Abortion and Libertarian Ethics (plus a little Freedom of Speech)

I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging on Liberal Rubbish throughout my Master’s year. Having recently graduated, I thought I’d dive back into the world of blogging with a fairly light and non-controversial topic: Abortion.

I recently had a discussion with a pro-life friend about the subject, and, in a strange turn of events, it was civil, reasonable, and edifying. Almost no discussion on the issue of abortion is any of these things. Most debate on the issue just seems to involve groups of people with very little fundamental ethical reasoning for their position screaming abuse at each other. Actual discussion on abortion ethics that is not just struck through with vile rhetoric and unveiled hatred of other human beings is very hard to find. Last time I was in a debate on abortion, I proffered the opinion that whether or not we consider foetuses to be full human beings is an important part of the debate. This seemed very reasonable to me. Indeed, it’s surely of key importance. I was told by an idiot that I was a terrible person for even suggesting that the personhood of foetuses was relevant to the debate, as it admitted the possibility that one might be pro-life for any other reason than hating women.

I thus withdrew from such debates, and have mostly involved myself in the freedom-of-speech debates surrounding abortion in the UK at the moment. Many university students’ unions have attempted to ban pro-life sentiment or groups on campus. This is, of course, a regressive attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to “win” arguments by simply using force to silence those with whom you disagree. Such ludicrous policies should be opposed by pro-life and pro-choice activists alike. The ethics of abortion do not enter into the discussion. The issue at hand is whether force should be used to prevent expression of an opinion that we don’t agree with. Obviously such actions are illegal under UK, EU, and UN laws and treaties, have no place in a free and democratic society.

This should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t think that using force to silence your critics, and thus hold back debate and progress, restrict basic human rights to freedom of expression, and essentially admit that you know you’re wrong so don’t want to talk about it, is a useful or morally acceptable way to go about a complex moral debate. This is not what this post is about. This post is my foray back into blogging and my first foray back into thinking about abortion for a long time. I include, first of all, the pro-life argument made by my friend, with personal details redacted. The reproduction of this discussion is with his permission.

The following quoted text is definitely *not* representative of my own views, but is included here because I reference it too much in my counter-argument for it to be a trivial task to re-cast my counter-argument as a stand-alone task. I also think that this is a sound and reasonable expression of a pro-life point of view that dispels some common myths about pro-lifers and their arguments.

I’m all for advancing the cause of a woman’s right to decide what happens with her own body, and on the whole I can see no benefit to legislating controls over her reproductive rights. But when it comes to abortion, that all changes for me because now the rights of two individuals are on the table. So why does a mother’s reproductive right trump a child’s right to life?

It seems to me that no matter how challenging the results may be, we cannot champion the rights of one individual by trampling those of another. Haven’t we got to find ways of protecting reproductive rights that don’t so completely violate the rights of unborn children? So the argument is made that these children are merely fetuses and not to be thought of as real humans. This is generally related to the viability of life – the idea that one is not a human with rights until they have a real chance at surviving outside of the womb. But that’s a rapidly moving target, as medical science advances. The current UK limit, based on ‘viability’ is 24 weeks. But when my son [name redacted] was in the [hospital name redacted], there were babies being treated alongside him who had been born at 23 weeks and were developing extremely well. 30% of such babies survive, some without any disability. They were treated with full human dignity, with the NHS at their disposal, and killing one of them would have counted as murder. On the floor below, babies of the same age were being legally aborted. So the only thing bringing those living babies under the protection of the law was the will of the mother. Viability had nothing to do with it, it was just a question of whether one individual felt another was valuable or not. So, apparently, it’s a mother who decides whether or not a child should have human rights.

So why do we draw the line at 24 weeks? Why can’t a mother decide at 1 year that she no longer values the baby? The truth is that no child is ‘viable’ for a VERY long time. When [name redacted] was born at 32 weeks, he would have died within minutes without extremely specialized intervention. Come to think of it, some 18 year olds are hardly viable! One’s ability to survive is hardly a reasonable measure of their value as a human, neither is the extent to which a mother cares about them.

So then people say ‘well, this issue is all wrapped up in politics and religion, so it should be left up to individual choice.’ But if a 23 week old child can be given human rights – as many are – then the way all 23 week old children are treated is surely a human rights issue. In the area of human rights, individual choice doesn’t hold much water. Imagine if slave owners had been told ‘this is a complicated issue, and you have a right to a comfortable life, so it’s up to you whether you keep slaves or not.’ I know that’s a bit of a stretched comparison. But I think it has real value in the discussion on abortion. If these children are people, THEY ARE PEOPLE, and how individuals feel like treating them should have no effect on how the law requires that they be treated.

And the idea that this is religiously charged doesn’t water. I can’t think of a single verse in the bible that concretely tells me anything about this, other than those that talk about the value of humanity in general. I don’t believe that unborn babies have rights simply because I’m a Christian. I believe it because I can’t come up with a single good reason that we can withhold their rights. Of course that has very difficult ramifications for women, but that fact doesn’t change reality. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, there is a conflict of rights – a mother’s rights of control over her body, and child’s right to life as a human being. Why do we give on[e] of those parties absolute power to decide whose rights will be honoured and whose will be ignored? Simply sweeping the reality of the rights of one individual under the rug can’t be the answer. Doesn’t the right to life trump the right to control?

And as we have no legitimate basis for drawing a line as to where a ‘fetus’ gains human rights, how dare we draw such a line at all? I can’t help feeling that when it comes down to it, abortion is legal simply because [it’s] easier to ignore the quietest voice (that of the children) than to seriously evaluate the rights of all those involved.

This got me thinking, as there are some decent points contained within this argument. This discussion did what every good discussion should do: It forced me to re-consider my own position, to discard some false parts of my own reasoning and to clarify and organise my thoughts. It made my opinions better and made me a better person. Debate is good. Why someone would want to ban this person from expressing his reasonable (if, in my opinion, incorrect) point of view is beyond me. I’m a better person with better views for having read it. I hope he is also better for having read my counter-argument (which I include later). Why one would want to halt such debate, thus leaving both pro-choicers and pro-lifers with ill-formed, less complete points of view is beyond me. Debate might also lead, instead of just improvement and clarification of differing points of view, to a wholesale change of mind. I was once pro-life, and was convinced by good pro-choice arguments. Good enough pro-life arguments might convince me otherwise. My pro-choice arguments might convince pro-lifers to change their minds, as happened to me a long time ago. Why we should restrict such debate just because we think people are wrong is totally beyond me. Even people who are completely wrong and won’t change our minds at all can still force us to make our own positions stronger, which might help us convince other people. All debate that is carried out in good faith is useful.

Anyhow, I’m getting side-tracked by how awesome debate is, and by how pleased and surprised I was to have an awesome debate about abortion. I had to think very hard about his arguments, and provided a counter-argument which, in my view, summarises my pro-choice position better than I have managed at any previous stage. As a result, I sought permission to edit our conversation into a blog post, in the hope that both my counter-argument and his argument can contribute the debate on a wider level. I’m going to reproduce that counter-argument (with a few spelling corrections) below.

I should note that, before making this argument, I wrote quite a bit of stuff explaining that I’m what he (an American) would call a “left-libertarian”. That’s not a term used much in the UK or Europe. People of my persuasion tend to call themselves “Social Liberals” in Europe or “Left Liberals” in the UK. I would normally refer to my positions and myself by such terms whilst writing. However, as I was writing this to an American, where “Liberal” has a very different meaning, I endeavoured to use terms that would make more sense to him throughout. Don’t worry; I’ve not become a Libertarian in the UK/European sense! I’m still very much a Social/Left Liberal (UK/Europe). I would, however, describe my fundamental ethics as “Libertarian” but, when doing so, would normally provide more clarification that I don’t mean it in the political sense.

Hopefully that translates this US-centric argument for a UK/Europe audience. So, without further ado, here is my two cents on abortion:

I think that killing people is wrong because people generally don’t want to be killed, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with taking life. You’d straight up think this would make me a big fan of euthanasia, but I’m actually not, because I’m not sure that it’s logically possible to consent to being killed, but that’s another matter.

If you kill someone, then you’re saying that your belief that they should be killed supersedes their belief that they should still be alive, and that makes no sense because no moral decision is inherently superior to any other. The killer is imposing their morals upon the killed by force – and there is no reason why the possession of superior force should make one’s morals any more right than anyone else’s.

However, what about animals? I eat meat. That’s because I don’t believe, based on the scientific evidence, that animals such as cows or pigs have enough of a philosophical concept of what it is to be alive to desire to be alive as opposed to being dead with anything more than an involuntary survival instinct. Essentially, I don’t think that cows place any inherent value on their own lives, so I don’t either. I would avoid causing them undue pain, but I don’t mind killing them. However, monkeys, whales, and dolphins have been shown, to the best of our knowledge, to have enough of an appreciation for the idea of being alive that it can be said that they very much don’t want to die, for more of a defined philosophical reason than a survival instinct.

So how does this translate to unborn children? When does a developing human have the capability to value its own life? Before about 8 weeks, we’re certainly looking at a situation where the foetus is no more alive than a plant, so cannot be granted a libertarian right to life. By about 11 years old, a normal human has a mind capable of understanding the concept of life in a capacity which would make it obvious that they should be granted a libertarian right to life as an independent human entity. But what about the interim period?

On the pure basis of libertarian right to life, killing a child aged anywhere up to ten or so years old (setting a definite boundary would be tricky) is not morally wrong in the same sense as killing an adult human. But is it wrong for other reasons?

From this point in, it has to be a case of what we as a society choose to assign value. The absolute right to life that can be derived from libertarian consent-based ethics falls apart for young children, let alone the unborn. However, the killing of a five-year-old would result in near-universal moral outrage. We can, as a society, decide that old buildings of historical significance have value, and make it illegal to tear them down, for instance. It’s imperative that we allow those who don’t agree with such ideas to leave our society and go somewhere where they are not constrained by our very subjective “popular ethics” as such (as opposed to “fundamental ethics”, which are the libertarian frameworks that I believe exist independently of human agreement with them).

It seems sensible to me that we, as a society, should place value on a human life that could exist independently of any one specific human being, even if not independently of society. This is why we choose to have a healthcare system in which doctors are completely beholden to save any life they can, regardless of whether that person could exist without medical help, is currently capable of valuing their own life (those with severe degenerative mental illnesses may not be, for instance), or is the kind of person who provides a benefit to society (doctors are obliged to treat even mass rapists, as they should be). That is, I think, a fundamentally good idea and an underpinning part of what makes our society so good. Therefore, there’s a societal ethical obligation to save the lives of plenty of people who wouldn’t have to be saved by pure libertarian ethics. Many people who are treated in hospitals might be in such a poor mental state that they can’t be granted a libertarian right to life – so to kill them would not be a libertarian “murder”, but we have set up a system where we are obliged by the group ethics of the society in which we live to actively keep them alive. To what extent does this apply to the unborn?

There is a significant difference between relying on society generally in order to live, and relying on one person specifically in order to live. Those heavily premature babies you talked of weren’t able to live by themselves, but they could live with the support of society at large. Unborn children of the same age also can’t live by themselves, but they can live with the support of *one specific person*. That person is not necessarily a doctor, not someone who has taken on the role in society of saving all possible lives. That person is just an ordinary member of society. I don’t think it’s a reasonable choice for a society to make in which we make them responsible for keeping alive another one specific person at considerable personal cost. Even if we did, we’d have no morally justifiable way to stop them leaving our society and doing so outside (though we could then restrict re-entry).

Therefore, if the unborn child could not be delivered at this point and then kept alive by *society* (rather than by one specific person), then I don’t think it makes for a more prosperous society if we do not allow abortion at this point.

This doesn’t mean that I think well of people who might do so, or that I think it would be the right decision from a personal moral perspective if I were involved. I simply think it should be a *legal* decision.

However, there is a further consideration, and that is of choice. I’m saying I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a person to keep another living being (one without a libertarian right to life) alive at cost to themselves, but what if they have already embarked upon that responsibility out of their own free choice? For instance, though I think that society should care for those who are so unwell that they aren’t independently viable, but don’t think it’s a good idea to require any one specific individual person to do so, it might be very different if the carer had embarked upon it in the first place, and then decided to change their mind later on. There’s not really a parallel for this anywhere else, because, if someone takes responsibility for caring for a very ill person, then realises it’s too difficult for them, they can hand them back over to the healthcare system. But in this unique case, such a living being (without libertarian right to life) has been created in a situation where it can only be kept alive by the creator. Should we impose a responsibility on the creator to follow through? (This part would not apply in the case of pregnancy by rape – it would also not apply before 8 weeks because I don’t think that, before that point, the foetus is even alive in the sense that a highly mentally disabled person, or a cat, is alive – it is alive only in the sense that a plant is alive).

So, if pregnancy has come about by choice, if the foetus has developed enough to have a brain and be a living being (to a greater degree than a plant is), but is not viable outside the support of *one* specific person (the mother), then should we, as a society, allow abortions in this case? Certainly, I think that such a person has started down a very dubious personal moral pathway. But they are also not at fault by fundamental libertarian ethics. So, should we, as a society, deem such an abortion to be an abdication of a responsibility that one undertakes by living in said society? I certainly feel like we should. My emotional reaction is to say that such a person is doing something fairly horrific. But that’s just my personal emotional response, and should not be part of the law.

I think, tentatively, that allowing such abortions is to the benefit of society. It stops sex from so unbalanced in terms of risk, and that’s certainly an improvement. It prevents the same service by being carried out on the black-market, which is very dangerous. It makes women more equal members of our society. But it’s certainly not as clear-cut as many make it out to be. Many on the pro-choice side arrive at that position through some very dodgy and self-contradictory reasoning; particularly through reasoning that would make it okay to just bump off anyone terminally ill or in a coma without their consent, something which, if it were suggested, those same people would be up in arms about. Many seem to act like everyone has an inalienable human right to be kept alive by other people at whatever cost, regardless of circumstance, but just not the unborn.

It’s also worth nothing that the stage at which the unborn are viable outside the womb with *societal* rather than *mother-specific* support is likely to regress, and that, by this reasoning, this is likely to lead to it being a good idea to move the abortion limit to an earlier point in development. Unfortunately, this will be politically impossible, as almost no discussion on this matter is taken with any reasonable understanding of ethics, and any attempt to move the abortion limit, even to keep it in line with the criteria upon which it was established as said criteria move, will be framed as an attack on women, and will fail as a result.

One final point: There is a libertarian argument against abortion which argues that it is as fundamentally wrong as killing an adult human. This is to reason that a foetus at any stage of development that will not need medical help with birth or post-natal care will eventually develop into a human being that does have the libertarian right to life, and will be able to, at that point, express meaningful gratitude for not having been aborted. This argument essentially projects back a libertarian right to life from a point where it will exist backwards through development up until that point, arguing that the development at that point was necessary for the state in which that right exists to have come about. If this argument holds water, than all abortion is murder. I’m not yet convinced that it does, but it needs more thought.

I sincerely hope this contributes to the debate, and that both my words and my American friend’s words challenge people of all views to think more about abortion. It’s an important issue, and it absolutely deserves to be talked about freely and openly. Long live free and open debate 🙂

This entry was posted in Ethics, Feminism, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Abortion and Libertarian Ethics (plus a little Freedom of Speech)

  1. Simon Brown says:

    > It’s also worth nothing that the stage at which the unborn are viable outside the womb with *societal* rather than *mother-specific* support is likely to regress, and that, by this reasoning, this is likely to lead to it being a good idea to move the abortion limit to an earlier point in development.

    Would you allow women to have the fetus removed at this stage and turned over to medical care?

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