TLQ 202303 Opinion: A Philosophical Defense of Proposition 1

by Mary Gingell, Past LP National Chair


Opinion pieces represent the personal views of LP SCC leaders/activists and are not necessarily official positions of the county party.

"The state shall not deny or interfere with an individual's reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives."
        California Constitution, Article I, Section 1.1 - added by Proposition 1

At our Central Committee meeting last August, I was disappointed that we fell short of the 2/3 majority required to endorse Proposition 1 (Constitutional Right to Reproductive Freedom), although a majority of those attending were in favor of supporting this proposition. This proposal was crafted by the California Legislature as an answer to states intent on limiting reproductive rights in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

At that time I expressed my chagrin at this turn of events but did not try to argue further because I was fairly confident that Proposition 1 would pass here in California regardless of our endorsing it or not. However, it continues to disturb me that local Libertarians were not willing to endorse what to me was an obvious Libertarian proposition.

I'd like here to address the philosophical underpinnings for Libertarians to support freedom of choice in reproductive rights. (Strategic arguments against endorsing this proposition were also presented at our Central Committee meeting but also were not, to my mind, compelling. I may address those in a separate article).

Although Proposition 1 supports freedom of choice regarding both the decision to have an abortion (or not) and the right to use contraception (or not), the hot-button issue by far is abortion. The “philosophical” argument made at the Central Committee meeting was posed as “What about the rights of the unborn child?” implying that in the case of abortion there is a conflict between the rights of the woman and the rights of the unborn child.

This argument is often made by religious Libertarians who believe that life begins at conception and that a fetus in the womb has all the rights of a human being. However, whether you believe that human rights begin at conception, birth, or somewhere in between, in libertarian philosophy individual rights are absolute and cannot be in conflict.

A woman's life, and the physical embodiment of that life, her body, belong to her. No other living being has the right to require her to be their slave, or to make her suffer hardship or harm, so that they can exist, experience pleasure, or have an easier life. Interactions along these lines, such as physical intimacy, a mother taking care of her immediate family, or a woman providing care (personally or financially) to her elderly parents, are voluntary interactions.

Carrying a child to term and giving birth to that child are no different. As a wife and mother I can tell you that many women do take on these tasks gladly, as I did, but there should be no legal requirement for any woman to do so against her will.

Some might argue for a middle ground, saying that in the case of rape resulting in pregnancy, a woman may have an abortion, but that in the case where the woman consented to have sex, she thereby chose to create another living being and is therefore responsible for it and may not abort it. These arguments are obviously inconsistent with each other.

To say that, because a woman is raped, she does not have to complete the resulting pregnancy, denies (appropriately, in my opinion) the fetus any claim to the mother's body or other resources. To say, on the other hand, that a woman who chooses to become pregnant must carry the fetus to term is (inappropriately, in my opinion) granting the fetus rights to the mother's body and resources. Such a bifurcated position may make some people feel good, but is not a principled libertarian rights-based argument. The argument that a woman who chooses to become pregnant may not later abort that pregnancy is at best a moral, not a legal, argument. Government cannot, as a practical matter, judge what was in a woman's mind at the moment she became pregnant.

A woman who chooses to becomes pregnant can be frowned upon or ostracized if she subsequently changes her mind, for whatever reason – such as: the birth control method used failed; she and the father broke up during the pregnancy; she found out that the fetus has severe disabilities; her pregnancy was difficult and might have caused her great physical harm; or her lifestyle changed such that she no longer feels she will be able to care financially or emotionally for a child.

However, to disallow abortion in these cases is simply a legal requirement that a woman enslave herself to this being as long as it is dependent on her body to survive, and that, having given birth, she is then saddled with the burden of raising and caring for the child, or finding someone else to do so – in short, slavery. The government has no business condoning slavery in this way at any stage of a woman's pregnancy.

Others argue that early on in a pregnancy, abortion is acceptable, but that some time during the pregnancy the fetus becomes “viable,” that is, if removed from the woman's body, its body could “survive independently” outside the mother's body, and that, at this point in time, rights are endowed upon the fetus and abortion should therefore no longer be allowed. Obviously, even if a fetus at some point can “exist” outside its mother's body, it will still need someone to feed and clothe it, provide shelter for it, and care for it for a number of years before it can actually be a fully independent human being.

Requiring a woman to bring a child into this world and be responsible for raising it, even if it could “survive independently” in some limited sense, is still legislating slavery.

I don't mean to imply that no one can try to make these arguments to a pregnant woman in an attempt to convince her not to have an abortion. Religious organizations, private adoption agencies, or interested individuals can offer resources to pregnant women to discourage abortions. Some women might be willing to carry and give birth to a child if they were provided support during their pregnancy, compensated for completing their pregnancy, and/or subsequently relieved of the financial and emotional burdens of child-rearing by having someone else adopt the child. Providing such voluntary resources is exactly where those who oppose abortion should be putting their efforts, rather than expecting government to force women to complete their pregnancies and then leaving government to assume the burden of raising unwanted children as wards of the state.

In summary, from a libertarian philosophical standpoint, women should not be treated as slaves, regardless of their motivation for deciding to have an abortion. Discouraging abortions should be handled on a voluntary basis by those who care about reducing the number of abortions. As in so many other instances, the thoroughgoing libertarian position in the reproductive arena is that government should stay out of this area of our lives.