Montreal, June 15, 2010 No 279


Martin Masse is publisher of QL.



Libertarians don't support
free and unrestricted abortion*


by Martin Masse


          The recent decision of the Harper government not to fund abortion procedures as part of its international aid plan to promote the health of mothers and children in third world countries has reignited the debate over abortion in Canada. Anti-abortion groups have been encouraged by that decision, while the pro-abortion lobby has gone hysterical, as if Canada was violating basic human rights by not funding the killing of unborn children in Africa.


          Although Stephen Harper has said that he did not want to reopen this debate in Canada, this is exactly what he has done. And a good thing it is. Canada has had no law about abortion since a 1988 Supreme Court ruling found the law existing at that time unconstitutional. This opened access to the procedure across the country not only in private clinics but also in public hospitals.

          In her thoughtful analysis of the current legal vacuum ("An unavoidable debate," May 17), National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin commits the widespread oversimplification of confusing libertarian positions on this issue with those of leftists and feminists. They are all content with the present state of affairs, she writes, because they believe that "(t)he state has no business in the wombs of the nation."

          However superficially libertarian such a statement may sound, it totally misrepresents the positions of most libertarians I know. Although we are divided on this issue, many of us are deeply unsatisfied with the current situation.

          Libertarianism is not, as many conservatives tend to believe, a relativistic philosophy of "anything goes." It is, on the contrary, a moral philosophy, based on the principle of non-aggression.

          Although a person should be free to do what he or she wants with his own body and property, that has to take place in a social setting where everyone else's individual rights are being protected, which implies a lot of restrictions on what can be done.

          When it comes to abortion, first, there is the basic libertarian question of individual rights, including the right not to be "terminated." When is the fetus an individual and when does he have these rights? The answer to this question is fundamental.

          Ms. Kheiriddin writes it would be impossible to devise legislation hinging on the question "when does life begin?" I agree. A living entity is not necessarily an individual. To consider the bundle of cells that exists a few hours after fertilization a person deserving of legal protection, you need to infuse it with supernatural characteristics such as having a soul or being God's child. That's what the 5% of poll respondents who would want a complete ban on abortion in all circumstances generally believe.

          Although it certainly deserves respect, that belief is unprovable and cannot serve as a legal foundation. It would mean imposing it on those, likely the vast majority of Canadians, who see this bundle of cells as just that, no more significant than some flesh cut from your finger, even if it has the potential to become more.

          At some point during gestation however, it is obvious that an individual is being created. I think very few people would argue that terminating a pregnancy one day before the expected delivery does not involve killing someone.

"It's hard to pinpoint a precise moment when this happens for the fetus, since the process is gradual, but we know that after the third month, it starts to react to stimuli. To me, it means that after that period, we're not just terminating the growth of a bundle of cells when aborting it, but we are killing an individual that can feel something, however primitively."

          So where would a libertarian set the threshold? One definition of an individual which I believe could potentially garner the support not only of most libertarians, but of most Canadians, is when the fetus has brain activity and can feel. That's the same type of debates we are having at the end of life: someone who is brain dead is not considered a living individual anymore and most of us consider it morally acceptable then to end life support.

          It's hard to pinpoint a precise moment when this happens for the fetus, since the process is gradual, but we know that after the third month, it starts to react to stimuli. To me, it means that after that period, we're not just terminating the growth of a bundle of cells when aborting it, but we are killing an individual that can feel something, however primitively. From this perspective, second- and third-term abortions are a form of infanticide and should be outlawed, except when the life of the mother is threatened.

          Some libertarians (including Murray Rothbard) compare the situation of the fetus with that of a "trespasser." The woman should have the right to "expel" it at any time, just as any of us can expel someone coming on to our property without being invited. I don't buy this argument, which is rather repugnant in its complete disregard of the consequences on the helpless new life.

          The major difference between these two cases however is that in the case of having a child reside in your body, you acted in such a way as to create this new life. The mother is directly responsible for this situation (if we exclude the extreme cases such as rape), she is not the victim of an aggression by some outsider who decides to come and squat in her womb. If you waited (more than three months) until that new life had some basic form of consciousness to decide that you don't want to go ahead with the pregnancy, then you should live with the consequences of your actions. Killing another individual should not be deemed a legitimate solution to your indecision, irresponsibility, financial problems, unstable personal relationships, or any other circumstance that would justify ending the pregnancy.

          There is also the question of the government paying for this. Feminist propaganda tells us that it's a hard choice for all women going through this experience, and that we should make it as easy as possible for them. But I find it hard to believe that in Quebec for example, 30% of pregnancies (down from 40% in 2002, but up from 5% in 1975) have to end up in abortions.

          Why do so many women resort to this procedure, and even use it repeatedly, as if it were a benign form of birth control? Like all other activities that are being subsidized, people tend to find that it's acceptable to overuse it, no matter the moral aspects involved.

          Free and unrestricted abortion, even in the first term, evidently implies an aggression: on all those forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others, and for a procedure that they find morally repugnant. The socialist nature of our health care system creates a lot of other problems, but in that specific case, its immoral implications are even more obvious. A private health insurance system would force women undergoing abortion to at least take financial responsibility for their own action, with the help of private support groups if need be.

          As a libertarian, I would certainly want to put a lot more emphasis on personal responsibility (a basic libertarian principle) in the way we deal with this issue. The end result is that we would likely have a lot fewer abortions, and a much better balance between the competing rights of the unwilling mother and those of the unborn individual who depends on her to survive.


* This is a modified version of an article that appeared in the Full Comment page of the National Post on May 20, 2010.