There’s No Good Libertarian Argument for Abortion

Tomi Lahren on the set of Tomi, during a "Final Thoughts" segment.

By Clint Roberts Published on April 29, 2017

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.

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  • Autrey Windle

    She has proven that her opinions are nothing more than the shallow reasoning of immature critical thinking that is so prevalent in her generation. She obviously is more concerned with her popularity, her number of hits and trying to be controversial than she is about standing for something well thought through or reasoned. She is a flash in the pan of her ‘profession’ and if she doesn’t come to her senses she could wind up in hell. She needs prayer from us and self-imposed discipline of herself to re-examine where she gets her facts and advice from.

    • SophieA

      Autrey, you are spot on! Tomi is quite young and needs prayer, time, and the freedom to grow towards God. She has some unexamined beliefs for the reasons you clearly noted. Underneath it all, I believe, Tomi just wants to be loved and appreciated and I hope she has that support. God will accomplish the rest.

    • Paul

      I’m not seeing the point or value in generation bashing. Let’s not forget the younger generations grew up in a world built and led by the previous, and regarding this particular issue their all knowing elders legalized abortion. Seems older generations have quite a plank in their own eye to deal with

    • Hannah

      I’ll admit, those of us who are “millenials” (I am one) do have a penchant for being narcissistic and selfish. Then again, I think no one generation is guilty of an exclusive sin – just that each generation has a more advanced medium in which to execute that sin. In my case, I have connections to the entire world, thus making my opinion seem more important. However, like any ordinary person, I am just another voice among many trying to validate my existence through controversy and “karma” points.

      To contrast that of my father’s generation or even my mother in law’s generation (aged late 60s and early 40s respectively), neither one of them were any less narcissistic of selfish, though if we look closely, we’ll see the differences that both generations present. My father’s generation used wealth and success to validate their existence – if you had a secure job, house, car, and wife, you were considered successful; my mother in law’s generation had a similar outlook but with more emphasis on college degrees and a condescending opinion of “entry-level jobs” (aka anything that didn’t require a college degree). In my generation, we still have that belief that college fixes everything, but we also think that we are “deprived” of certain things and demand to be compensated. All sides are wrong to assume that they are morally superior to the younger folk because all three are just as guilty.

      Do I think that it was easier back then? In a lot of ways, yes. Do I think it was better? We only see the past as better when we can look back. So no, I don’t think my generation is worse off than other previous ones – just that we have our own issues that need to be repented of and curbed daily. I quit Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat to curb my need of communal validation; I still struggle with it but knowing where you fail means the battle is half won.

      • Autrey Windle

        Having read many things you write, I knew you are the lower percentage of an almost lost generation. You I pray for but do not feel we are in danger of losing you to the enemy. Having read Tomi, my read on her is that somewhere along the line she forgot to use the tools she knows God endowed her with to remain above the fray of popular opinion that defies logic or love of God. She can be a powerful voice with the platform she has been given or she can play to The View audience to increase her numbers. I would not be surprised if she is getting bad advice from someone attached to her career objectives. All the previous generations have suffered more and more fools gladly with each turn of the decades. That is why it is so easy to lose almost a whole generation by now. The book warns of this and many other horrible inevitabilities. But we fight on to bring as many with us to the shelter of God’s love as we can. Tomi is, in my opinion, playing with fire with the whole acceptance of killing babies in the womb thing. I would like to see her step back from the precipice. Her voice could help save many young women and men. It isn’t a case of which generation is worse, but how many more are being lost and I do believe by sheer numbers and secularism it is probably scientifically this generation we have failed in the biggest number.

  • Pro-Choice Libs

    Actually libertarians have many arguments defending abortion. From the non-aggression principle flow four basic libertarian
    principles: individual liberty, self-ownership, self-determination and
    limited government (or no government at all, as preferred by anarchist
    libertarians).

    Individual liberty is the most basic libertarian principle, including as
    applied to reproduction and abortion. Personhood, and thus individual
    rights to liberty, exist only after birth when a child becomes
    self-conscious, capable of cognition and able to engage in purposeful
    action to affect their environment. The sperm and egg and fetus may be
    alive, but that does not mean they are persons with rights. A living person’s first responsibility is to themselves. A woman should
    not be forced to sacrifice her liberty – and even her life – for the
    biological survival of a fetus which has no equivalent right to liberty.

    Libertarians believe individuals should be sovereign over their own
    lives and that no one should be forced to sacrifice for the benefit of
    others. They believe men and women own their bodies and have rights over
    that “private property” which other individuals, groups, and
    governments may not violate.

    The principle of self-determination makes individuals free moral agents
    to determine their reproductive status. Since the woman is a free moral
    agent with sole dominion over her life, her claim to life is stronger
    than that of a fetus which has minimal self-consciousness and cognition
    and cannot engage in purposeful action. The woman’s right to
    self-determination means the choice to carry the child to term is hers
    alone.

    Overwhelmingly, government laws and regulations have negative unintended
    consequences, especially when government is prohibiting something that
    people demand. Abortion restrictions greatly increase the number of “late
    term” abortions as women are forced to raise money to pay for more
    expensive abortions and go long distances, and even to other states, for
    the medical procedure. Abortion prohibition creates a black
    market in abortions, leading to unprofessional abortions and even
    infection, mutilation, infertility and death.

    The above just scratches the surface of libertarian arguments.

  • QuestionMark666

    Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body? That’s the Libertarian perspective on termination a pregnancy. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship and rights only after BIRTH.

    Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a “right to life.” A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable.

    Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives. Procreation is not a duty: human beings are not stock-farm animals. For conscientious persons, an unwanted pregnancy is a disaster; to oppose its termination is to advocate sacrifice, not for the sake of anyone’s benefit, but for the sake of misery as a moral judgement, for the sake of forbidding happiness and fulfillment to living human beings.

    I cannot quite imagine the state of mind of a person who would wish to condemn a fellow human being to such a horror. I cannot project the degree of hatred required to make those women run around in crusades against abortion. Hatred is what they certainly project, not love for the embryos, which is a piece of nonsense no one could experience, but hatred, a virulent hatred for an unnamed object. Judging by the degree of those women’s intensity, I would say that it is an issue of self-esteem and that their fear is metaphysical. Their hatred is directed against human beings as such, against the mind, against reason, against ambition, against success, against love, against any value that brings happiness to human life. In compliance with the dishonesty that dominates today’s intellectual field, they call themselves “pro-life.”

  • JPeron

    Precisely what gives conservatives the authority to lecture libertarians on what is or isn’t consistent with libertarianism.

    Anti-.ibertarians who want their religious values imposed on others are not authorities on the issue.

  • Sharon Presley

    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:
    At what point does the fetus become a person?
    Until what point is abortion morally allowable?

  • Sharon Presley

    SECOND PART:
    Two questions remain:
    At what point does the fetus become a person?
    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, involuntary servitude, compulsory childbearing, or life-threatening abortions—violates everything we hold dear.

  • Sharon Presley

    So what was that about no good libertarians arguments for abortions? LOL

  • Sharon Presley

    And so what about Lahren’s argument? Mine has been around a lot longer in *actual* libertarian circles. A shorter version has been on the website of the Association of Libertarian Feminists for many years. If I give the url they may not publish my comment. My last comment with a url disappeared into the ether. But HINT: it is alfdotorg/abortion.php

  • alaneason

    Sharon, your statement: “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” gives me the chills.

    It sounds eerily similar to the case made in the SCOTUS Dredd Scott case that the consequences of declaring negroes full-fledged people with full rights would have more deleterious consequences on society than the damage done to the slaves themselves by considering them less than citizens.

    They tried to make the case that it was (in their warped minds) better for both sides. In your scenario, it is only “better” (and that is very debatable) for one side. The other side never gets to draw the first breath of air or see the blue sky its eyes were created to see.

    • Sharon Presley

      I am a psychologist. And what psychologists know is that the fetus does not have consciousness or cognitions. No self-awareness. So your sentimental frou-frou means nothing. Fetuses are not like “negroes.” There is no comparison. Black people, just like other people, do have consciousness. Let me repeat, fetuses do not. But you are typical of those people who carry on about the fetus but care nothing whatsoever for what happens to the woman or girl. HER life, her happiness, her future mean nothing to you. Yet she is the one who does have consciousness. You are not “pro-life” because you don’t give a damn about the already living and conscious woman or girl. You are merely “pro-birth.” Go peddle your sanctimonious nonsense somewhere else.

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