Abortion, Coercion and the State

Two of my fellow STR writers and guest editors that I much enjoy to read, weebies and John deLaubenfels, have each come out with a column on the eternally contentious abortion issue. On first glance, one might say that weebies' article is pro-life, while John deLaubenfels' is pro-choice. These two positions might initially appear diametrically opposed and therefore entirely irreconcilable. I do not intend to reconcile them totally, myself.

However, let us look at the question more carefully. weebies has laid out what he calls 'the free market case against abortion.' Appealing to libertarian ethics of life, liberty, and private property, he argues that abortion violates the rights of the unborn baby ' or embryo, or fetus ' and therefore is a violent, unlibertarian act. He specifically takes issue with the 'parasite' analogy of Rothbard and the strict 'right-to-choose' arguments of Rand . I do not agree with all of weebies' arguments, especially the point about how Marx endorsed abortion, therefore it is wrong. But I found much of the article very intriguing, stimulating and agreeable.

deLaubenfels, on the other hand, lays out a 'defense of abortion.' I don't agree with every line, but I found much of this article agreeable and thought provoking, as well. Reading his article, though, I honestly don't see much of a defense of abortion, but rather some valid arguments against some of weebies' particular points, and an opposition to the use of coercive penalties or even social ostracizing against women who have abortions and the doctors who perform them.

You do not have to be pro-abortion to be opposed to its prohibition or the use of force to stop it. In fact, weebies, who seems unmistakably opposed to abortion, does not appear to advocate any laws against abortion, any forceful action taken to stop abortion, much less any government program to deal with what he considers a truly large problem. Indeed, weebies says in his concluding paragraph that '[l]ibertarians should avoid embracing the tactics of the state, and concentrate on living by the principles of libertarianism and the free market.' I see here an argument that libertarians should reject abortion, not work to outlaw it.

What makes weebies' article so offensive to some? I myself oppose abortion, but I do not advocate or believe in the use of force or government laws to stop it. I don't see my position as unlibertarian, or anti-choice, or pro-abortion. Perhaps I am missing something. Perhaps I sound like I'm trying to have it both ways. Well, I'm not. I'm not trying to have it any way, actually. In this violent and politicized world of ours, sometimes you can't have it your way, but at least you can share your views with others in hopes they will think about things differently and one day help usher in a world freer of violence and politicization.

I would guess that weebies, though passionately opposed to abortions, would not personally use violence to prevent them, nor has he, to my knowledge, advocated such violence, whether initiated privately or by the state. He has simply made an argument that abortion is the immoral and violent killing of an innocent life. I gather he wants to see far fewer abortions, and, just as with our arch nemesis the state, I think he would agree that the best solution is a long-term strategy of education and persuasion ' not the use of force. He is, after all, writing for a libertarian site, not lobbying for legislation or inciting people to shoot abortion doctors.

To cut to the chase, is abortion the same as murder? I do not want to speak for anyone else, but I do believe that there is nothing wrong in taking a delicate approach to this question. It seems to me that killing an eight-month old fetus is fairly similar, morally, to killing a one-week old infant. You can't draw the line during gestation as a matter of pure principle, but, on the other hand, a two-cell zygote is not quite the same as a fetus or an infant with a beating heart. Is it?

Furthermore, just because someone might consider abortion to be essentially the same as murder doesn't mean he or she would advocate the same penalties, or even the same social pressures, to put an end to it. I know plenty of die-hard pro-lifers who wouldn't treat a woman who had an abortion with anywhere near the same scorn as they would treat an axe murderer. Most pro-life people I know mainly work to dissuade people from having abortions, often using ethical arguments but never threatening them with violence or even hatred. Compassionate pro-life realists understand that, in our culture, with millions of women walking around who have had abortions, it simply will do no good in promoting life to treat them all as murderous outcasts, much less criminals to be awoken by the midnight knock on the door and rounded up into cages.

A viciously immoral act does not always warrant retaliatory violence, or even unforgiving social stigma. This might sound like a crude analogy to some in the pro-life camp (or the pro-choice animal-rights camp), but I personally think torturing chimpanzees is very wrong. If we had a culture in which hundreds of thousands of these relatively intelligent primates were tortured to death, for whatever reason, I would speak out against it. I might even use libertarian-sounding arguments to do so. I would not advocate using force to stop it. Is systematically torturing a thousand chimpanzees not as bad as aborting a single embryo, or taking an abortive R-U 486 pill? Which would you regard as a more unsavory character, the sadist who did the first or the woman who did the second? And, in either case, is the answer the introduction of more force ' or the government? Is the answer even to treat the subject as an inhuman criminal? Or is the answer to get people to think about the ethical implications of what they're doing?

From my perspective, abortion should not be thought of as a political issue. Indeed, every statist I know is hypocritical on the subject. Pro-life statists tend to favor or at least capitulate to the warfare state. Pro-choice statists tend to approve or at least be comfortable with the choice-crushing domestic leviathan. The abortion controversy is embraced by the political elite, not as a philosophical disagreement over personal sovereignty vs. the life of the unborn, but as a cynical method of expanding government power, legitimizing the consolidated state as the sole moral arbiter, posturing politically as if anyone in Washington held a principled position on life or liberty, and garnering grassroots political capital and campaign contributions to perpetuate a phony political battle under the subterfuge that the Republicans care one wit about innocent life and that that the Democrats care at all about privacy and civil liberties.

Which would a pro-life anarchist deem more condemnable ' the woman who had an abortion, or the jack-booted storm trooper throwing her into a cell for it? Even an anarchist who considers abortion wholly immoral and unlibertarian might sympathize with the humanity of someone who had an abortion, when pit against the police state. Even if you regard her termination of her pregnancy to be abhorrent, the woman's body is her own dominion, at least in contrast to being the property of the state, is it not? The police state surely can't have a claim on it, for, as all anarchists know, it has no claim on anything.

Anarchists and libertarians should take seriously moral arguments against abortion alongside moral and pragmatic arguments against using force against it. Force doesn't always work, even when it seems to have some moral justification to it. Indeed, even defensive and retaliatory force is a horrible thing to fall back on to solve problems, and is best left as a last resort. Most pro-life statists have no problem using government force to stop abortion, because they have no problem using force to stop anything they don't like. But most pro-life anarchists recognize the trouble with using the state, or any kind of violence, to put an end to what they would consider another violent activity. Concentrated political power especially almost always makes matters worse, and is not a moral or realistic solution to decentralized social ills. I doubt that weebies would endorse a federal war on abortion, any more than the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison advocated a federal war, or even a federal ban, to stop slavery. Though he wanted to see slavery stopped immediately, Garrison thought of slavery as a violent institution protected by state sanction and entrenched in culture, to be combated through changing the hearts and minds of people over time. This is how many pro-life anarchists see abortion. An abortion proponent may disagree with their ethical ends, but there is little to condemn in their anarchistic means.

Only anarchists and libertarians can have a truly consistent view on the question. Those who oppose all aggression and murder can, consistently with the rest of their philosophy, regard abortion as utterly immoral. Those who oppose all aggression and statism can, consistently with the rest of their philosophy, oppose state laws or the use of force to stop abortion. And while I can't know for sure whether deLaubenfels and weebies can ever see eye to eye on the issue, it is perfectly consistent and libertarian to adamantly oppose abortion as well as government laws and the use of force against it.

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Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 41

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at LewRockwell.com. His website is AnthonyGregory.com.