Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Cue Card Libertarianism - Abortion

Abortion is frequently a matter of dispute among libertarians, mostly because of conflicting views on the status of the foetus. There is acceptance by both sides that if the foetus is a human being, then abortion is murder, a violation of the right to life, properly to be outlawed.

'Not PC' takes the Objectivist view that the foetus is not yet a human being, but a
part of a human being – the mother – who has rights over it. As Ayn Rand points out, rights can only be held by beings who are capable of reasoning and choosing -- by human beings. A foetus is not a human being; it is a piece of protoplasm, a potential human being but not yet an actual human being.

A mother has rights; an embryo does not. Those who would refuse her the ability to abort her foetus are claiming rights over her body, and are demanding the sacrifice of actual human beings to what is until birth merely a potential.

To be an actual rather than merely a potential human being is, among other things, to be physically separate -- which a foetus is not -- and to have a brain, which a foetus has not until approximately the third trimester. As Leonard Peikoff has argued, “That which lives within the body of another can claim no prerogatives against its host. Rights belong only to individuals, not to collectives or to parts of individuals.”

Thus we uphold the right to abort as part of the mother’s right to ownership of her own body. We do not, however, support state-funded abortion, since anything at all funded by compulsory-acquired money is a violation of the rights of the involuntary funders.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here. The series as it develops can be found here.

LINKS: The sacrifice at the heart of anti-abortion opposition - Peter Cresswell
Abortion rights are pro-life - Leonard Peikoff
The 'Abortion is Pro-Life' website
Cue Card Libertarianism - Rights - Not PC

TAGS: Cue Card Libertarianism, Ethics, Politics, Religion, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights


  1. So are you saying you are against third semester abortions as the foetus has a brain by then?

  2. And also, if someone is in a coma - and lacks the ability to reason, then is it ok to kill them?

  3. Good question David. On that I'm not entirely convinced (regarding abortion within third trimester), but I was almost persuaded a few years back after a very long discussion. As I indicate above, the important question with abortion is determining the status of the foetus. Killing a human is murder. Killing a piece of protoplasm is not.

    In the first and second trimester then the situation is unquestionable: the foetus is pre-human, and abortion is a woman's right. Once the third trimester arrives however things are less clear-cut, but the issue of third-trimester abortions should not be used to confuse the issue of abortion per se: for most practical purposes abortion is what takes place in the first- and second-trimester, and about that there is no question: as Leonard Peikoo says, "You cannot be in favor of life and yet demand the sacrifice of an actual, living individual to a clump of tissue."

    So that said, here's some 'thinking points', below (which were intended only to be short points, but which grew as I wrote -- clearly fairly pregnant points it seems):

    * The practical question is important here. How common are third-trimester abortions? Answer: not very. Third-trimester abortions are rare, since they are a much greater danger to the pregnant woman's own health, and generally it is possible to obtain an abortion at an earlier date. Generally possible, but not ~always~ possible, but usually by the time third trimester has arrived the choice has been made: to give birth if you can. (Usually, but not always.)

    * Third trimester abortions are generally only used at present for the preservation of the life of the pregnant woman -- in other words she's going to die unless the foetus is removed. No one but a zealot could disallow this: if the woman's life is at risk then disallowing the procedure is murder. Clearly in such a cases then the life of the 'host' should not be sacrificed to that of her 'guest' -- and it's absurd to place such 'rights' in conflict -- and therefore to describe as murder removing that foetus in such a case would be just plain wrong.

    * So then, if you can allow that in cases of danger to the pregnant woman third-trimester abortions are not murder, then you must also allow the same for all other cases. In other words, it's either murder of a human being or it's not, and the health or otherwise of the mother is irrelevant to that particular question.

    * The 'viability' question becomes important in the third trimester - that is, can the foetus survive outside the womb? -- and this of course became the crucial cut-off point decided upon in Roe v Wade. But it is not really helpful in view. If the pregnant woman's life is under threat from her pregnancy in the third trimester and the baby is ~wanted,~ then once again the law is not needed: the foetus will be removed and medical care undertaken to attempt to keep it alive. And as we noted above, for the most part, most mothers seeking third-trimester abortions are in the situation of wanting their birth, and wil be only too interested in its 'viability.'

    * So the law would not be needed in such a case: As I said in the post above, "To be an actual rather than merely a potential human being is, among other things, to be physically separate" -- if (amonng other things) this condition is demonstrably reached, then the rights and protections appropriate to all humans kick in in any case.

    * The 'viability' question therefore only arises if the baby is ~unwanted~ in the third trimester. And there is no way to determine ~for sure~, in advance, before removal of the foetus, whether exactly the foetus has yet reached 'viability' or not. So as a legal 'cut-off' point, the viability test on its own is not a good one.

    * The thing is then to provide an objective legal cut-off point for determining when the status of human being has clearly reached, so as to be able to say on side of that line: 'Here is removal of cells'; and on the other: 'Here is murder of a human being.' A legal line needs to be established somehere, and with it you're trying to draw a discrete boundary somewhere within a nine-month time period that is by nature not discrete at all, but continuous. To me the only viable line is birth. But as I said above, I'm still open to persuasion, but only on the lines I've suggested.

  4. " And also, if someone is in a coma - and lacks the ability to reason, then is it ok to kill them?"

    Short answer: No. With some caveats.

    Long answer: See what I said on the Terry Schiavo case -- which for the life of me I can't find at the moment and I;m just heading off... Try Googling in the meantime. ;^)

  5. The abortion argument is so usually so ridiculously simplistic on both sides.

    Abortion is not a question of people who want to kill their babies versus people who don't understand that I have a right to control my body; as per your above comment,it is a complicated question of conflicting rights. As the cost of pregnancy, in terms of heatlh, money, and social stigma has gone down, people are worrying less about the rights of the woman to control what happens in her body, and more about the right of the foetus to get born. I don't really agree with that. Conservatives can't have it both ways - they don't want abortions, but they don't want to pay women welfare.

    I read this on a US site -

    The position of the (Democratic) Party needs to be "We are pro-choice. Some of us believe that abortion is morally acceptable. Some of us find it repugnant. Some of us just aren't sure. But ALL of us believe that the government, which is incapable of fairly and effectively policing traffic violations, has neither the right nor the ability to reach a binding decision on difficult moral issues such as this."

    You can't say better than that for those on the more liberal side of the aisle - and it goes for all reproductive technology IMO.

  6. PC, you will find that the idea that a foetus is a piece of protoplasm is completely incorrect. Protoplasm, (according to wikipedia) is the living substance within a cell. A foetus is made up of, oh, I don't know, maybe trillions of cells, each with the exact same genetic makeup that the foetus will have when born. The only difference between foetus and born baby, or even an adult is the only the level of maturity. Which seems to vary widely from adult to adult.

    Maybe Ayn Rand said what she did about protoplasm before ultrasound, back when there were myths about what actually went on in the early stages of pregnancy, back before we had windows into the mysteries of the womb.

  7. For my part in this debate (at Sir Humphrey's) I have been treating the discussion as having distinct parts to it.

    I believe killing a foetus is killing a person (pick at 10 weeks if you need a number that matches a clearly human form).

    Arriving at the truth of the action (as I see it) is a completely separate discussion as to what society might do about it, and what I think the women's rights or options might be in the matter.

    I also don't buy the argument that if a baby can't live outside the womb, it by definition is killable (as some-one mentioned somewhere). It needs that environment (or a man-made one) like an Eskimo needs a fur coat and an ice hut. Or an astronaut needs a space suit and oxygen tank.

    Finally, I listened to the 10 minute rave by Leonard. Firstly "Pro-Life" terminology is exactly why I see the first part of the discussion separate - the issue of rights and property etc just clouds the issue of the reality of the action.

    One thing is clear to me, and has been mentioned with dismay by the pro-choice group - the line where a baby is considered a baby is being moved back. The side effect of premature babies that live, and ultrasound photos that reveal. It's called facing up to the truth.

  8. Here's the issue in a nutshell. A foetus is not a human being. A foetus is pre-human. Whatever you want to call that collection of cells, it is not an actual human being, it is merely a potential human being.

    To confuse the two is foolish. To surrender an actual human being with what is merely a potential is ludicrous. And to demand that someone else accede to your foolishness -- that is, to demand control of their very womb -- is somewhere approaching abhorrent.

  9. My definition of what is a human being is a creature that is identified by his or her genetics to be human, as opposed to an animal or a plant. What is your definition, PC? What is the process whereby, "protoplasm" or a pre-human becomes human? Do you have a scientific explanation?

  10. You seem to be placing the focus of being a human being on the development of the brain. But neural tissue develops very early, and if you consider the commencement of conciousness to be beginning of being 'human' (no, I know you didn't, but one might), and that neural activity indicates conciousness, then the foetus is human from a very early age.

    I think a much more pragmatic argument is warranted. Basically, if you don't provide the facility for an abortion, then the would-be mother will go to great lengths to try to get rid of it her own way, be it a black market abortion as happened in NZ before abortion was legalised or a bottle of gin in a cold bath. And this is very hard to prevent, right or wrong.

  11. Here it is in a nutshell - if you remove a child from the womb and it lives (with a bit of medical help), then it is a human.

    A potential adult is called a child. A potential child is called a baby. They are all human.

    It is where some-one draws the line. Drawing it from birth doesn't work anymore.

    Deeper investigation will reveal that 23 weeks is still a viable human, with modern technology. That alone is reason to keep an open mind on where the line should be in determining what is a human, surely?

  12. The status as a human has also got enormous ramifications for the status of the woman's body from that point onwards, and even before.

    For example, if a foetus has rights as a human being from a certain point (let's say 6 months), at that point the mother faces certain obligations. This would include NOT smoking or drinking alcohol, or indeed any actions that could damage the foetus, short of extreme cases where abortion is needed to save her life. In effect, the foetus in that case is being force fed poisons, and that would be morally unconscionable if it had rights - no different from if the mother injected it into the child once born. This is the sort of case common law should deal with - you can imagine a father suing a mother who is a heroin addict for child abuse.

    Before it has rights, then she has the absolute right to abort.

    The alternative is to claim that women, when knowingly pregnant, have some obligations towards the foetus - which while appealing on one level (deterring foetal alcohol syndrome et al), could be highly interventionist.

  13. ZENTIGER: "A potential adult is called a child. A potential child is called a baby. They are all human."

    A potential baby is called a foetus. And it is pre-human. The line to be drawn is when it becomes human. As I note above, there are arguments for saying this occurs in the third-trimester, when the conceptual faculty is formed, but I'm as I say in that comment I'm not sure that on its own is justification for banning third-trimester abnortions. But on that particular point I am still willing to be convinced.

    LUCYNA: "My definition of what is a human being is a creature that is identified by his or her genetics to be human, as opposed to an animal or a plant. What is your definition, PC?"

    The condition of judging what is a human being and what is not is not judged by the genitic code of a portion of tissue, but by whether the conditions for being human are met by the entire being, with the being's full context being considered. In that sense then, the best definition for man is that given by Aristotle: "Man is the rational animal."

    SAM: "I think a much more pragmatic argument is warranted."

    All you say is true, Sam -- tragically so -- but if it were indeed murder then none of those problems you cite would be an argument for making murder legal. YOu can't escape the key point so easily, which is that the foetus is not human, it is pre-human.

  14. PC: 'To confuse the two (human being/foetus) is foolish'.

    Were it that simple, Peter.

    The second I found out that my sister was pregnant, I was talking about 'the baby'.

    Never 'cells', 'protoplasm' or 'the foetus'.

    Lucyna makes a valid point. Technology is fast providing crystal-clear images of the womb, as opposed to those of the early grainy, 'bad-reception B&W TV' type.

    Pretty hard to be clinical when the procedure is visual to all & sundry, as opposed to only the surgical staff ...

  15. It *is* foolish to confuse a foetus, dependent on its hosts body for succour, and an independent human being.

    Reseach has shown that women who are given an ultrasound of the foetus prior to having an abortion often change their minds - so there you go. Maybe the taxpayer should pay for that - something I doubt will find favour with conservatives.

    It takes some pretty fancy mental footwork to claim abortion is the moral equivalent of meeting your offspring 10 years later in the street and shooting them - which is what'pro-lifers' are saying. Yet you hear this quite often from people who are quite intellectually gifted.

  16. PC: "A potential baby is called a foetus. And it is pre-human. The line to be drawn is when it becomes human."

    Exactly. And we continue to disagree on that line.

    Your opinion on whether something can be killed without moral consequences also seems to rely on the concept of who has rights. Is this correct?

    Ruth: (hello BTW), I'm a pro-lifer and I'm not saying killing a baby at 2,6, 10, 13, 20, 23 or 28 weeks with forceps or drugs is the same as killing a 10 year old with a gun. I might not be intellectually gifted (but please don't agree too quickly), but I do hear that argument put forward more by the pro-abortionists so they can make the comparison and then ridicule it.

    This is the kind of hot topic that the danger of saying one thing often has the reader assuming there is a "therefore this other stuff follows" kind of argument. It doesn't.

    I'm saying that killing foetus at some point in its cycle is averting a natural outcome that produces life, and that needs to be faced up to. It's killing a human, in the category of pre-born. How that gets reconciled with a women's rights and the other mix of issues is a different problem, and one for which I personally have not reached a conclusion.

    Ultimately, society needs to focus on the timeline much earlier so less people are in that situation.

    I also wonder if abortion was harder to get, if it would effect a change in sex habits over time, or if morning after pills and backyard operations would simply be in higher demand.

  17. "It's killing a human, in the category of pre-born."

    I think that logic falls down, as it is thee same as saying sperm and eggs are a category of pre-conception, implying contraception is wrong, as you could say preventing and male and a female from meeting is wrong, as it destroying the potential of a human being. Therefore, you have to define a point at which something becomes human, which can only really be when they develop a reasoning mind.

    You can't destroy what you haven't got.

  18. Hi Zen - yes I do think you are intellectually gifted ;-).

    When you say potential = actual you are saying foetus=baby=child=adult which is saying abortion is the eqivalent of meeting your 20 year old offspring in the street and shooting them. Which it is not.

    To my mind it is not a question of when the foetus becomes 'human' - I believe that one does acquire rights until one is born. Rights do not apply to the unborn. That is not a difficult concept to understand.

    IMO it is only a matter of time before women are sent to the pokey for having abortions. It was only recently that an edict in the US to require women to report miscarriagest to the police was overturned. Already birth control is under threat - the position of the Catholic Church that contraception is akin to abortion is gaining ground every day. Look at Kansas.

    When women are denied reproductive choice, that affects men who will become fathers against their wills, too. We fight for women’s equality because it makes our society stronger and all its members better off.

  19. Ruth: 'Research has shown that women who are given an ultrasound of the foetus prior to an abortion often change their mind, so there you go.'

    Yes, I'm aware of that. The point of continually clearer imagery of *human* creation cannot be ignored. But either way, the decision is a matter of choice.

    Ruth: 'Maybe the taxpayer should pay for that - something I doubt will find favour with the conservatives'.

    The taxpayer 'should' no more have to pay for a woman's pregnancy scan than they should have to pay for an abortion, hysterectomy or appendectomy.

    An old libertarian philosophy: Never let anybody 'should' on ya! :)


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