Few issues illustrate the division within America as much as abortion. On one side, people argue that it is the unequivocal killing of a human baby. On the other, it is a part of the woman’s body and any laws restricting it are intrusive and oppressive. Of course, there are many other considerations as well — economic, social, religious, political, etc. — but the dividing line is essentially between those who call themselves pro-choice and those who call themselves pro-life.
Of course, none of this is news to most Americans. Few among us haven’t give the issue at least some thought and taken our stance in line with our own values. Generally speaking, the Republican Party has billed itself as the party of pro-life, and the Democratic the party of pro-choice. But the more interesting philosophical debate comes not from within the two major parties, but within the libertarian community.
At a glance, one might assume that all libertarians are generally pro-choice — after all, opposing laws that limit individual activities is kind of their thing. But there is a sizable contingent (estimates range from about 10 percent all the way up to a third) who believe this is one area the government should be involved, and it comes down to individual liberties.
From a libertarian perspective, the most important ideal is individual freedom. The non-aggression principle states that people are free to do what they will, so long as they do not harm another. In the case of pro-life libertarians, laws protecting individuals from harm are considered a necessary function of the state. They believe that laws restricting abortion do just that — protecting individuals from harm caused by another.
From this perspective, they may seem to have the same philosophical perspective as conservatives. But while their ends are the same, their justifications are very different. From a conservative standpoint, the fetus must be protected not because it has rights, but because it is alive. To a conservative, children do not have rights until they are old enough to make decisions, until then they are essentially the property of their parents. Additionally, conservatives generally believe that their god has created all lives, and that all lives are sacred.
For libertarians, this view is much different, as the belief in the separation of church and state trumps any religious argument to be made. But the pro-life contingent does believe that the fetus is a fully functional human, will all the rights and protections that all others have.
It may seem like splitting hairs to make the distinction between pro-life libertarians and conservatives, but it is an important one to be made. For the libertarian crowd, compromise can be made — arguments about balancing the rights of the fetus with those of the woman in which it is contained can be made and compromises reached. Not so with the religious conservatives, who honestly and earnestly believe that a holocaust of innocent babies is occurring, and any compromise is off the table.
Between pro-choice libertarians and pro-choice progressives there is a lot more common ground. The crux of the argument here is that restrictions on a woman’s right to choose infringe on her individual liberty, and that the fetus has no rights as it is not a full person yet. When it becomes a person is still a matter of debate within both circles, but the rights of the fully realized citizen are still paramount. That isn’t to say there isn’t some division between the two groups, however, and those differences are key.
Among progressives, the issue is one of women’s rights. Laws restricting abortion are, by and large, mostly made by wealthy white men with little perspective on those who traditionally get abortions — poorer women and minorities. That isn’t to say that the decision to abort is a financial one — it rarely is — but that those are the demographics who are affected by the laws more than any other.
For libertarians, it is still a question of individual liberty, but not a feminist one as much. The sex and gender of the mother are irrelevant to the discussion — the fact that pregnant mothers happen to traditionally be female is beside the point. In fact, in many libertarian circles the rights of the father are held to be important to the decision as well, giving pro-choice libertarians an unusual piece of common ground with pro-life conservatives.
Most pro-choice libertarians wouldn’t hold the rights of the father to be paramount, however. The decision for most would still ultimately be up to the woman. But the argument goes that if a man must be on the hook financially and otherwise for a child he does not want, why should he have no say in whether or not to terminate one he does? The opposite is true as well — if the man wants to abort and the woman does not, why should he be liable for it?
Of course, none of the above arguments address the elephant in the room regarding abortion: Pregnancy due to rape. Few on any side of the argument would argue that the father has rights here or that abortion should be flatly off of the table in such a circumstance. However, there is a contingent, primarily within the conservative movement, which argues that by terminating the pregnancy you are essentially punishing an innocent child for the sins of its father. Of course, this begs the question of why a woman should be forced to bear the penalty of the crime for the rest of her life.
The issue of abortion may seem black-and-white to many observers — You are either pro-life or pro-choice for many. But in reality the gray areas are what cause the issue to be as contentious as it is. Certainly there will likely never be much common ground between those conservatives who believe it to be outright murder and the progressives who champion the issue as a matter of bodily autonomy and health. And this issue will likely be among the most important for years and decades to come, for as long as there are unwanted pregnancies and the medical capability to end them.