Is Libertarianism Necessarily Pro-Choice?

By on November 9, 2011

Is libertarianism necessarily pro-choice? Two libertarian scholars debate.

sharon-presleySharon Presley
Association of Libertarian Feminists

Sharon Presley is the national coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and the founder and executive director of Resources for Independent Thinking, a nonprofit educational organization. She is author of Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated and Abused (Solomon Press, 2010) and co-editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre (SUNY Press, 2005).

jakub-wisniewskiJakub Bozydar Wisniewski
Ph.D. candidate, University of London

Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski is a philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Austrian economics at the University of London. He was a two-time summer fellow at the Mises Institute and a two-time fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies. He has been published in, among others, The Libertarian Papers, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Reason Papers,, and

Part 1: Sharon Presley: A Libertarian Case for Abortion Rights

In the libertarian tradition, a person is a free moral agent with “sole dominion” over his or her life.[1] This entails the right to make the choices believed necessary to a desired emotional or psychological, as well as purely physical, condition. (The right to control one’s body is meaningless, after all, without the right to control how the body affects the rest of one’s self.)

To interfere with self-determination—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is to deny the human capability of moral agency, to treat a person as a thing. When such interference occurs on a systematic basis, we give it a name: slavery. It includes race slavery, forced labor camps, conscription, and proscription of abortion (breeding slavery).

The Basic Issue: A Woman’s Right to Self-Determination

Those who believe abortion to be morally wrong focus all their attention on the fetus. In their view, the rights of the woman and the consequences to her life are secondary to the alleged right of the fetus to life. Libertarians, however, believe in the sanctity of private property. There is no property that is more private than one’s own body.

Therefore, the real issue is the woman’s right to self-determination. The woman has the prior moral claim because she is the already-existing free moral agent. It is her life, her body, and her physical resources that are being claimed, not the other way around. A woman’s right to self-determination includes not only the right to control her physical body and all that happens within it but the psychological and existential components of her life and well-being as well.

In the case of unwanted pregnancy, the existential choice for a woman is not between abortion and no abortion; it is between abortion and compulsory childbearing.[2] This brings into play the libertarian principle of limited government. If the government can force a pregnant woman to be a mother (and she is the biological mother even if she does not raise the child), then she is coerced into putting her body at the disposal of the fetus as if she were an unclaimed natural resource or a chattel slave. Even if the fetus is removed and raised separately, she is still forced to be the manufacturer, the baby machine.

Thus, the woman’s most fundamental right of choice, the right to control her own body and happiness, is being abrogated.

Is the Fetus a Person?

Anti-abortionists rest the bulk of their moral case against abortion on the assertion that the fetus is a “person”; therefore, killing it would be murder. If the fetus is not a person, their case against abortion fails. Anti-abortionists never define the word person in any intellectually precise sense. They employ the word as if it were synonymous with “human being” but fail to distinguish between genetically human and psychologically human. Marshaling evidence to prove that the fetus is biologically human, they think this proves that the fetus is a person.

However, the term person does not have the same definition as “biological human being.” To blur the distinction between biologically and psychologically human is a useful trick, since the fetus is obviously genetically human. That is, the information encoded in the DNA of the fertilized egg will tell the egg how to develop into a human being.

But this fact alone cannot have moral significance. Since every cell in the body has the same genetic information, it is theoretically possible to clone a human being from any cell. But no one would argue that it is murder to destroy skin cells. The anti-abortionists argue, of course, that the fertilized egg is somehow different from all other cells, but they fail to explain how.

The anti-abortionists also claim that a “person” is an animal with the potential for rationality. But “person” means more than this; several additional interrelated aspects of “personhood” that are generally agreed upon by philosophy and psychology are required. “In a general philosophical sense,” says the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, a person is “a self-conscious or rational being.”[3] Reason is “the intellectual power or faculty which is ordinarily employed in adapting thought or action to some end.”[4] That is, a person is an organism that can engage in what psychologists call “purposeful action” and philosophers call “making choices.”

From a psychological point of view, the necessary condition for rationality and self-consciousness is the capacity for cognition—that is, the process of integrating perceptions and sensations into a mental organization, which in turn enables the individual to engage in intentional, purposeful action. But these faculties cannot be manifested until after birth. The perceptual process necessary for cognition can begin only when the organism is subject to outside environmental stimuli—that is, when there is something to perceive. In the uterus, a strictly limited sensory environment, only the most primitive level of sensations and reflexes is possible for the fetus. Birth is the point at which purposeful action can begin.

“The birth of the child is marked by two fundamental changes in his functioning,” say child psychologists. “He is now subjected to states of imbalance, deprivation, or discomfort that must soon be repaired and he encounters a variety of events and experiences which shape his perception of the environment and his reactions to it. These states are important psychologically for they force the infant to do something to alleviate the discomfort.”[5] That is, to engage in purposeful action.

The argument that a newborn infant is not rational, thus leaving the door open for infanticide, stems from ignorance of infant psychology. The newborn is functioning cognitively. “The newborn is a remarkably capable organism from the moment he begins to breathe. … The infant is biologically ready to experience most of the basic sensations of his species from the moment he is born. … We have exploded the myth of newborn insensitivity and incompetence.”[6]

Anti-abortionists try to get around these differences between fetus and infant with one of two assertions. Some say that the difference is only one of degree, a notion that is contrary to the findings of developmental psychology. Or else they claim that there is no significant difference in value between potential capacity and actual capacity to be a person. This idea flies in the face of most human experience. Most people do see a difference between the information or parts needed for a structure (the DNA or fetus; the plans or materials for a house) and the completed structure (the infant or the house).

To discredit the criterion of “actual capacity” as opposed to “potential,” anti-abortionists also argue that comatose or retarded individuals are “not capable” of rationality or cognitive functioning, yet we all agree that they are persons and we cannot justifiably kill them.

However, the definition of a particular kind of entity describes the unique characteristics of an entity in its normal state. Partial fluctuations from the norm do not change the essential nature of the entity. A car does not cease to be a car because its brakes don’t work. If the impaired condition of comatose persons were corrected, they would function cognitively. Retarded persons do function cognitively but at a lower level than the norm. But a fetus in its normal state does not function cognitively or make choices. Just as the unassembled parts of a car are different from a car with broken brakes, so a fetus is conceptually different from a comatose person. Thus, the fetus is not self-conscious, cannot function cognitively, and is not capable of purposeful action; it is therefore not a person in any commonly accepted philosophical, psychological, or legal sense.

Two questions remain:

  1. At what point does the fetus become a person?
  2. Until what point is abortion morally allowable?

The fact that there is no exact biological point of change that can be ascertained presents a slippery problem for those who base their moral case on biological criteria. Anti-abortionists say that because we cannot define an exact point at which the fetus becomes a person, it is therefore a person from conception. This is an example of the “line-drawing fallacy.”[7] These questions, however, can be resolved only on ethical and philosophical grounds—not biological ones.

The libertarian principle of private property logically entails a woman’s right to control her pregnancy totally until the point of birth dictated by natural forces—that is, until a normal or premature delivery or caesarian section. This includes the right to terminate the life of the fetus during the abortion procedure at any time prior to delivery.

Some argue that using the point of birth as the dividing line between fetus and person is arbitrary. But birth is neither trivial nor arbitrary; it is a far more significant event for the newborn than anything prior. However, there is a crucial philosophical difference that occurs at birth. At any point prior to the action of natural forces, the only moral way the fetus can be removed from the woman’s body is for her to make the choice to initiate the action. Because the natural process is not yet completed, she can still make a choice to bear the child or not. But once natural forces initiate the birth process, the situation is beyond the woman’s control and beyond moral choice. She simply is a mother whether she wants to be or not.

Consequences of Interference with Abortion Decisions

The anti-abortionists elevate the principle of “life” to the level of a mystical abstraction independent of the lives of actual individuals. To call for the survival of “life” at any cost, without regard for the quality of life for living individuals, is to make morality a higher good than life itself.

To anti-abortionists, the physical survival of an entity that cannot yet experience emotions or cognitions is of more consequence and value than the emotional and physical well-being of an already-existing adult for whom unwanted pregnancy will bring great emotional pain and physical risk.

If we examine the consequences of abortion on the one hand and of unwanted pregnancy on the other, we will see that the consequences for the woman are of far greater magnitude than for the fetus. If an abortion is performed, the actual consequences to the fetus are cessation of certain physiological functions such as heartbeat and cessation of a primitive level of sensations and reflexes. Because the fetus has neither cognitions nor self-awareness, it cannot have emotions and cannot be said to suffer in the same sense as born humans.[8] No sensation the fetus experiences is comparable to the complex network of emotional, psychological, and even physical pain that a cognitively functioning individual experiences.

Anti-abortionists refuse to take seriously the enormous psychological and emotional costs to a woman of bearing an unwanted child. They dismiss unwanted pregnancies as mere annoyances. But, as NARAL has pointed out: “The urgency of women’s need to end unwanted pregnancy is measured by their willingness to risk death and mutilation, to spend huge sums of money, and to endure the indignities of illegal abortions. Women only have abortions when the alternative is unendurable. Women take both abortion and motherhood very seriously.”[9]

Women will continue to seek abortions, whether legal or illegal. Making abortion illegal will never stop this. Without recourse to legal abortions, women will resort once again to back-street abortions, risking infection or dying in great pain from the consequences of unprofessional or self-induced abortion.

A Principled Position

Individual liberty, self-determination, private property, and limited government are all libertarian principles that logically lead to the pro-choice position. To sacrifice existing persons for the sake of future generations—in slave labor camps, compulsory childbearing, or life-threatening abortions—violates everything we hold dear.


[1] The principle of self-determination is part of a long tradition of classical liberal thought. This was the “liberty of conscience” of the English dissenters, the “inner light” of the Quakers, the “individual sovereignty” of Josiah Warren, and the “moral accountability” of the abolitionists.

[2] See Garrett Hardin, “Abortion or Compulsory Pregnancy?,’” Marriage and the Family, May 1968; Garrett Hardin, Mandatory Motherhood: The True Meaning of Right to Life (Boston: Beacon, 1974); Cheriel Jensen, Lynette Perkes et al., Amicus curiae brief in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S., 959.

[3] Compact Edition of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, Part II P-Z (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 2140.

[4] Ibid., p. 2431.

[5] Paul Mussen, John Conger, and Jerome Kagan, Child Development and Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). For a more recent view of the capabilities of newborns, see, for example, .

[6] Ibid.

[7] The line-drawing fallacy is discussed in many critical thinking texts. Moore and Parker, for example, define it as the fallacy of “insisting that a line must be drawn at some precise point when it in fact is not necessary that such a line be drawn.” Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking, 9th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 502. Also see or

[8] The question as to whether a fetus feels pain is still controversial and in dispute, despite what anti-abortionists say. See

[9] This statement is from an old National Abortion Rights Action League leaflet discussing illegal abortions. The reasons for seeking abortions have not changed over the years. Women still seek abortions not for frivolous reasons but because bearing a child would have serious psychological, social, and financial consequences. See, for example, the studies cited at or For a history of illegal abortion and its dire consequences, see For a look at the desperation of women in countries where legal abortions are essentially not available, see or

Mortality rates for illegal abortions are much higher than for legal abortions. See

Part 2: Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski: A Libertarian Case Against (Unqualified) Abortion Rights: A Reply to Sharon Presley

Sharon Presley incorrectly claims that “those who believe abortion to be morally wrong focus all their attention on the fetus.” Libertarian anti-abortionists, staying true to their philosophy, demand observance of the non-aggression principle by all, including pregnant women. And it is clear that in the case of abortion, it is the mother who applies initiatory violence to the fetus, not the other way around.

Non-Aggression: The Core of Libertarianism

Presley characterizes the gist of the libertarian tradition as the conviction that “a person is a free moral agent with ‘sole dominion’ over his or her life,” which “entails the right to make the choices believed necessary to a desired emotional or psychological, as well as purely physical, condition,” this in turn implying “the right to control how the body affects the rest of one’s self.”

All these characterizations are essentially correct but also fundamentally incomplete. None of them mentions the cornerstone of the libertarian philosophy: namely, the principle of the non-initiation of force, which proscribes physically harming those who did not physically harm others in the first place. Thus, non-pacifist libertarianism allows for interfering with one’s self-determination provided that one first coercively interfered with someone else’s self-determination. Consequently, it is perfectly consistent with libertarian ethics to refuse to help carry out someone else’s acts of perceived initiatory aggression.

Some libertarian theorists, such as Walter Block[1] (see pages 6–8 here), analogize the fetus to an unwitting “trespasser” on the woman’s property and thus contend that it can be “evicted” at the mother’s discretion. They claim that since the fetus is not guilty of mens rea, its eviction must proceed “in the gentlest manner possible,” but as soon as this condition is satisfied, the mother should be thought of as discharged from any responsibility for its subsequent fate, even its death.

Obviously enough, Block and other supporters of “evictionism” agree that, say, inviting someone for an airplane ride and then, while 10,000 feet up in the air, forcing that person to leave would be an example of a very wicked breach of contract. But now imagine that X gets Y drunk to the point of Y’s passing out; X drags Y onboard the plane, and then, as soon as Y regains consciousness, X forces him to jump out.[2]

Now, it seems to me that the conjunction of the premises that it is X who is responsible for bringing Y onto his property and that it is X who is responsible for then removing Y from his property, when it is known that the outside circumstances are lethal, implies that X is responsible for Y’s death and hence is a murderer.

Analogously, to the fetus, the outside world is a lethal place, and if it is the mother who is responsible for bringing it into the safe haven of the womb, and it is the mother who now wants to expel it from that safe haven, it is also the mother who is taking upon herself the direct responsibility for the fetus’s death.

Is a Fetus a Person?

At this point, a pro-abortionist might quite rightly reply that the cogency of the above arguments hinges on whether the fetus can be considered a person. And while Presley makes a correct and useful distinction between being biologically and being psychologically human, she follows it with the mistaken conclusion that all biologically human entities should be conceptually treated on a par.

Yes, it is true that “every cell in the body has the same genetic information,” that it might be “theoretically possible to clone a human being from any cell” and that “no one would argue that it is murder to destroy skin cells,” but it is not the case that fertilized eggs can theoretically develop into human persons—they actually do develop into human persons. Unlike skin cells or any other kind of cells, they are links in the causal chain invariably leading to the emergence of new rational entities—they are already initiated, unique, living projects on their way to becoming independent, conscious individuals. Thus, perhaps a moral analogy could be made between skin cells and unfertilized eggs and sperm but not between any of the organisms just mentioned and fertilized eggs, which are no longer merely parts of a potential human person but rather actual human persons.

Hence, while I do not doubt the evidence Presley adduces for the claim that newborns are much more fully persons than fetuses are (thus making birth an important cut-off point), I emphasize that newborns and fetuses essentially belong to the same spontaneously progressing chain of the development of personal being, whose fundamental starting point is conception.

This also shows the conceptual inadequacy of Presley’s distinction between “information or parts needed for a structure” and “the completed structure.” It omits the category of “developing structure,” which is a stage in the process whose culmination is the completion of the structure and is therefore much more closely affiliated with the latter of the two categories mentioned by Presley.

In sum, a fetus is not one of the unassembled parts of an infant but an infant in the stage of development.

Responses to Presley’s Contentions

Presley contends that the analogy between fetuses and comatose or retarded individuals fails because “the definition of a particular kind of entity describes the unique characteristics of an entity in its normal state,” while comatose and retarded persons are a deviation from the norm. However, it depends on how you categorize things, and in the context under discussion, there do not seem to be any candidates for the only true and objective categorization.

It is the norm among adolescents that they are prone to mood swings. It is the norm among elderly people that they tire relatively easily. It is the norm among women that, unlike men, they can become parents only up to a certain age. So what is the norm for the human species? Psychological stability or volatility? Physical abilities of a young adult or an old adult? Being able to become a parent at any stage of one’s life or only up to a certain point? Is there any statistical aggregate that can offer us any useful and definite guidance here? And if not, then why can’t we say that lack of cognitive functioning is the norm among comatose persons, which makes their case strictly parallel to that of fetuses?

Another disputable assertion made by Presley is that what accounts for the crucial philosophical significance of birth as the moral cut-off point in the context in question is that “once natural forces initiate the birth process, the situation is beyond the woman’s control and beyond moral choice.” Since at that stage the woman is still confronted with a very weighty choice of whether to raise the child or abandon it, it seems counterintuitive to claim that it is a situation beyond moral decision making. In view of my earlier remarks concerning the non-aggression principle and the causal shape of the process leading to the formation of rational personhood, it should be clear that the point at which moral questions (and responsibilities) enter the picture is conception rather than birth.

Finally, while it might be the case that some anti-abortionists “elevate the principle of ‘life’ to the level of a mystical abstraction independent of the lives of actual individuals,” the only thing libertarians elevate to the status of a universally applicable value is the non-initiation of force and the consequent inviolability of one’s bodily integrity and property rights. This value, however, as I already mentioned, has to be circumscribed by the common-sensical principle of proportionality. In other words, even though it is hardly deniable that there are “psychological and emotional costs to a woman of bearing an unwanted child,” the amount of physical harm done to the fetus in an abortion is grossly disproportionate to the amount of physical harm that the fetus can possibly do to the mother.

And since, as I explained earlier, a fetus should be regarded as a developing, unique person, its abortion equals the forfeiture of its entire future life, which is necessarily a loss greater than even the most severe psychological discomfort associated with unwanted childbearing. This loss, it should be added, is brought about by an instance of initiatory violence, whose proscription lies at the very core of the libertarian ethic—the ethic that Presley professes to follow and uphold.

Libertarianism Is Pro-Life

In sum, while I appreciate the ingenuity of Presley’s arguments and her apparent devotion to the cause of freedom, I still claim that libertarianism and pro-abortionism are always bound to reach an irreconcilable deadlock.


[1] Walter E. Block, “Abortion, Woman and Fetus: Rights in Conflict?” Reason, April 1978, pp. 18–25.

[2] If one were to claim that dragging unconscious Y onboard the plane is an instance of aggression, then, metaphorically speaking, so is “dragging an unconscious fetus into the womb.” Neither Y nor the fetus can consent to or protest against being placed in its respective location.

Part 3: Sharon Presley: Libertarians Cannot Be Anti-Choice: A Rebuttal to Jakub Wisniewski

Jakub Wisniewski attempts to make a libertarian argument against legal abortion. Yet what he comes up with is neither libertarian nor moral. His case is full of errors, ignores realities, and offers solutions that would not work.

The Claim That a Fetus Is Not a Person

Wisniewski claims that abortion violates the libertarian non-aggression principle but admits that it hinges on whether the fetus is a person. If the fetus is not a person, his argument fails. He asserts that because it is a “developing” human, it is therefore a person. To say that there is no difference between a developing entity and the final product is already a conceptual problem. A “developing” structure without a roof or electricity is not in fact a house or an office building.

More importantly, his definition of “person” is at odds with the philosophical, psychological, and legal meanings of “person.” The requirements for “person” as defined by philosophy and psychology include sentience, agency, self-awareness, a notion of past and future, continuous consciousness over time, free will and volition, and/or cognitive abilities based on perceptions of the environment.

None of these qualities characterize the fetus. The fetus is not self-aware and has no agency, volition, or any of the other characteristics of personhood. Ergo, the fetus is not a person and the non-aggression principle is not applicable.

Wisniewski’s Argument ad Absurdum

Wisniewski’s criticism of my point that comatose persons and fetuses are not analogous misrepresents the phrase “normal state” and misses the point. Every entity is defined by its characteristics qua entity. The meaning of “human being” or “person” is defined by its natural functioning state. A particular mood-state has nothing to do with the definition of what it means to be a human being.

The definition of the normal state of a person, as I have noted, is to have self-awareness, volition, etc. Comatose humans would have these qualities if they were not afflicted by abnormalities of disease or condition. Developmentally disabled people do have self-awareness, volition, and cognitions, even if not always at the same levels as others. Fetuses do not have these qualities even in their normal state; thus they are not in fact analogous to comatose persons.

Wisniewski’s attack on Walter Block is a straw man. I think Block’s argument is absurd and repudiate it entirely. Wisniewski’s critique is, therefore, irrelevant to this discussion.

Wisniewski claims that he takes the rights of the pregnant woman into account, but this is simply untrue. He completely ignores her right to control her own body and her life. He focuses only on the fetus’s alleged rights. But what are the actual consequences of the position that the woman has no right to control her pregnancy? The real-life consequence is that the woman is forced into motherhood. Forced motherhood by law means that her body and life belongs to the state, not to her. In this view, she becomes simply a slave and baby factory for the state, which cannot be trusted to control her own life. How libertarian is this? The answer is: not at all.

Furthermore, insisting that the fetus has a right to life has enormous implications for both the woman herself and for political policy. It implies that the woman who aborts is a murderer and should go to jail. Shall we send both the performer of the abortion and the woman to the death chamber? Is that chilling? It should be. Shall we monitor the pregnant woman to make sure she is not secretly aborting? Shall we inspect every miscarriage? To say that this would require an extensive bureaucracy is an understatement. It would require a Gestapo state capable of prying into the most intimate details of a woman’s life. And this is supposed to be libertarian?

If Wisniewski does not want such an outcome, let him tell us why he can maintain that killing the fetus is murder and not accept this policy implication.

Dismissing Real Consequences

Wisniewski, typically for anti-choice people, simply dismisses the consequences of illegal abortion to the pregnant woman, claiming that the costs to her of abortion are less than the consequences to the fetus. He presents the argument as only involving the cost of the woman’s action to the fetus versus the harm the fetus can do to the woman, waving away the “severe psychological consequences” as if they don’t count. Apparently her suffering is unimportant, but a non-self-aware entity that cannot suffer in any meaningful sense is important.

But much more is at stake for women than the dangers of pregnancy or even the psychological consequences. A young woman who is forced to bear a child before she is ready for motherhood may forfeit her chance for an education and a career, which in turn has consequences for her (and the child’s) standard of living. A woman who already has a family but can’t afford more children is forced to reduce her family’s standard of living. This is especially true for poor women.

Throughout anti-choice rhetoric, including Wisniewski’s, is the implicit assumption that income is not an issue, that having too many children is not a problem. Tell that to the poor families of the world or the starving children in Brazil, Africa, and other places where abortion is illegal and women are forced to have more children than they can feed. But rights (and consequences) apply to all people, not just Americans.

Women and Children Are Suffering

Wisniewski’s assumption that “severe psychological discomfort associated with unwanted childbearing” is the only thing at stake for women and so can be brushed aside is totally at odds with reality. Many women are suffering and dying around the world because they do not have reproductive freedom. The implicit idea that all women can easily control their reproduction and “just say no” is also at odds with reality. Many women do not have access to contraception, nor are they in cultures where they can realistically say no to their husbands. Rape is also prevalent in many parts of the world. Since many women are also in cultures where abortions are illegal and unsafe, the consequences are much more serious than lost income or psychological distress. They are dying.

According to the World Health Organization, there about 20 million unsafe abortions per year, mostly in countries where abortion is illegal; about 68,000 of these women die every year. An additional estimated 2–7 million sustain long-term damage or disease. Of those damaged by unsafe abortions, 20–40 percent result in secondary infertility.

Don’t their lives matter? Human beings, both woman and children, are suffering and/or dying in the millions every year in large part because abortions are illegal. Any so-called right that results in this much harm and death must be seriously questioned, if not declared outright monstrous.


Women never have and never will stop getting abortions no matter what the law says or what anti-choice people do or say. Denying this truth is wishful thinking at best and callous at worst. Most women do not choose abortions frivolously; they do so out of desperation to prevent the bad consequences to themselves and to the child of having an unwanted pregnancy. Women with families (the majority of those who seek abortions) are trying to protect their other children from the consequences of too many mouths to feed and not enough income. Is it ethical to force the birth of a child who is unwanted or cannot be adequately cared for?

Saying that the child could be given up for adoption is unrealistic at best. If a child is abnormal (either mentally or physically) or is nonwhite, the chances of adoption are slim. Nor does it solve the problem of starving children in the third world. A position that dismisses the dire consequences of illegal abortions or unwanted children is thus not only profoundly anti-woman but deeply harmful to children as well.

Not Libertarian

The point of most moral principles, including libertarian ones, is to make life better on earth for the living. Religious principles that suggest otherwise are immaterial to a libertarian view, because libertarians believe in separation of church and state and that no one has the right to force their religious views on others. So if a set of principles results in enormous harm, suffering, and death to living, self-aware women and children in order to save entities that have no self-awareness, how can this be called libertarian, let alone moral?

Sacrificing the living to the mere potential for life violates any sensible and realistic concept of liberty or morality. Those who deny reproductive freedom to women are neither libertarian nor moral. They are aggressively anti-woman. To stop women from controlling their own bodies is, in fact, initiating coercion against women.

Libertarians—even those who are personally opposed to abortion—have no right to stop women from making the choices that will result in the least harm to them and their children. The full consequences of insisting that abortion be illegal and women be prosecuted is not simply anti-woman; it will establish hell on earth for women. There is nothing libertarian about that at all.

Part 4: Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski: Libertarianism and Unqualified Abortion Rights: A Second Reply to Sharon Presley

In response to my case for the claim that unqualified abortion rights are anti-libertarian, Sharon Presley advances the following counterarguments:

The Question of Fetal Personhood

Presley once again reiterates her claim that fetus is not a person and imputes to me the contention that I think otherwise on the basis of a bare statement that it is a “developing” person. She says that “to say that there is no difference between a developing entity and the final product is already a conceptual problem. A ‘developing’ structure without a roof or electricity is not in fact a house or an office building.”

This is just another version of her initial attempt to analogize fetuses to skin cells. She not does not address the conceptual difficulties with such analogies that I raised in my initial rebuttal, encapsulated in the following quote: “Unlike skin cells or any other kind of cells, [fetuses] are links in the causal chain invariably leading to the emergence of new rational entities—they are already initiated, unique, living projects, on their way to becoming independent, conscious individuals.… A fetus is not one of the unassembled parts of an infant, but an infant in the stage of development.”

Likewise, she does not address the philosophical distinction I made between “information or parts needed for a structure” and “developing structure,” the latter being a stage in the already initiated and occurring process whose culmination is the completion of the structure.

In addition, Presley mentions several of what she seems to regard as authoritative philosophical, psychological, and legal definitions of personhood. However, she stops at adducing them and enumerating the alleged necessary conditions for personhood without engaging with the question of whether these definitions are correct and/or incontestable. Hence, I cannot regard her reliance of them as a substantive argument.

In sum, I must conclude that Presley failed to defend the view that fetuses are non-persons.

Response to My ad Absurdum

Presley objects to my analogy between fetuses and comatose patients on the grounds that “every entity is defined by its characteristics qua entity [and] the definition of the normal state of a person, as I have noted, is to have self-awareness, volition, etc.”

The problem here is that such a statement assumes—by way of the argumentum ad definitionem mentioned in the previous paragraph—that persons and fetuses are two distinct kinds of entities rather than the latter being a specific form of the former. If, however, as my original arguments suggest, it is this second option that is philosophically more justifiable, then it might be posited that the state of being a fetus is just as inconsistent with the possibility to exercise one’s volition and self-awareness as, say, the state of being asleep, both of which are perfectly “normal” personal states—i.e., not “afflicted by abnormalities of disease or condition.”

Presley then claims that I ignore the woman’s “right to control her own body and her life” and focus “only on the fetus’s alleged rights.” This is certainly not true. Instead, I juxtapose both of these rights and attempt to decide on philosophically justifiable grounds which of them trumps the other in the context at hand. It would be equally unreasonable to suggest that classifying as un-libertarian a forcible removal of a previously invited guest from one’s property (especially if such a removal were to result in the guest’s injury or death) implies focusing only on the guest’s rights.

Her following remarks concerning “forced motherhood,” “belonging to the state,” and being treated as a “baby factory” try to appeal to the reader’s emotions, but—provided that their implicit characterization of the fetus as a non-person fails—they cannot be said to add any logical value to the discussion.

The same goes for the contention that the criminalization of certain instances of abortion would require the creation of “a Gestapo state capable of prying into the most intimate details of a woman’s life.” (Mind you, from the very outset of my original reply to Presley I excluded the scenarios in which the conception is involuntary—hence removing from the picture the element of personal responsibility—and giving birth is life-threatening—hence satisfying the principle of proportionality—as important moral exceptions.)

There are other actions that are more unambiguously criminal in the eyes of every libertarian—such as murder, rape, and torture—that may also take place in the innermost parts of one’s private space. Should we thereby conclude that any attempt to criminalize and prosecute them would require establishing “a Gestapo state”? This is surely not a reasonable inference, especially if we realize that every respectable legal order must be based on the principle of in dubio pro reo.

Moreover, nowhere in my initial response did I touch on the question of what should be the proper libertarian punishment for abortion. I certainly did not suggest that it should be death or even imprisonment, as Presley seemingly wants to impute to me. I am sure we are equally aware that libertarianism is not a homogeneous intellectual movement, and to the extent that libertarians recognize moral differences in the treatment of “full-blooded” persons as opposed to “developing” persons—and generally favor the spontaneously emergent, polycentric legal order, where competing arbitrators take into account the specific circumstances of particular cases—it is clear that they would recommend judging every instance of abortion on individual terms. Thus, it might be the case that in many instances the appropriate punishment would amount to little more than social ostracism.

What I did want to underline is that most instances of abortion—those not fulfilling the conditions described in the previous paragraph—should be treated as morally blameworthy from the libertarian point of view, which is a contention analytically separable from the corresponding legal issues.

Dismissing Real Consequences?

The remaining arguments offered by Presley aim at confronting the reader with the images of horror that are supposed to be the consequence of criminalizing abortion. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that most of the examples she mentions fulfill the two necessary conditions for lifting the moral odium from the aborting woman.

Whenever childbearing is forced and life-threatening, the absence of personal responsibility and the presence of the proportionality of harm make abortion, at least in my estimation, morally acceptable for a libertarian though deplorable as an event in itself. In this connection, however, I find quite implausible Presley’s suggestion that having a legal abortion is a possible solution in “cultures where [women cannot] realistically say no to their husbands.”

However, when the relevant choice is that between unsafe intercourse followed by abortion (due to the unavailability of contraceptives) and sexual abstinence, then—bearing in mind that the obverse of the libertarian emphasis put on individual liberty is the importance attached to responsibility for one’s actions—the latter should be chosen if one is to comply with the libertarian ethic.

Making Life Better

Finally, I contest Presley’s claim that “the point of most moral principles, including libertarian ones, is to make life better on earth for the living.” This is something that could be said by a rather vague utilitarian but not by a libertarian, whose conception of the good is more concrete than a reference to an amorphous “better life for the living.”

For the libertarian, what matters is the unconditional respect paid to the principle of the non-initiation of aggressive force, from which stems the respect for private property rights. Thus, since all of my arguments suggest that this is precisely the principle that an aborting woman violates (provided that she is not confronted with the exceptional conditions listed several times earlier), I must uphold my initial conclusion that unqualified abortion rights cannot be regarded as consistent with the ethic of liberty.