pro-lifers are generally weak: individual rights and parental obligation. Understanding them properly helps explain why having to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is not slavery, why there is no conflict of rights between a pregnant woman and her prenatal offspring, and why prenatal human offspring have the right to be in the mother’s body.

For most audiences, however, one must show what marks the onset of a human being’s existence. To do this, we must look at both science and philosophy. In “When Do Human Beings Begin? ‘Scientific’ Myths and Scientific Facts,” Dianne N. Irving points out some of the scientific errors that surface when the issue is abortion or others related to it.

Edwin Vieira, Jr. and John Walker discuss the philosophy – the moral status of human offspring from fertilization. In “A False Assumption,” a very brief article, Vieira challenges those who deny immediate personhood at fertilization to check their premises. He simply aims at the abortion-choice premise of delayed personhood – and pierces its heart.

Walker addresses personhood in two articles. In “Abortion and the Question of the Person,” he shows why treating personhood as a matter of degree rather than of kind leads only to chaos. He wrote “Power and Act: Notes towards engaging in a discussion of one of the underlying questions in the abortion debate” to draw attention to a key argument in the debate over the onset of personhood, which the abortion-choice side has failed to tackle.

In “Why Parental Obligation?“, Walker discusses two meanings of the word “rights” and shows how they apply to procreation. In “Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape,” he discusses the peculiar situation for everyone’s rights when sex was not voluntary for the woman.

Most of the articles in this issue were written to present Libertarians for Life’s case against abortion. Three of them, however, were designed as responses to certain arguments on the abortion-choice side. One of them is “What Do Abortion Choicers Mean When They Tell Us: ‘Let’s Get the Government Out of Our Lives’?” As I explain there, most of them don’t really mean it.

Fetal Rights: Enforceable in Principle, A response to ‘The Implication of a Supposed Ought,’ by Tibor R. Machan” is by Edwin Vieira, Jr. According to some libertarians, if the law were to affirm prenatal personhood, this would give rise to “pregnancy police.” Vieira examines Machan’s arguments for such a claim and shows why they are weak.

Abortion and Thomson’s Violinist: Unplugging a Bad Analogy” is my response to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s, “A Defense of Abortion,” the most influential article on abortion. Of special interest to me was her noting it possible that a mother has “a responsibility that gives [her fetus] rights against her which are not possessed any independent person.” I show why the responsibility exists, and I point out several fatal flaws in her article.

I comment further on Thomson in “Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly.” The most wide-ranging of all the articles in this issue, it gets into all that is central to the libertarian debate on abortion and more.

We hope you find these articles interesting, and we welcome your comments.

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.”