Libertarianism: Pro-Life Philosophy, Pro-Abortion Movement

When abortion is placed in the broader context of American politics, the battle lines are pretty straightforward: conservatives are generally pro-life, and liberals are mostly pro-choice. But what about libertarians? A philosophy about maximizing personal liberty by minimizing government activity, libertarianism is sometimes seen as a mishmash of economic conservatism and social liberalism.

To mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, leading libertarian magazine Reason has posted a small yet diverse sampling of competing libertarian perspectives on abortion, concluding with a short video in which Reason editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie ask, “what’s the libertarian position on abortion?”

They conclude that there isn’t any one correct libertarian answer to the issue, but they definitely leave the impression that libertarianism would leave abortion just the way it is. Both express their personal support for keeping abortion legal, and Welch claims that only around “30% of self-identified libertarians are also strongly pro-life or anti-abortion.”

To be fair, other libertarians disagree—America’s most popular libertarian, Ron Paul, is pro-life, and the organization Libertarians for Life argues that “libertarianism’s basic principle” that “each of us has the obligation not to aggress against (violate the rights of) anyone else — for any reason (personal, social, or political)” must be applied to the unborn.” However, there’s also a Pro-Choice Libertarians organization that believes “government should stay out of the abortion issue,” and the Libertarian Party’s official platform calls forleaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” On balance, it seems like pro-life libertarians are the exception, not the rule.

Should they be, though? Is abortion on demand really a logical inference from libertarian principles? Gillespie doesn’t directly answer the question:

On the 30th anniversary of Roe versus Wade I wrote a piece for talking about how the kind of social consensus and, to be blunt, the sliding scale of humanity, from fertilization of an egg to the growth of a fetus to a viable fetus, one that can live outside the woman, outside the mother, this is something that makes intuitive sense to people; it is not a logical answer, but the fact is that definitions of life and death change with time, they change with medical technology and social understanding. What counted as a birth in 1900 is not the same as in 2000 or in 1800.

I’m not sure why something you admit is merely intuitive and not logical suffices to answer a philosophical query. Gillespie’s talk of “sliding scale[s] of humanity” and “definitions of life and death chang[ing] with time” is gibberish; while people’s perceptions of humanity and use of definitions may be subjective and variable, they reflect facts that are not. I don’t know how many times we have to reiterate that the science really is settled on when life begins before people stop talking like this is some great unknowable mystery.

Theoretically, a pro-life consensus among self-described libertarians shouldn’t be complicated: Just government protects the rights of individual people, and unborn babies are individual people; therefore, just government protects the rights of unborn babies. In practice, however, a significant percentage of libertarians don’t apply their principles to unborn humans, most likely because their exalted talk of freedom and individual rights is really only meant to protect the freedom to pursue their own interests.

9 thoughts on “Libertarianism: Pro-Life Philosophy, Pro-Abortion Movement

  1. “government should stay out of the abortion issue”

    When I read this, I couldn’t help my mind wandering on how many problems I have with this statement. Foremost, would that mean that the government shouldn’t even regulate abortion if it is legal? No health and safety inspections of abortion facilities. No limits on how late a woman can have an abortion. No laws that say that the “doctors” need to help a baby that survives an abortion or help a woman who is suffering from a botched abortion at their hands. So many problems with this.

    Also, should the government stay out of the “[murder] issue”? Should it be up to each individual’s “conscientious consideration” to determine whether or not to murder their neighbor, friend, or family member?

    I am all for shortening the government’s reach, but if abortion is going to be legal, there needs to be regulation. Just like we must regulate murder (in that case, by making it illegal and enforcing the law), the murder of unborn children must be legislated. It is not something that we can just ask the law to step away from.


  2. The thing is, that by ‘staying out of the issue’, the government DOES take a stance on abortion– that the unborn are not human. If the government considered the unborn to be human, there is no doubt that they would pass legislature protecting the fetus’ right to life.  it is only when the fetus isn’t considered human that the government is able to ‘stay out of it’. in this case, not saying anything says a whole lot.


  3. As Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote, once upon a time, an acorn is not an oak tree. Oh, wait. Is that distinction “merely intuitive” and “not logical”? Oh, my.


  4. To be fair, I see no text in the constitution that decides when, if at any point, during the process of gestation a fetus becomes a person. Not up to the Supremes to say, in my view.

    And, in any case, liberal legal dogma relies on a fictitious right to privacy as the basis for federal nullification of state abortion laws, allegedly in conflict with that made-up right, just as state laws regulating or prohibiting contraception were said to do.

    A lot of current constitutional law is phony-baloney.


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