There’s No Good Libertarian Argument for Abortion
When the young, fiery conservative commentator Tomi Lahren told the ladies on ABC’s The View that she was pro-choice, she made her case on libertarian and constitutional grounds: “I’m for limited government. So stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”
Some time has passed since then, but her argument still needs attention and analysis.
The Problem With the Argument
Anyone who has trafficked in the abortion debate knows why pro-life people oppose killing the unborn. The issue is human life. The case against abortion is moral in nature, and can be summarized in the simplest of terms.
In short, the one who is living in the womb is a distinct human being, no matter how small in size. Human beings by nature bear fundamental rights. Central among those is the right not to have your life taken by another person. Exceptions to this right require serious moral justification: think self-defense, just war or capital punishment. Abortion takes the life of a human being and lacks sufficient moral justification. Therefore it’s wrong. That’s the argument. It’s not rocket science.
Limited government, even in its barest form, doesn’t allow just anyone to kill another human being.
Take the life issue out of the equation, and there would be no moral opposition to abortion. Comedian Louis C.K. crudely made this point by saying that abortion is either like having a bowel movement or else it’s killing a baby. If it’s the first, it’s not controversial. If it’s the second, then “controversial” is a massive understatement.
Avoiding the Question
The libertarian argument, in contrast, dodges the central moral question. It points instead toward individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. But the right to life is one of those rights, and it’s logically prior to every other right. You can’t enjoy liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness unless you’re first alive. So invoking the Constitution to violate the right to life of another is a non-starter.
Furthermore, limited government in even its barest form doesn’t allow just anyone to kill another human being. No libertarian wants state non-interference when lives are being taken. Only an anarchist would suggest that.
If, then, abortion is wrongful killing, how could any just government grant a right to the practice? To maintain that such a right exists, you would need to show that abortion is not taking the life of a human being. Or at least show that there is moral justification for it.
It’s not surprising how many refuse to even acknowledge the main question. See the interview Fox News’ Tucker Carlson did with the VP of Planned Parenthood. Carlson repeatedly tried to get her to address the life issue.
In Tomi Lahren’s televised pro-choice profession, not a word was said about the life of the unborn. It’s hard to fathom how she would say nothing about such a central question. Was she avoiding it?
Begging the Question
Besides avoidance, there is also assumption. Some simply assume that there is no moral concern regarding the life of the unborn. But since this is the crux of the pro-life case, it can’t just be assumed.
In formal argument and debate, there are certain well-known mistakes or “fallacies.” One is called “begging the question.” It happens when you begin by assuming the very thing you are supposed to be arguing for.
Maybe pro-choice advocates believe a fetus is, in some way, not yet human — or is human but is mere tissue like a piece of skin, and so not a distinct being. Or maybe they think it’s a human being, but not yet bearing human rights. Whatever the case, to avoid the key issue by focusing on other things, like women’s health and choice, is simply begging the question. It assumes the question of life has already been satisfactorily answered. It hasn’t.
There’s a difference between avoiding the question and begging the question. To avoid the question is to deny holding any view on the moral status of the unborn. To beg the question is to admit to holding a view (that the unborn has no moral status), but without good reasons to support the position.
Failing to Address the Central Issue
Based on past comments, Lahren has certainly sounded like someone who upholds the moral status of the unborn. Consider, for example, the rant in which she lashed out at “pro-choicers” for hiding behind the language of “rare and safe abortions” in order to “avoid sounding like straight-up baby killers.” She also castigated Lena Dunham for “wishing she could have murdered a fetus.”
If Lahren’s view of the unborn hasn’t changed since these comments, then her libertarian pro-choice argument is founded on the strange belief that killing your child is a Constitutional right. If her view of the unborn has changed, would that change not be significant enough to mention?
Lahren’s silence on this is a failure to address the central issue. Abortion is a moral concern before it is a legal one. A conservative cannot accuse abortionists of baby-killing, as Lahren has done, and then defend the practice as a constitutional right. If it is wrongful killing, there can be no right to it. If it is not wrongful killing, why are we talking so much about it? Give it the moral green light and move on.
Whichever position you arrive at on abortion, you have to go through the life question to get there. You can’t go around it. This goes for liberals and libertarians alike.