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

LFL Polls 1985 National and Maryland LP Conventions

Reprinted from the Maryland Libertarian Party’s Free State Libertarian Letter, December 1985


Libertarians for Life distributed a short poll on abortion and children’s rights at the October 26 [1985] convention of the Maryland Libertarian Party; 29 responses were received out of 45 people present.

You might be interested in the result, and in comparing them with responses from the August [1985] national LP convention in Phoenix. (At Phoenix, 71 responses were received from about 300 polls distributed.)

The Poll:

The questions are given below, with Maryland LP responses following each choice. Phoenix responses are in parentheses immediately following:

1. When do we become persons with the right not to be killed?

a. at conception: 34% (32%); b. at some time prior to birth: 38% (31%); c. at birth: 14% (17%); d. at some time after birth: none (4%); e. undecided: 14% (16%).

2a. Is there generally a right to abortion (abortion on demand)?

Yes: 48%(55%); No: 45% (30%); Undecided: 7% (14%); No Answer: none (1%).

2b. If you answered yes to 2a: Does a woman have the right to kill the preborn if that is NOT necessary to removal?

Yes: 29% (44%); No: 50% (31%); Undecided: 21% (15%); No Answer: none (10%).

3. The 1984 LP platform says. “We support the right of a woman to make a personal choice regarding the termination of pregnancy.” Do you understand the platform to allow abortion for any reason up until the moment of birth?

Yes: 73% (78%); No: 10% (18%); Undecided: 17% (4%)

4. Do you agree with the LIP plank on abortion?

Yes: 41% (42%); No: 38% (41%); Undecided: 17% (17%); No Answer 4% (none).

5. Do parents have the right to abandon their children regardless of the conseguences to their children?

Yes: 21% (14%); No: 76% (75%); Undecided: 3% (11%).

The Implications?

I should point out that the samples in both polls are quite small. It would be unwise to attach too much importance to the exact numbers. I do think the results are suggestive, however.

First, the number who agreed that the preborn were persons with rights at conception or some other time before birth (Question #1) was higher than might have been expected. (Only 14% — 21% in Phoenix — saw birth or later as the dividing line for personhood.

Next, most respondents were opposed to an unconditional right of parents to abandon their children. (At the 1983 national LP conventoon, an amendment to the “Children’s Rights” plank was proposed on this subject. It would have said simply that parents do not have the right to abandon their children. It was defeated by a standing vote of about two-to-one.

We know that many libertarians justify abortion as a case of eviction; the poll responses indicate that many might insist on non-lethal abortions. (That is, if death results, it would be from lack of sustenance — and not from intentionally destructive methods, such as are used today in abortion.)

That view was confirmed somewhat by the results of question 2b.

As you can see, most of the results from the Maryland LP were roughly comparable with those received at Phoenix. The most significant difference was on that question of non-lethal abortions (2b). There, the Maryland respondents tended much more to believe that the woman should use a non-lethal method of abortion where that was possible (50% versus 31% at Phoenix).

The Phoenix results on that question raised an important issue when compared with the question on when we become persons (1). There were 17 at Phoenix who said the woman had a right to use lethal methods even when that was not necessary to removal; of those, five had also said they believed the preborn become persons with rights at some time before birth.

Part of that number may be based on lack of knowledge about the possibility of non-lethal abortion. (The poll invited comments, and this was one of the points that came up.)

Non lethal abortion, though, is one that is probably going to get more attention. The Supreme Court, this term, will be deciding on issues in this area. And some libertarian pro-choicers have been discussing the technology of fetal transplants, etc., as a way to avoid the problem of abortion.

However, we should still investigate the importance that some libertarians may give to abortion: they might feel that even the personhood of the preborn cannot serve as any restraint on the method of abortion; they may insist on a right to kill.

Remember, though, that there are perils in a very brief poll. There may be a built-in tendency to over-simplification.

Some Problems:

We have received cornments on possible problems in the questions.

As noted, some at Phoenix seemed not to have considered the possibility of non-lethal abortions. They found question 2b confusing.

Question 4 (on support for the current LP plank) reflected an unavoidable simplification: a NO reply could come both from those who were opposed to abortion and from those who thought the plank should use even stronger language.

Additionally, respondents’ answers on support for the plank were probably influenced by their interpretation of what it allowed (lethal or non-lethal abortion, and whether it went up to the moment of birth).

Unfortunately, a short poll doesn’t allow making a lot of distinctions and a small sample doesn’t allow doing a statistical analysis to get good guesses at how different issues work together in people’s minds.

Finally, some respondents were apparently unclear on our use of the word “right.” Some seemed to think that LFL meant “a right to abortion” (in question 2a) to refer to tax-subsidized abortions. Other apparently thought it meant simply whether the law currently permits abortion.

We had assumed that distribution at a libertarian function meant that we did not need to spell out that we were talking about rights as seen under libertarian principles.

Some Reflections:

Interestingly, fewer of those problems showed up in Maryland. Most seemed to assume that question 2a, for instance, was based on libertarian principles.

And the Maryland respondents seemed more consistent in the relationship between non-lethal abortion and the right not to be killed. (Only one respondent who answered “Yes” to the right to lethal abortions felt that the preborn become persons at some time before birth.)

Perhaps those results reflect the greater intelligence, understanding, or consistency of the Maryland respondents. (No poll has been scheduled to verify such a conclusion.)

In any event, we at LFL are going to continue both polling and trying to make our polls better. Any suggestions you may have are welcome. Send them to the address below.

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.