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Sunday, 26 October 2008

Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1

Laws permitting abortion on demand are often deemed to be liberal. Further, political liberals are frequently ardent defenders of such laws. I think these conclusions are mistaken. In a series of two posts I will provide some reasons why.

Most contemporary liberals advocate a form of the harm principle, famously articulated by Mill in On Liberty,

The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[i] [Emphasis added]
Mill here draws a distinction between other-regarding actions, actions that harm other people, and self-regarding actions, those that harm oneself. He argues that society, either by law or by social pressure, cannot justly regulate any action a person performs unless it is other-regarding; that is, it harms people other than the agent him/herself. As Mill’s position is typically interpreted harm is understood to be governed by the principle volenti non fit injuria (where there is consent, there is no injury) and hence refers to things done to other people without their consent. On this interpretation, self-regarding actions are those that people consent to and that harm no non-consenting, third party. As Mill himself notes, a self-regarding action is that “which affects only himself, or affects others with their free and voluntary, and undeceived consent”.[ii]

The most common version of the harm principle is known as the non-initiation of force principle; Rothbard sums it up well,

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.[iii]

I do not subscribe to the harm principle or the non-initiation of force interpretation of it (I give some reasons why here). However, in this series of posts I will adopt it for the sake of argument so as to examine what follows for abortion. Abortion involves killing a fetus, usually by dismembering it. Moreover, the fetus does not consent to it. Hence if a Liberal is to support abortion he/she must do so for only one of two reasons. Either,
(a) the fetus is a person but its existence inside the mother without her consent constitutes a form aggression, and hence, the mother’s action of killing it is defensive; or,
(b) a fetus is not a person.
Only if one of these two options is adopted, can a liberal support the non-initiation of force principle and permissive abortion legislation and remain consistent.

Failed Avoidance Tactics
At this juncture it is worth noting that two very common tactics of avoiding this conclusion fail. The first is to defend abortion, as Rodney Hide tried to at the recent Family First Forum, on the basis of the perceived positive social consequences of ‘liberal’ abortion laws. In popular political discourse, and in some feminist writings, abortion is defended on consequentialist grounds; it is argued that abortion prevents unwanted children, children who are likely to be poor, abused, neglected or engage in crime. It is hailed as a solution to over-population and the existence of handicapped people. It prevents adult and teenage women from falling into economic hardship and stress and enables them to complete their education, pursue their careers and so on.

The problem with this line of argument is that this is only cogent for liberals if they assume that abortion does not violate the non-initiation of force principle. If abortion does violate this principle then allowing abortion on these grounds would be tantamount to saying that people can engage in aggression (as Rothbard defines it) they can initiate lethal force against others provided doing so brings about positive consequences, like lower crime rates, less child abuse, lower population rates, access to education and employment, etc. This conclusion contradicts the non-initiation of force principle which states that one cannot justly pursue social utility by violating an individual’s right to life, liberty or property; the very basis of their opposition to socialism.

The second avoidance tactic is to appeal to slogans such as “you can’t force your morality onto others, you can’t legislate morality”. The problem with these claims is that the non-initiation of force principle is itself a moral principle and liberals believe the state should enforce this principle and should defend people against others who would violate it. This forces a dilemma upon liberals who cite this slogan; either the claim “you can’t force your morality onto others” applies to the non-initiation of force principle or it does not. If it does, then abortion involves an unjust imposition of morality onto another only if you assume it is not the initiation of force. If it does not, then liberalism as a doctrine collapses as the state has no duty to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens from aggression. In fact, it entails the conclusion that acts of aggression such as rape and murder should be decriminalised alongside abortion.

It follows then that the liberal cannot rationally avoid the question. If one is to both support ‘liberal’ abortion laws and hold to the non-initiation of force principle, one must do so either on (a) or (b) above. I think neither is terribly defensible. I will address (a) the fetus is a person but its existence inside the mother without her consent constitutes a form aggression, and hence, the mother’s action of killing it is defensive; and, (b) a fetus is not a person, in my next post, Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2.

[i] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), 69.
[ii] Ibid. 71.
[iii] Murray N Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (New York: Collier Books, 2002) 23.


  1. I think a better way of framing your argument as to when is a foetus human? is it at conception? or later...

  2. I address that issue in my next post.

    However, in this post I wanted to be clear what the options are for liberals, some of whom may concede that a fetus is a human but who still attempt to justify abortion in spite of this.

    I also wanted to address various attempts to evade the issue.

  3. Nice post Matt. I look forward to reading the coming parts (Deadlines to meet, I will return!)

    This to me also seems to be a bit of a challenge to liberals to be true to liberalism when the issues get really tough :-)

    I predict that the defense will rest mainly around a mother's rights trump a pre-borns.

    MikeE: you need a different term than human to win that idea. Technically, a foetus is human from conception. We can verify this by checking the DNA.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. MikeE, the term you are likely looking for to frame the argument the way you would like is "Personhood".

    A foetus is human, but when do they become a person? If we agree persons have rights, can we also argue that non-persons do not...

  6. Mill doesn't quite go far enough. He should have stated the obvious fact that control over our bodies includes control over EVERYTHING INSIDE our bodies.

    Right-to-lifers have one right answer: human fetuses are persons, babies, members of the Human Family, and entitled to all the rights and privileges other humans enjoy.

    But you have the wrong QUESTION. What matters is not WHAT fetuses are, but WHERE they are.

    If something is inside my body, then I'm entitled to have it killed, NO MATTER WHAT IT IS. Even if it's a person. Even if it's an INNOCENT person. If you were inside my body, I'd be entitled to kill you. If I were inside your body, you'd be entitled to kill me. In fact, if ALL the people in the WHOLE HUMPING WORLD, including the innocent ones, the pregnant ones, and the unborn ones, were assembled somewhere inside my body, then I'd be entitled to holocaust them. Or, to just kill SOME of them (right-to-lifers!).

    That's part of the meaning of the word "my" in the phrase "my body". MY body is the body about which I, and no one else, get to decide who gets to live inside it, and when, AND HOW LONG.

    If fetuses were as good and morally-pure and innocent as you say, they would not WANT to live inside another person's body where they were not welcome. A GOOD fetus would PREFER to be aborted. If it could talk, it would say, as the abortion-doc's currette approached, "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is to a far, far better rest I go, than I have ever known."

    Abortion kills a person. Doing an abortion on a woman who does not want it is baby-murder. But abortion on demand is JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE.

  7. OperationCounterstrike you support abortion for any reason and at any stage in pregnancy. If I read you correctly, you would have no issue with someone planning a child and then in the 9th month changing their mind and killing the fetus. This is because if an innocent human being is inside one's body then one can kill it - right?

    I am interested to know what is it about the location of a human being that gives one the right to kill?

    I am assuming you are not wanting your argument to endorse infanticide. If this is the case, then you cannot simply appeal to "my body" as a newborn makes incredible demands on the body of its mother if it is breastfed. Even if not breastfed, the adult(s) taking care of it also have extremely high demands placed on their body to ensure its health and survival - sleep deprivation, formula making and feeding, nappy changing, financial drains (finances come from work, work requires the use of one's body), immunisations, doctors visits, increased cleaning and housework and so on. The demands a newborn places on the body of another are higher than the demands a fetus places on the body of its mother; you can measure it scientifically by comparing the calorie intake required by the life-providing adult pre-birth and after-birth (and also by talking to any woman who has been pregnant and then has cared for their own child).

    Now, the reason I do not think you intended to endorse infanticide is because you limited your appeal to "My Body" with the addition of the qualification 'location,' you clearly stated that "What matters is not WHAT fetuses are, but WHERE they are." 

    What I want to know is what is it about demands made on "My Body" that gives me a right to kill when those demands are made inside "My Body" but not when those demands (arguably greater demands) are made outside "My Body?" It seems rather arbitrary to claim that one's right to control one's body has this kind of assymetry.

    Can you give a non-arbitrary account of the feature of location that enables it to remove the duty to provide and care for children one has brought into the world in one context and renders it into a right to kill in another? If you cannot, your argument either fails or it endorses infanticide.

  8. Was Operation Counterstrike being SERIOUS?

    I had read that comment as a "modest proposal," of sorts, but don't know the writer well enough to tell whether there was a twinkle in his/her eye when s/he wrote that.

    He, she, or it is entitled to his or her opinion, but Anglo-American law hasn't caught up with any part of that argument.  My heart is a part of my body, but if I choose to have it killed, I break the law of my home state.  As long as suicide is illegal, Operation Counterstrike's argument is either witty satire or legal nonsense.

    I'm going to give OC the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Nice satire, OC!

  9. Looking at OC's website I think your benefit of the doubt is misplaced; I think he is serious.

    Check out this post, Name and Shame, repost, where he names Paul Hill's wife and kids, calls them "tacit supporters of terror," identifies their place of worship which he deems a "PRO-TERROR CHURCH" and invites readers to email the pastor and share the same sentiments.

    Or this one which I will paste in entirety:

    Prayer for safety, repost
    "May the Good True Lord protect <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Professor Robert P. George</span> and keep him safe from terror and from assassination, so long as <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Dr. LeRoy Carhart</span> remains safe, terror-free, and unvictimized, and not one second longer."

    Here is his blog post where he effectively repeats the same argument he gave above: RIP
    <h3 class="post-title entry-title"></h3>

  10. Hmm.  It's a pity, but you're right.  Not only is he serious, but he's gone around posting the exact same arguments on other blogs.  Propagandaspam?


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