Within the D.C. headquarters of Reason Magazine, three libertarians debated the issue of abortion for a room of listeners just as divided on the issue as the panel. In an event titled “Libertarian Perspectives on Abortion,” Reason editor Nick Gillespie moderated the debate between pro-life libertarian Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, editor of Ricochet, and Katherine Mangu-Ward and Ronald Bailey, both of Reason, for the pro-choice side. The event description explained, “among self-identified libertarians, there’s a wide variety of positions, ranging from support for all forms of abortion to prohibition of the same.” Tuesday’s debate helped untangle this peculiar division within the modern liberty movement.
Gillespie cut straight to the issue, asking when life begins and when rights begin.
“At conception,” Hemingway answered unequivocally. “Human rights come as a function of being human. They should begin when you begin. You get them by virtue of your existence, so you should get them when your existence starts.”
Bailey agreed that of course every human life once started as a fertilized egg, but took issue with defining the moment of conception as the start of human rights, saying that “at least 80 percent of fertilized eggs never implant, they never create a pregnancy, they never become people; and therefore I find it odd to give rights to things that don’t become people, typically.”
Bailey went on to explain that the concept of acquiring rights as we develop is already well accepted in society. “We also have a sliding scale of rights,” Bailey said. “People get more rights as they become older over time. We don’t allow children to do certain kinds of things and so I think that that is part of that continuum.”
When Bailey argued that the right to life only applies to persons, Gillespie demanded clarification, asking, “When does personhood begin, if that is when rights begin for you?”
Bailey articulated a couple different standards to determine the start of human rights. “At some stage,” Bailey explained, “it would have to be with significant enough brain development to be able to have some sense of self-awareness…the other problem with that is I’m much more comfortable with viability as the standard, because that is the point where someone else can decide to start taking care of the entity…instead of imposing the burden on the woman who’s carrying the fetus to maintain [the pregnancy].”
Finally, Gillespie posed the same questions about the beginning of life and the beginning of rights to Mangu-Ward. Mangu-Ward defended her pro-choice position in more familiar libertarian terms. “Lots of really smart people disagree on the answers. This suggests to me that we should devolve decisions on this to the lowest possible level because it is wildly unlikely that the state will arrive at the right answers and institute those in law.” Mangu-Ward echoed this argument later in the debate, likening the state’s efforts to regulate abortion to its efforts at regulating the economy.
Interestingly, two traditional libertarian arguments come head to head over the issue of abortion. Hemingway is essentially arguing natural rights theory — that all humans have a right to their life and the products of it. This concept of rights, as opposed to a series of permissions from a king, is the idea on which the United States was founded and the argument that libertarians use against attempted justifications for coercive government.
On the other hand, Mangu-Ward’s defense of devolving decisions from government to individuals is another argument frequently employed by libertarians- that on issues of great personal stake and complexity, the individual involved will always be better equipped than government to decide on a course of action.
While conservatism and liberalism tend to prescribe a specific position on abortion, libertarianism leaves the issue open for scrutiny and argument, as witnessed in Tuesday’s debate. It’s worth noting that one doesn’t find libertarians debating abortion very often; perhaps because on all the relevant political issues concerning abortion today — issues of federal funding, insurance mandates, and the right of healthcare providers not to perform abortions — libertarians are well agreed.
Doublethink contributor Daniel Klaeren is an intern through the National Journalism Center. Ultrasound image of fetus at 12 weeks courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles