The Paradox of Judging Abortion Based on the Non-Aggression Principle

One of the most controversial topics in today’s polarized political climate is that of abortion. While the general attitude in contemporary America appear to lean more towards favoring its full legalization or for it to be allowed in most cases, the two major parties of Republicans and Democrats tend to differ drastically on the matter, while gender is reported to be a relatively statistically insignificant factor.

When it comes to Libertarians, Pew Research doesn’t have a separate category in their data on the matter outside of being lumped together with others as “Independents”, but according to a poll by ISideWith with over a million respondents, a full 71%  of Libertarians classify themselves as “pro-choice”. Still, when you remove the conditioned votes on the matter, the pro-choice side goes down to 45%. 16% says that they disagree with it but that the State has no right to ban it; 5% says it should be banned after 3 months; and the remaining 5% think birth control, sex education and more social services should be implemented to reduce the number of abortions.

I think that the relative variance among Libertarians on this question can be found in what is generally agreed upon as the moral foundation of Libertarianism: the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). In short, what this means is simply that you have no right to initiate force and that violence is only acceptable if done in self-defense. One of the biggest historical figures in the Libertarian movement, Murray N. Rothbard, explained the principle as follows,

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.

In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

If we want to apply the NAP to analyze the morality of abortion, we thus have to first look at whether a termination of pregnancy is an initiation of force. One ought also to consider the commonly touched theme about whether the fetus is to be recognized as a human endowed with the natural rights and moral judgement that people are generally judged in accordance with. I think that this is the core issue on the topic that makes people, even Libertarians, conflict so much about the matter. On the pro-choice side of the matter, one generally hears that the fetus is nothing but “a lump of cells” or that you can recognize their humanity only after certain processes and traits start manifesting themselves in it, such as a heart beat. The pro-life side, on the contrary, tend to consider the fetus to be in the first stage of life and that it will become fully human by birth if left to its natural procedure. To their defense, a well-known pro-life site published a list of 41 quotes from medical experts and textbooks in 2015 “that prove human life begins at conception/fertilization,” according to them. Whether it does so or not, I leave the reader to look over and conclude for themselves.

It’s no easy task to settle a disagreement when they are centered in matters which appear semantical but which is actually an important basis for the entirely different perspectives on the matter. I don’t see any inherent inconsistencies in pro-choice Libertarians who have the former perspective (fetus=/=human), though I disagree with it and would request the relevant readers to check out the quotes in the link above and introspect why fetuses should not be considered by moral judgement in the same way that people generally are.

What I will do from here, however, is to illustrate the dilemma – if not paradox – for those Libertarians who take the latter view from the perspective of the NAP. The difficulty arises in that it would both be perceived as an initiation of force for a woman to perform an abortion (many pro-choice-ers even call it murder), while it also would be initiation of force for the State to punish the act through fines or jail time. The State is doing so as an intervention rather than in self-defense, while the subject (the fetus) has no way of defending itself from the initiation of force.

Though Libertarians tend to agree that the State should decrease its current scope, they differ on the activities that they think it should be involved in, if any, and where they are on this “spectrum”, so to speak, also plays an important role in how eager they are to get the State to regulate something like abortion. I think that most of both Anarchists (no State) and Minarchists (military, courts & police) will disagree that the State should have any involvement here, whether or not they may disagree or even condemn the activities themselves, while some Minarchists and more “moderate” Libertarians could still find it justified in that among the fundamental tasks of the State is that of punishing the initiation of force in accordance with the NAP. I hope this has helped clarify the position of the 29%, though I personally am a part of the 16%.

I deduce from this reflection, however, that we Libertarians ought to consider the difficult cases of the Non-Aggression Principle if we want to maintain our logical consistency from our ethical basis and upwards, especially on controversial issues, such as abortion and spanking.



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