Laws permitting abortion on demand are often deemed to be liberal. Further, political liberals are frequently ardent defenders of such laws. I think these conclusions are mistaken. In a series of two posts I will provide some reasons why.
Most contemporary liberals advocate a form of the harm principle, famously articulated by Mill in On Liberty,
The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[i] [Emphasis added]
Mill here draws a distinction between other-regarding actions, actions that harm other people, and self-regarding actions, those that harm oneself. He argues that society, either by law or by social pressure, cannot justly regulate any action a person performs unless it is other-regarding; that is, it harms people other than the agent him/herself. As Mill’s position is typically interpreted harm is understood to be governed by the principle volenti non fit injuria (where there is consent, there is no injury) and hence refers to things done to other people without their consent. On this interpretation, self-regarding actions are those that people consent to and that harm no non-consenting, third party. As Mill himself notes, a self-regarding action is that “which affects only himself, or affects others with their free and voluntary, and undeceived consent”.[ii]
The most common version of the harm principle is known as the non-initiation of force principle; Rothbard sums it up well,
The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.[iii]
I do not subscribe to the harm principle or the non-initiation of force interpretation of it (I give some reasons why here). However, in this series of posts I will adopt it for the sake of argument so as to examine what follows for abortion. Abortion involves killing a fetus, usually by dismembering it. Moreover, the fetus does not consent to it. Hence if a Liberal is to support abortion he/she must do so for only one of two reasons. Either,
(a) the fetus is a person but its existence inside the mother without her consent constitutes a form aggression, and hence, the mother’s action of killing it is defensive; or,
(b) a fetus is not a person.
Only if one of these two options is adopted, can a liberal support the non-initiation of force principle and permissive abortion legislation and remain consistent.
Failed Avoidance Tactics
At this juncture it is worth noting that two very common tactics of avoiding this conclusion fail. The first is to defend abortion, as Rodney Hide tried to at the recent Family First Forum, on the basis of the perceived positive social consequences of ‘liberal’ abortion laws. In popular political discourse, and in some feminist writings, abortion is defended on consequentialist grounds; it is argued that abortion prevents unwanted children, children who are likely to be poor, abused, neglected or engage in crime. It is hailed as a solution to over-population and the existence of handicapped people. It prevents adult and teenage women from falling into economic hardship and stress and enables them to complete their education, pursue their careers and so on.
The problem with this line of argument is that this is only cogent for liberals if they assume that abortion does not violate the non-initiation of force principle. If abortion does violate this principle then allowing abortion on these grounds would be tantamount to saying that people can engage in aggression (as Rothbard defines it) they can initiate lethal force against others provided doing so brings about positive consequences, like lower crime rates, less child abuse, lower population rates, access to education and employment, etc. This conclusion contradicts the non-initiation of force principle which states that one cannot justly pursue social utility by violating an individual’s right to life, liberty or property; the very basis of their opposition to socialism.
The second avoidance tactic is to appeal to slogans such as “you can’t force your morality onto others, you can’t legislate morality”. The problem with these claims is that the non-initiation of force principle is itself a moral principle and liberals believe the state should enforce this principle and should defend people against others who would violate it. This forces a dilemma upon liberals who cite this slogan; either the claim “you can’t force your morality onto others” applies to the non-initiation of force principle or it does not. If it does, then abortion involves an unjust imposition of morality onto another only if you assume it is not the initiation of force. If it does not, then liberalism as a doctrine collapses as the state has no duty to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens from aggression. In fact, it entails the conclusion that acts of aggression such as rape and murder should be decriminalised alongside abortion.
It follows then that the liberal cannot rationally avoid the question. If one is to both support ‘liberal’ abortion laws and hold to the non-initiation of force principle, one must do so either on (a) or (b) above. I think neither is terribly defensible. I will address (a) the fetus is a person but its existence inside the mother without her consent constitutes a form aggression, and hence, the mother’s action of killing it is defensive; and, (b) a fetus is not a person, in my next post, Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2.
[i] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), 69.
[ii] Ibid. 71.
[iii] Murray N Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (New York: Collier Books, 2002) 23.