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The lives of millions of developing humans are terminated worldwide each year. In the United States alone, well over a million are killed on an annual basis. This extinguishing of life is a lucrative business, with nearly $1 billion generated each year as a result of the services related to ending human life.
The political hot potato that is abortion has long split Americans on opposite sides of the spectrum, with the “pro life” crowd demanding a halt to such institutionalized infanticide, and the “pro choice” crowd arguing that a woman can do whatever she wants with her body, including ending an “unwanted pregnancy.”
Where do libertarians find themselves in the national dialogue (or relative lack thereof) regarding this fundamental issue? Like the populace at large, libertarians are split on either side; depending on one’s determination of when life begins, and what rights the mother retains or surrenders as a result of conception, a libertarian can reach different conclusions.
Most discussion of the issue bogs down in minutiae about when human life begins, when or if the fetus can be considered to be alive, etc. All this is really irrelevant to the issue of the legality (again, not necessarily the morality) of abortion. The Catholic antiabortionist, for example, declares that all that he wants for the fetus is the rights of any human being — i.e., the right not to be murdered. But there is more involved here, and this is the crucial consideration. If we are to treat the fetus [p. 108] as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being's body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person, and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person's body.
For Rothbard and many libertarians, the abortion question is resolved by a simple and consistent application of property rights. By arguing that the woman has “self ownership,” these libertarians claim that the “parasite” (a human being) may at any time and for any reason be “evicted” by its host, the mother—non-aggression principle be damned (or in this case, trumped through an appeal to the woman’s right to treat her body as her own property).
Rothbard’s attempt to address the abortion dilemma was made four decades ago, and the library of libertarian scholarship has significantly expanded since. One might ask, then, whether this position has been left behind by its previous proponents in favor of something else.
Not so, if Walter Block is any indication. Block is a key figure in the modern libertarian movement, and a prolific professor and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. Commenting on Block’s significant contributions in the shadow of the late Rothbard, Lew Rockwell has written:
Murray Rothbard, in his life, was known as Mr. Libertarian. We can make a solid case that the title now belongs to Walter Block, a student of Rothbard’s whose own vita is as thick as a big-city phonebook, and as diverse as Wikipedia. Whether he is writing on economic theory, ethics, political secession, drugs, roads, education, monetary policy, social theory, unions, political language, or anything else, his prose burns with a passion for this single idea: if human problems are to be solved, the solution is to be found by permitting greater liberty.
It may therefore be no surprise that Block hammers the same note that Rothbard once did. At a pre-GOP convention Ron Paul rally held this past weekend, he spoke on this subject and advanced the Rothbardian “evictionism” argument, albeit softening it to suggest that rather than terminating the life outright, the proper position would be to preserve the life so as to be able to be cared for by doctors or other individuals wishing to adopt.
Interviewed after his speech, Block explained: “The woman has a right to evict the fetus from her womb at any time since she’s the owner of it, and an unwanted fetus is a trespasser, but she has no right to kill it.”
Block goes on to note—quite correctly—that the current pro-life stance on abortion is misguided in that it inconsistently applies its views on a situational basis:
A woman who is raped, clearly that baby is a trespasser, and yet that baby has as many rights as any other baby… If all babies have the same rights, and the product of rape can be evicted, well then so can any other baby, because they’re all equally innocent. We’re not guilty for the sins of our parents.
In other words, if conservatives carve out an exception for human life resulting from rape, then they are claiming that the mother’s rights may trump the baby’s—and if this the case, then why can’t the mother’s rights allow her to terminate a baby voluntarily conceived?
Many libertarians have formed their position on abortion based on property rights, using Rothbard’s arguments (supported by many other scholars) and feel that the termination of life is not a violation of the non-aggression principle, but rather a logical conclusion of the woman’s self-ownership. Who is anybody else, they say, to force this women to enslave herself to the child growing within her?
While the appeal to property rights is powerful, it is incomplete. While we each have property rights, whether in our own persons or the assets over which we claim ownership, these rights can be restrained through contracts into which I have voluntarily entered. It is wrong to forcibly inseminate a woman and take appropriate measures to ensure that the growing fetus may thrive contrary to the woman’s wishes. Property rights clearly resolve this issue. But when the woman engages in voluntary and consensual actions, she is willingly subjecting herself to the consequences of those actions. In the case of sex, she is implicitly consenting to a possible pregnancy.
Rotbhard anticipated the argument of contract and consequence, and dismissed it thusly:
The common retort that the mother either originally wanted or at least was responsible for placing the fetus within her body is, again, beside the point. Even in the stronger case where the mother originally wanted the child, the mother, as the property owner in her own body, has the right to change her mind and to eject it.
This attempted rebuttal leaves much to be desired. Rothbard claims that a mother may at any time change her desire to be pregnant and may thus terminate the life over which she has stewardship. The logical extension of this argument applies to parenthood in general; the property ownership argument means that any parent may “evict” a child who is a drain on resources, for any reason, and that this action is reconcilable with the non-aggression principle.
Abortion is an attempt to evade the natural consequences of sex. It has become an institutionalized and legally justified industry by which sexual promiscuity can be enjoyed and the potential result of that activity, pregnancy, may be strenuously and successfully avoided.
To engage in such activities is to willingly subject one’s self to the natural consequences that follow. Personal responsibility demands this. Thus, the natural, obvious, and easily identifiable consequences of sex effectively creates an implicit contract which supersedes the woman’s claim to self-ownership.
If this woman did not want to be “enslaved” by another human being, then she should not have engaged in the activity that naturally brought about the result she did not want. To claim that the woman should be able to divorce herself from the consequences of her actions it to completely nullify any sense of accountability for one’s actions; the Rothbardian argument that a woman’s changing whims may justify her extinguishing another’s life is utterly repugnant to any sense of natural law, morality, or even the non-aggression principle.
Contracts trump rights. If I adopt a child, I have become its steward and am legally and morally obligated to provide for that child. The contractual commitment made through adoption overturns any future change in feelings I may have. To argue that I may change my mind one week later and kick the child out on the curb, and be completely justified in doing so, is both cold-hearted and completely absurd. To the extent that libertarians embrace this idea, they will be promoting (supposed) liberty and property at the expense of life. This cannot be done; the sacred triumvirate of life, liberty, and property demands that all three be protected and promoted together—not just one or two.
The self-ownership argument is placed in context when we consider simple property ownership, say, of a house. If I, as owner of my house, rent out my basement to another family, I do so with a contractual agreement. Though I own my house, my actions are necessarily restricted by the obligations put in place because of the agreement. I cannot kick the tenants out at any time (unless that’s part of the contract); my ownership is subjected first to any contractual obligations made.
Because of this consideration of contractual commitments, abortion is not settled by an appeal to property rights. Appealing to the mother’s self-ownership is inadequate when that mother is subject to the natural consequences of her previous, voluntary actions. These consequences are observable, natural, and thus may be construed as implicit terms and conditions of a contract potentially and inherently created by the voluntary, sexual union.
This is obviously a messy issue, and not even libertarians (known for their ideological rigidity and consistency) have unified around a single stance. While the discussion will continue (while the lives of millions continue to be unjustly ended), we must flatly reject the claim that the mother may aggress against another human being whose life was created as a natural consequence of her voluntary actions. Eviction is wrong when the tenant was invited in by the landlord with a binding contract in hand.