Denying the right of a woman to abort involves denying the basis of libertarianism itself. Libertarianism is often expressed as “the non-initiation of force” but the question is why – why is it wrong to initiate force? The answer lies in a more fundamental principle. The Levellers in seventeenth-century England called it ‘self-proprietorship’; the first American anarchist Josiah Warren referred to ‘the sovereignty of the individual.” 19th century American abolitionists defined the concept of ‘self-ownership’ as the jurisdiction that every human being has over his or her own body simply by virtue of being human. The answer to why it is wrong to initiate force is because force violates that person’s self- ownership. The jurisdiction of each peaceful person over his or her body is what constitutes individual rights.
To express this in less theoretical terms: everything beneath my skin is me. It is mine in the most basic and existential sense possible. If my body is not mine, then nothing else on earth can belong to me. If I cannot claim the blood coursing through my arteries, then I can have no property rights in a chair I fashion or a tomato I grow with my own labor. Why would I? Why would the extended products of my labor belong to me when the breath in my own lungs does not?
As a self-owner, I am the only one with jurisdiction over my own body. If a fetus is sustained by the food I eat and the pulsing of my blood, then I have a right to deny it sustenance and shelter. I have a right to abort that fetus. To give the fetus a ‘right’ to consume another person’s bodily functions is to establish two rights claims over one body. The word that describes a system in which one man has property rights in another is slavery, and it is the antithesis of libertarianism.
The denial of abortion rights destroys another key concept of libertarianism. Individual rights rest upon the concept of ‘a natural harmony of interests’. This does not mean that all men feel benevolence toward each other or that their desires never come into conflict. It means that the exercise of my self-ownership or individual rights does not violate the similar exercise of your equal rights. My right to believe in God does not conflict with your right to be an atheist. My freedom of speech does not cancel out yours. If such rights did conflict, then they could not be universal; that is, they could not be possessed equally by all. To presume the fetus is an individual with rights puts it in direct conflict with the pregnant woman’s exercise of rights over her own body. The presumption becomes a logical fallacy by eliminating the natural harmony of interests upon which individual rights depend for their meaning.
The assumption of a fetus with individual rights also takes for granted exactly what is in contention: does the fetus have such rights. This devolves to the question, “is the fetus an individual” because only by being an individual can the fetus claim human rights. It is undeniable that the fetus is in some sense alive and that it is a potential human being. A potential is not an actual, however; it is a hypothetical possibility. An essential characteristic of being an individual is being a discrete entity. Until the point of birth, however, the fetus is not a separate entity. As long as the fetus is physically within the woman’s body and dependent upon her circulatory and respiratory system, it cannot claim individual rights because it is not an individual. At birth, the fetus is biologically autonomous and becomes a self-owner with full individual rights. Although it cannot survive without assistance, this does not affect those rights. The baby simply experiences the dependence of any helpless human being.
The woman is sometimes said to have a responsibility to the fetus because she caused its dependency. But there are two senses in which you can use the word responsibility. The first is as an acknowledgment of a legal obligation to another person. This is the sense in which those who would ban abortion use the word. And, again, the argument begs the question. It takes as a given the very point in contention; namely, is the fetus an individual toward whom obligations can be incurred? Certainly the fetus cannot contract with the pregnant woman and, so, acquire a claim in that manner.
The other sense of “responsibility” refers to the acknowledgment that a certain situation results from your own actions and, so, you accept the burden of money, time and moral accountability in handling the situation. When a woman uses her own money to pay for an abortion, she has assumed full responsibility for the pregnancy. Note an odd inconsistency about how many anti-abortionists use of the word “responsibility.” It is revealed in how they handle rape pregnancies. The woman cannot be responsible in any sense for a situation in which she had no choice. Nevertheless, the consistent position is that the fetus is still a human being and abortion is still murder. But if it is of no real consequence, why is the issue of responsibility being raised at all?
There is one sense that responsibility is of consequence: moral responsibility. To the extent you value human life, you must also value the potential for human life. As a pregnancy progresses and the potential moves toward the actual, then the moral value of preserving the fetus increases. I share this moral stance and would argue vigorously with anyone who sought to end a late-term pregnancy. But I would not use force or the law to prevent any woman from controlling her body through abortion.
The disastrous consequences of the antiabortionist position are also incompatible with libertarianism. Antiabortionists dislike dealing with these consequences but, as long as the basic thrust of their position is “there ought to be a law,” it is entirely reasonable to ask what this law would look like.
If the fetus is a human being, then abortion is clearly first-degree, premeditated murder and should be subject to whatever penalties exist for that category of crime. Aborting women and doctors would be liable to punishment up to and, perhaps, including, the death penalty. Anti-abortionists sometimes backpedal on this issue by stating that abortion has not been historically subject to such penalties so there is no reason to suppose they would occur in the future. This is evasion. The debate is not about history but legal and moral theory. If abortion is premeditated murder, then they should decry slap-on-the-wrist penalties rather than using them to reassure us.
The anti-abortion position is weak, riddled with internal contradictions, and dangerously wrong. It uses the word “rights” in a self-contradictory manner that denies the framework from which the concept derives meaning. Self-ownership begins with your skin. If you cannot clearly state, “Everything beneath my skin is me; this is the line past that no one crosses without my permission,” then there is no foundation for individual rights or for libertarianism.