Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Libertarianism and Abortion: A Reply to Professor Narveson

Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Libertarianism and Abortion: A Reply to Professor Narveson

Article excerpt

PROFESSOR JAN NARVESON objects to my claim that abortion on demand up to the moment of birth is not a policy prescription that follows naturally from the basic principles that undergird libertarianism. For the reasons set forth below, I continue to hold this view, even in the face of Narveson's thoughtful criticism. However, before going further, I wish to thank him for the attention he has paid to my book, and his praise for the rest of it.

I will proceed by briefly summarizing the key points of my original argument regarding the ethics of abortion. I will then describe the basis for Narveson's disagreement and explain my grounds for adhering to my original view. My argument is threefold: (i) Narveson's version of contractarianism can be interpreted in a way consistent with the pro-life perspective; (ii) Narveson's own understanding of his social contract produces a result that is implausible and even repellent; and (iii) even if his contractarianism did imply a unique, aggressively pro-choice stance on abortion, there are competing libertarian theories that are receptive to pro-life views.

The crux of my original analysis (Friedman 2015: 157-58) is that the rights-based approach to resolving this issue must focus on the relative strengths of the mother's claim to bodily integrity and the fetus's putative right to life. Central to this inquiry is the question of when, if ever, the latter obtains full moral status (FMS) or near-FMS. I review and reject the polar extremes, starting with the pro-life argument formulated by Don Marquis (1989), who assigns FMS to the fetus at about three weeks after conception, when the embryo has developed to the point where it is uniquely identifiable biologically as the same entity that will be born, grow into adulthood, and die. It is wrong, says Marquis, to abort a healthy fetus beyond the third week for the same reason it is wrong to murder the adult it will become: you are robbing it of the future value of its life. I hold this line of reasoning to be flawed because while a three-week-old embryo may be the same biological organism as the adult it becomes, it is a qualitatively different being: "it is not the same individual, in the morally relevant sense, as the person it develops into" (Friedman 2015: 239n25). Or as Narveson puts it (2016: 279), we cannot attribute rights to a "clump of cells."

I also consider and reject the pro-choice arguments, purportedly grounded in libertarian principles, advanced by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (Friedman 2015: 160-61, and related endnotes). The latter's commitment to self-ownership leads him (like Narveson) to reject the existence of FMS for both fetuses and infants. However, even if we accept that the mother's self-ownership confers certain moral rights, Rothbard never provides an argument establishing that they are sufficiently weighty to override the claims of the late-term fetus. (1) Nor does he explain why birth transforms a fetus from a being completely lacking self-ownership to one with at least partial status, and why, if so, an infant may rightfully be starved to death by its parents.

My conclusion was that libertarian theory provides no decisive reason to reject the majority opinion that "at some point in its development (perhaps at the point of consciousness), the fetus enjoys or nearly enjoys FMS, and that good cause must then exist to justify an abortion" (Friedman 2015: 159; emphasis in original). (2) As it happens, I share this perspective, but it is worth emphasizing that I was not arguing the merits of this position, but merely asserting that it is not inconsistent with generally accepted libertarian norms.

Narveson (2016: 278) agrees with me that "everything depends on the question of just when--at what point in its development, if any--the fetus acquires 'moral status.'" However, he differs with me (2016: 279) in holding that late-stage fetuses cannot possess rights because they lack the "defining properties" of personhood, and intrinsic rights belong only to persons. …

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