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

What Do Abortion Choicers Mean When They Tell Us: “Let’s Get the Government Out of Our Lives”?

An argument Libertarians often give me for keeping abortion-choice in the Libertarian Party’s platform1 is, “Let’s get the government out of our lives.” They think this consistent with principled libertarian opposition to government force. Under abortion choice, they tell me, the government neither forbids nor compels abortion; thus, it is “neutral” on abortion. “I just don’t want the government involved,” they say.
Some who argue this way are pro-lifers. I point out to them that when abortion is legal, the government is forcing taxpayers to support abortion. No, no, they cry, the LP platform says that we “oppose all tax funding for abortions.” They are overlooking something.

The law-enforcement sector (police, courts, prisons) is funded by taxation. Since this is the case, and since it’s legal to commit abortion, the taxpayer is forced to protect the practice, like it or not. Those who wish to kill the fetus are being protected when they do so, and those who wish to defend the fetus are forbidden to do so. Even if there were only voluntary funding of law enforcement, the legal system would take sides.

Pro-life libertarians generally get the point quickly and now see no reason to support legalized abortion choice or keep it in the platform. Abortion-choice libertarians often don’t get the point.

Can government really get out of abortion?

If abortion choicers wanted the government totally out of abortion, they might suggest that the party platform say: “The government should neither arrest, nor fine, nor imprison, nor impose capital punishment upon those who either engage in abortion or attempt to stop abortions from taking place.”

Once the issue is phrased that way, it becomes obvious what government “non-involvement” in abortion would mean in practice. It would mean that the government (or private protection agency) would merely watch from the sidelines. Does anyone want government to be “out of our lives” in that sense? Some libertarians say they do. Their scenario might be plausible, but only in science fiction: the area in and around abortion facilities would be declared “free-fire zones”; the government would not act against anything that took place there, regardless of what actions either side took.

However, that’s not what abortion choicers mean by “Get the government out of abortion.” They mean that government should not restrict, compel, or fund abortion. But that’s not all they mean. To them, “no government involvement” also means that the government absolutely should protect abortion. You may use persuasion — within limits, they tell pro-lifers, but not government force. They are not willing to bind themselves similarly.

It is obvious that government does not have much choice about being involved or not. If A and B try to engage in abortion, or in any disputed behavior, and C forcibly tries to stop them, normally, they would go to the government and demand that it stop C. If such things as free-fire zones are not possible, government must take sides on the right to use force. Abortion choicers would claim a right to kill the child and defend themselves; their opponents, to stop the abortion and defend the child.

Government can be neutral on the morality or the wisdom of a behavior; it can be neutral on whether abortion is a good or bad idea from any number of perspectives. But the government cannot be neutral on whether there is a right to engage in abortion or a right to save the child. It must take sides. Why bother to have police, if under the law people are free to fight things out in the streets? When unalienable rights are at issue, it must be involved; in fact, its only just purpose for being is to be an impartial referee.

Dodging the real debate

This “Get the government out of abortion” is libertarian-sounding talk, but it covers up another error: it portrays abortion as if it were a victimless-crime debate, as if for libertarians, abortion gave us no problem for unalienable rights. We want government to be neutral on religion, for instance. We may think holding a particular point of view or taking drugs is wrong or silly, but we agree that under justice, everyone has the right to be wrong — so long as we don’t invade another’s rights.

In abortion, rights is the issue — indeed, the only issue — for just law. Pro-lifers charge that abortion is unjust homicide, that we are persons with rights from conception. Abortion choicers charge that laws against abortion enslave women. Saying “Let’s get the government out of our lives” dodges the issue of how pregnancy and abortion affect the rights of both the mother and child to be free from aggression.

True, many abortion choicers say that we are not persons with the right to our own lives until we are born. (Others would lower — or raise — the deadline for the choice to kill.) But then, why don’t they simply say so, instead of hiding, as they do, behind a false facade of government “non-involvement”?

For some, the problem is fear of pro-lifers. Under a pro-life government, they say, we would get “pregnancy police.” The power to outlaw abortion is, they add, the power to compel it or to sterilize people. But notice, such policies occur under pro-abortion governments (e.g., China, Romania, India), not pro-life ones. It is abortion choicers who push for coercive population control, for requiring medical schools to teach abortion, to require health insurance companies to cover abortion, to require schools to teach that abortion is available, etc. The pro-life aim is to make abortion unthinkable, not to coerce people unjustly.

Abortion once was, for about a century, against the law in this country, yet we had no pregnancy police. At that time, government was smaller and far less intrusive. Pregnancy police would arise under a philosophy of law that expects the government to act to prevent the very possibility of aggression in all kinds of matters. This is the same philosophy that underlies outlawing private ownership of weapons. Nationwide, that philosophy seems to be vastly more popular among abortion choicers than among pro-lifers.

What abortion choicers really want from government

Most abortion choicers don’t want the government out of our lives — they want the government to serve their own wants. They want the government to use its power of the gun to deny prenatal boys and girls their rights to life, to liberty, and to due process of the law. They want the government to deny distraught fathers their unalienable right and obligation to defend their children from being killed. They want to deny pro-lifers and sympathizers their right to defend the innocent. They want the government to provide them an escape hatch from accountability.

Most abortion choicers want government control, when it serves their purposes. But that’s the essence of statism. If you think you’ve been supporting legalized abortion on the libertarian ground of getting government out of our lives, think again.

1. The 1994 LP platform permits women’s choice to kill or injure their children, so long as they do so before the child is fully born. For more information on the 1994 Platform, see “The LP’s ‘Women’s Rights and Abortion’ Plank: A 1994 Update — and Maryland and Pennsylvania Libertarian Party Resolutions.” For a copy, please send $1.00 to Libertarians for Life. The 1996 convention revised the “Women’s Rights and Abortion” plank. LFL will comment on these changes in a future article.

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.”