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Liberty and Abortion

One of the things that I really appreciate about the liberty movement is that, despite the wide diversity of opinions and positions that its supporters take, it seems to have fostered a culture in which its advocates can usually address their differences rational, respectful, and civilized discussion. As so much of the American political conversation takes the form of people talking past each other and scoring cheap publicity points, this is often quite refreshing.

However, there is one issue that seems to be an exception to this rule: abortion. While some libertarians see it as a fundamental liberty issue that should not be regulated or prohibited at all, others see abortion as the extinguishing of a rights-bearing human life that is morally equivalent to murdering a child or adult. After having been witness to a number of these contentious, internecine arguments in which both parties fail to resolve anything and end up bearing grudges, I figured it might be useful to unpack what I perceive to be the source of the extreme tension that underlies the libertarian abortion debate.

People on both sides of the debate usually agree with the fundamental starting premise that human beings have inalienable natural rights, including the right to life. As such, the core of their disagreement stems from the fact that they view what it means to be human in a fundamentally different way.

Pro-lifers, I’ve noticed, generally subscribe to a position of mind-body dualism. They believe that human beings have a soul or essence of some kind that is fundamentally separate from the body, which is the source of one’s humanness, and thus one’s rights. This belief leads to a binary view of humanness – either a body has a discrete soul and is thus entitled to the full panoply of rights, or a body lacks a soul and has no rights. Thus, for the liberty movement’s pro-lifers, if the soul is present in the human being at the moment of conception, killing a fetus is the moral equivalent of murder, which violates the basic libertarian principle of non-aggression.

Pro-choice libertarians, on the other hand, tend to reject mind-body dualism in favor of a “spectrum of consciousness” model, in which levels of consciousness shade into one another, from the very low level embodied in a stalk of grass, to the very complex cognition of an adult human being (an interesting version of this viewpoint on consciousness and being can be found in Doug Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop). In this way of viewing the world, there is no sharp dividing line between the human who is entitled to full rights and the non-human that is entitled to no rights with in the “mind-body dualism” model. Instead, the amount of consideration a particular being should rightfully be given is dependent upon their level of consciousness. As such, as an early-stage fetus has the level of consciousness development of a plankton, it can be validly argued from this perspective that the rights of the fully developed mother includes the right to morally terminate a pregnancy up to a certain contestable point. This is not to say that people with this world-view can’t be against abortion as well; however, to be morally consistent, such people would have to be vegetarians as well, since killing a chicken is the moral equivalent to killing a fetus within this philosophical framework.

Given these fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of the universe, it is easy to see how libertarians often talk past each other on the abortion issue. To mind-body dualists, the pro-choice assertion of the mother’s rights seems ludicrous, since no-one has the right to end another human’s life. Conversely, the pro-life cries of “murderer” ring hollow to those of the “spectrum of consciousness” persuasion, since, to them, an early-stage abortion is the moral equivalent of eating a shrimp cocktail. As a result of this enormous philosophical chasm, it has been exceedingly difficult to have a meaningful discussion about the place of abortion within the liberty movement. Nonetheless, it is an important issue to wrangle with, and I hope that, by openly acknowledging the philosophical roots of our positions, we might begin to have the same sorts of productive discussions and disagreements that we are able to manage on so many other issues.

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