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

LFL Challenges Libertarian Party’s “Pro-Choice” Position

Originally published in the December 5, 1985 issue (Volume 12, No. 21) of National Right To Life News, Official Publication of the National Right to Life Committee.


Inroads Made

Libertarians for Life (LFL) made waves at the Libertarian Party’s national convention in Phoenix, Arizona last fall. Libertarianism is a political philosophy with one central point: No one, not even government, has the right to initiate force: that would be aggression.

Libertarians see taxation, like pickpocketing, as an initiation of force, and thus the Libertarian Party condemns tax-funding of abortion. Yet the party’s platform condones choice on “termination of pregnancy.” Whether this means “destruction” or merely “eviction” of the child (an instance of the right not to be a “good Samaritan”), it doesn’t say.

Either way, “termination” is unlibertarian. The preborn not only are persons with the right not to be killed, they have the right to be in the womb. In general, parents owe their children nurture and protection. Even when the sexual act that created the child was not voluntary, the parents still have no right to harm the child.

When it met in Phoenix, the Libertarian Party’s platform committee discussed LFL’s proposed pro-life platform changes. Though “pro-choice,” Steve Givot, a committee member from Illinois, introduced them. He agreed with LFL’s suggestion that in deciding whether abortion is compatible with libertarianism, “we must affirm the importance of the question of the person.”

For libertarians, there is no abortion debate unless the preborn are persons; only “persons” have rights. Some libertarian “pro-choicers” are amenable to the idea that the preborn are persons.

They support abortion, however, because they believe a woman has a right “to control her own body,” a right to evict the unwanted from her “property.” LFL responds that parents owe their helpless, dependent children care on the grounds that we have the obligation to prevent harm from happening to people that we voluntarily cause to be in harm’s way without their consent. Dependent children are like “captives” of their parents; they are in their control. If the parents intentionally or negligently fail to prevent harm from happening to the children, they are accountable.

If someone [who accepts prenatal personhood] buys parental obligation, they must concede that the preborn have the right to stay in the womb and that women don’t have any right to evict them. Parents don’t have a right to evict their babies from home after birth, so why before? At present, the platform implicitly raises but does not address parental obligation.

Another member, Williamson Evers of California, argued that even if the fetus is a person, abortion is permissible. He cited philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson’s defense. (See Bernard Nathanson’s Aborting America, p. 218, for a discussion.) If while you were sleeping a sick violinist was plugged into your body without your consent, making you a living dialysis machine for the next nine months, you would have a right to unplug him, even if he would die.

“But you weren’t sleeping when it happened.” Givot shot back. Despite the laughter that ensued, LFL’s amendment failed badly.

Later, Evers admitted to me that he never read Mary Anne Warren’s telling response to Thompson. Warren, another pro-abortion philosopher noted that the violinist analogy doesn’t work when sex is consensual. (Also, most abortions are not merely “unplugging”; they are intentionally destructive). Evers asked me to send him the reference.

One would expect, since the Libertarian Party prides itself on being “The Party of Principle,” it would have a principled defense of abortion. But it doesn’t even have a defense that libertarian “pro-choicers” can agree upon. There are too many differences among them on facts and principles — as there are among all “pro-choicers” — for agreement to be possible: for example. over when life begins, whether the fetus is part of the woman’s body, when personhood begins, etc.

They also argue over-whether “a personal choice regarding termination of pregnancy” means a right to choose between killing the kids or merely evicting them from the womb. And they differ on whether parents owe children care under libertarian principles.

A poll taken by LFL at the Phoenix convention illustrated some interesting differences among the “prochoicers.” For example, one question asked whether parents have the right to abandon their children.”

The response was heavily, no. That was surprising since many important voices in the Libertarian Party view the support of one’s own children not as an enforceable moral obligation but as an instance of charity.

Is LFL doing any good? Progress is slow, but Evers was heard to mutter about “creeping Gordonism.” I wonder whether he knows that the Vermont Libertarian Party platform had dropped its “pro-choice” language?

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.”