How Should Libertarians Think About Abortion?
Americans are still coming to terms with the Supreme Court’s shocking decision to reverse its previous decision in Roe v. Wade, returning the issue of abortion back to the states. This has caused a firestorm of controversy across the country and heated argument between supporters and opponents of abortion rights. This controversy even extends to libertarian quarters, with abortion being no less a contentious issue among them. Although 57% of libertarians support increased access to abortion, another 39% say they support restrictions on the practice. Compare this to the popular consensus on abortion, with a majority of Americans saying they believe abortion should be legal with some restrictions. This consensus, ironically, was basically enacted under Roe, which prohibited states from banning abortion during the first trimester. This was based on the Supreme Court’s ruling that a woman’s right to choose (as part of the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution) must be balanced against the interest of state governments in protecting life. One can agree or disagree with the court’s reasoning for its decision (indeed, there have been a number of prominent pro-choicers, including the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who basically argued that Roe was the right ruling for the wrong reasons), but there’s no denying that it appealed to more Americans than the most extreme ends of either side of the debate.
Yet, now that the issue has been returned to the states, it’s up to us to grapple with the case for or against abortion rights. As former Congressman Justin Amash observed, “Pregnancy is the only common occurrence in which the exercise of one person’s right to bodily liberty necessarily affects another person’s right to bodily liberty. For up to nine months, mother and baby are bound. Conflicting rights must be balanced, there is no perfect approach.” It’s precisely this question that makes abortion such a tricky issue for libertarians: on the one hand, liberty means women (as well as trans and non-binary individuals who may also get pregnant), like anyone else, have a right to bodily autonomy. On the other, many libertarians also believe that one of the few legitimate functions of government is to protect the life of individuals, a class that some argue includes the unborn. As is the case with many divisive issues, there are arguments for abortion rights that libertarians should accept and there are arguments for abortion rights that libertarians should reject. While the full moral and philosophical nuances of abortion may exceed the scope of this article, there is considerable support from a libertarian perspective for an approach that least infringes on the rights of individuals.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the pro-life position is correct and that abortion - at any stage of pregnancy - is indeed murder: what does treating women who undergo it as criminals accomplish? Locking them up will not bring the aborted babies back and there’s no convincing evidence that it will discourage women from seeking abortion services (quite the opposite, actually). It only serves to punish them for a choice that many would not rather not have to make. And if prison will not deter them, what will? Sterilization? The death penalty? These are extreme measures that must be considered if your single, overriding concern is reducing abortion rates, but I don’t think they are ones you can countenance if you consider yourself “pro-life” and believe that there is no valid reason for one to take the life of another. Nor are they measures you can seriously consider if you identify as a libertarian, as someone who believes that - as misguided or even wrong you believe the the choices some individuals make to be - giving the state the power to make the choice for them and subdue those who resist is a gateway to subjugation and tyranny.
In fact, the old pro-choice slogan of “my body, my choice” could be said to embody the essence of libertarianism (so much so that pro-abortion progressives seem to be abandoning it because they now associate it with anti-vaccine and mask mandate sentiment). That being said, there is something hypocritical about saying “my body, my choice” and then expecting others who oppose abortion - something they view as murder - to pay for it with their tax dollars. If it really is an individual’s decision to terminate a pregnancy and not the state or anyone else’s, then it follows that it is not the state nor anyone else’s responsibility to cover the cost of it either (though pro-choicers would still be free to donate their own money to organizations that provide abortion services like Planned Parenthood). Of course, the same could be said for making anti-war people pay taxes that fund our government’s wars or making opponents of the death penalty chip in for the cost of executions, but that simply raises wider questions about the nature of taxation as well as the relationship between the government and its citizens. At any rate, most would argue making someone pay for activities that violate their conscience is noxious, and that goes for abortion as much as it does war or the death penalty.
Regrettably, there is no perfect solution that will satisfy every person on every point of the abortion debate spectrum. In lieu of that, we should strive for an approach that causes the least amount of harm. Women and other individuals who want an abortion should be free to seek one without fear of imprisonment or worse. If pro-life people still wish to reduce abortion rates, then they will have to make compelling arguments to those seeking such services instead of relying on the government and its agents to punish them. Advances in technology and healthcare like artificial wombs have the potential to change the way we approach this issue and even render it moot but until then, the most important thing is, as one Libertarian Party member put it, “treating the women who are compelled to make the decision as human beings with full agency and deserving of the respect and dignity to which every human is entitled.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.