Where Do Libertarians Stand on Abortion?

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Disclosure: Jack Hunter co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.

Republicans Ron and Rand Paul are pro-life. Libertarians Gary Johnson and William Weld are pro-choice. All of them are libertarians.

So who’s wrong?

From a libertarian standpoint, no one. From pro-choice or pro-life positions, all of them.

Libertarianism is the philosophy of individualism. Libertarians believe all of us are endowed with natural rights given by our creator (or not from a creator, if you’re a libertarian atheist), and the job of government is to protect those rights. Central to libertarian belief is adherence to the non-aggression principle, meaning no individual is permitted to aggress against another, thus infringing upon that person’s rights.

Does the issue of abortion involve aggression? The state dictating individuals’ decisions? Or an individual ending the life of another? Does the issue of whether a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy deal with one individual or two?

Pro-life libertarians believe that when it comes to the issue of abortion, we’re dealing with two individuals.

“Pro-life libertarians have a vital task to perform: to persuade the many abortion-supporting libertarians of the contradiction between abortion and individual liberty,” wrote Congressman Ron Paul in 1981, adding “and, to sever the mistaken connection in many minds between individual freedom and the ‘right’ to extinguish individual life.”

Rand Paul said, “You can’t have liberty if you don’t protect where your liberty originates from and that is a right to life.”

Pro-choice libertarians like Johnson and his running mate Weld essentially never entertain the notion that the unborn entity in question when discussing abortion is a human being, which is why language like “viability” is so central to their position.

If it’s not a human being you’re only dealing with one individual. The libertarian then focuses on protecting the rights of that one person.

Which, of course, would mean being pro-choice.

For decades, libertarians have been perceived as being pro-choice, due largely to the fact that some of the most prominent libertarians have embraced that position.

But Johnson and Weld aside, the most prominent political libertarians today—Ron and Rand Paul, Congressmen Justin Amash and Thomas Massie—are all solidly pro-life. Popular libertarian personalities like Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano are also pro-life.

But libertarian personality Kennedy of Fox Business is pro-choice. Penn Jillette is too. Most of the staff at Reason, America’s premier libertarian journal, have long supported abortion rights.

Confusing, yes?

Reason’s Stephanie Slade dove into this issue at length last year with a quality essay on “Why I Am a Pro-Life Libertarian,” “Here at Reason that tendency has been even more pronounced, with the magazine’s editorial staff overwhelmingly favoring a right to legal abortion,” Slade said. “From the general tenor of our coverage of this issue over the years, one might get the impression that most if not all prominent libertarians support the so-called ‘right to choose.”

“Yes, libertarians tilt pro-choice,” Slade admits. “But as a young, female, pro-life Roman Catholic who also happens to identify as libertarian (and who works for a magazine dedicated to free minds and free markets), I’m always rather dismayed when someone on the far side of the political universe professes to be an authority on what ‘consistent libertarianism’ requires.”

Slade was targeting those on the left who simply assume libertarians must be pro-choice.

“From my perspective, the consistent libertarian position on abortion is contingent,” Slade insists. “It depends whether you believe the entity developing in the womb counts as a human being.”

Again—as Slade rightly notes—are we discussing one individual or two?

For the record, I’m a pro-life libertarian. Like other pro-life libertarians, I see both positions not as contradictions, but philosophically inseparable.

Still, pro-life libertarians like me do not define all of libertarianism. It would be philosophically and historically incorrect to claim otherwise. But given lingering perceptions, it’s worth noting pro-choice libertarians don’t entirely define our philosophy either.

What do you think?

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