Tag Archives: abortion

Rand Paul Is Not a Perfect Libertarian, But He Comes Closer Than the Rest

In a post over at Reason’s Hit & Run, Jacob Sullum is asking “Can Rand Paul’s Positions on Abortion and Gay Marriage Be Defended on Libertarian Grounds?” Sullum concludes that yes, they can be, “but you have to try pretty hard.”

The correct answer as to both is no.

First, with respect to abortion, Rand Paul believes that from the point of conception, human life is entitled to state protection. Sullum concludes that this position “can be defended on libertarian grounds” once one “accept[s] the premise that a fetus is a person with a right to life.”

Rand Paul is correct (and Sullum is right to implicitly recognize) that abortion is not self-evidently beyond the purview of government. To the contrary, conflicts between rights-bearing individuals are quintessentially within that purview.

Government is the repository of collective force, the monopolistic holder of the privilege to enforce conformance to the collective will. According to most libertarians, that power is legitimately wielded to protect individual liberty, such as through the punishment and prevention of crimes like assault, battery, murder, rape, robbery, etc.

As an aside, from what I understand, even most anarchists endorse some sort of protocol for dealing with violence. One of my disagreements with anarchists is that I have never found anything semantically useful about calling those protocols anything other than “government.”

In any case, Paul and Sullum are therefore further correct that, if one accepts the unborn have rights, abortion is an issue that falls well within the purview of the state—because it involves a conflict between individual rights most of us readily acknowledge (the right to control one’s body versus the right to continue living).

As far as I know, however, nothing in libertarian doctrine answers the underlying, fundamental question of whether and when the unborn become rights-bearing. Only philosophy can tell us what attributes entitle a living entity to rights, and only medical science can tell us when the unborn develop those attributes.

I therefore disagree with Sullum in this very narrow respect: It would be better to say there is nothing inherently unlibertarian about Paul’s position on abortion than to say that libertarianism provides a basis for defending that position. Perhaps I am being pedantic. Perhaps it is an issue purely of semantics.

But it is one that matters to libertarians and non-libertarians alike.

Paul has some treacherous political terrain to navigate if he hopes to win both the GOP primary and a general election. If he wants the libertarian base to cross that terrain with him, he will probably need to articulate his positions with that level of finesse.

As a final note on the abortion issue, since non-libertarians often ask how we come down on this, I will go ahead and state my own position for the record. My own personal criteria for recognizing a living being’s entitlement to rights include some combination of the following: the ability to prefer existence over non-existence, the potential for high level sentience and the capacity to experience pain. I do not support interfering with a woman’s bodily autonomy from the moment of conception. I agree with Rand Paul, however, that fetuses become rights-bearing before the end of pregnancy and even before the end of the first trimester.

Second, on the issue of gay marriage, Sullum quotes Paul as lamenting that:

Ultimately, we could have fixed this a long time ago if we just allowed contracts between adults. We didn’t have to call it marriage, which offends myself and a lot of people…

From a libertarian perspective, there is no “we” here. There is no group properly endowed with the power to decide for everyone else what relationships get to be called “marriages.” It is for individuals to decide whether their relationship constitutes a “marriage,” and it is for other individuals to decide whether they agree with that characterization.

The issue is increasingly a litmus test precisely because it is so revealing of a candidate’s feelings about the relationship between individuals and government. It will be hard to sell a message of small government and liberty while simultaneously insisting that government should be so deeply involved in our lives as to define relationships and dictate how words are to be used.

In the past, Paul has indicated that he supports leaving it to the states to decide whether to recognize gay marriage. That position might solve Paul’s political problems as a federal candidate. But it is not inherently libertarian. Libertarians are, generally speaking, concerned with defining and limiting the exercise of force. That concern is not limited to federal government exercises of force.

Without more, Paul’s reliance on federalism requires libertarians to accept the following compromise: that while Paul believes state governments can interfere with private marriage, since he is not running for state office, we ought not worry overmuch about it. The argument is not without its merits. But it is also not libertarian.

On the other hand, Paul’s comments last year that “I don’t really think the government needs to be too involved with” marriage were decidedly libertarian in nature. Perhaps that is even his true position, and his more recent remarks have been more about rallying another wing of the GOP base. Whether he can get past the primary without clarifying remains to be seen.

As a final note, sophisticated social conservatives will argue that state maintenance of traditional marriage does not constitute an exercise of force, but merely an expression of what relationships the majority choose to recognize as “married” within the meaning of the law. The distinction is worthy of recognition and merits debate. However, states use force to collect taxpayer money to run their marriage licensing programs, and most libertarians intuitively support some version of “equal protection” doctrine.

In summary, to answer Sullum’s question, Paul’s position on when life becomes entitled to state protection is neither supported by nor contradicted by libertarian doctrine. If he thinks state legislatures can define marriage for individuals, however, Paul is far afield from basic libertarian tenets.

Does that mean I won’t vote for him?

No. I fully intend to vote for Rand Paul in the GOP primary. If he actually gets the nomination—and I hope he does—I may vote for him in the general as well. For one thing, I suspect that his true position on gay marriage is largely libertarian. Even if I am wrong about that, Rand Paul is still leagues more libertarian than any candidate the two major parties has run in my adult life.

I have never been lucky enough to be offered a candidate who both satisfies my politics and has a chance of winning. His imperfections notwithstanding, it would be nice if Rand Paul could change that.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

TLP Round Table — The Abortion Issue


Here at The Liberty Papers, we don’t like to shy away from controversial issues. So we’re going to talk about abortion this week.

As you can expect, there are a wide variety of stances on this issue, just like the country at large. Some contributors refused to participate because they were personally uncomfortable with the topic.

Abortion related legislation is always in the news and it seems as if it’s on the ballot every year and this year was no exception. Colorado rejected an initiative to add “unborn human beings” to the criminal code. North Dakota rejected a “right to life” amendment that would’ve protected unborn children. However, Tennessee passed an amendment to the constitution that explicitly rejects the right to an abortion.

Chris Byrne:

I can write my position in five lines not three paragraphs… the problem is that to understand it in anything but the most simplistic way (which is to say, to have any meaningful understanding of it at all) you need to have a lot of background in morals and ethics.

There is a fairly sophisticated… unfortunately too sophisticated for most people… moral and ethical concept, of non-relativist conditional morality and ethics.

There’s actually a few thousand pages worth or moral and ethical philosophy that goes into understanding these concepts fully of course, but essentially it can be grossly oversimplified by the idea of “least bad” decision making.

Some problems or questions have no good answers or solutions, only more or less bad, more or less wrong, more or less optimal etc…

Or, there may be such answers, but the person making the decision does not have the ability, the information, the tools, or the time, to do so; or the circumstances are such that a “good” or “right” or optimal answer cannot be made in the time required.

When a person cannot make a good, or right decision; the only moral, or ethical choice, or the optimal choice; is to make the LEAST bad, or wrong, or suboptimal choice.

Most people are with you up to this point.

The problem spot, where you lose a lot of people, is this…

Making the least bad decision for the circumstances, STILL DOES NOT MAKE IT RIGHT.

You can “do the best you can”, or “do the best thing for everyone”, and still have committed a moral or ethical wrong.

This is where a lot of peoples brains short circuit. The concept that they “did the right thing given the circumstances”, but were still morally or ethically wrong. Many folks really cannot understand or accept this. Their hardwired moral and ethical understandings don’t allow for anything other than “right”, “wrong” or “somewhere in between”. The notion of being both wrong, and right-ish, doesn’t work.

So, given that, here is my very simple and easy to understand position on abortion

1. Abortion is always morally wrong, usually ethically wrong, and frequently of suboptimal utility

2. Sometimes, having an abortion is LESS wrong than not having an abortion

3. I do not have enough information, intelligence, knowledge, or wisdom to make such a decision for anyone else. Neither does anyone else.

4. I do not have the moral or ethical right to do so. Neither does anyone else.

5. Any person, group, or government attempting to make such decisions for anyone else, or make any laws regarding such decisions, will only and always make everything worse for everyone.

Matthew Souders:

This government was founded on the belief that all people were created equally – that they were endowed by their creator with inalienable right, and that among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The central question of Roe vs. Wade was not whether the right to life applied to all people, but whether an unborn child was considered human under the law. The science is settled on this question. The latest, according to all credible scientists, that life can possibly be said to begin is at implantation. I am not as far to the right o this issue as some, in that I don’t believe that the morning after pill is an “abortion causing” drug. But I am a scientist who believes in the core founding principles of both the scientific method and the American Founding.

The first job – and the most crucial – of any government is to defend lives (the national defense, the maintenance of civil law and order, and the prohibition of the taking of lives). Both my particular spiritual belief and the science agree that abortion ends a human life and denies that life of due process on top of its’ inalienable right to that life. As such, I do not believe government is taking a moral stand any more controversial than laws against murder – which no one finds controversial in the slightest.

But here’s a libertarian addition to that basic position: not only does abortion take away a person’s right to life, but it is a part of a larger cultural movement toward treating all lives as commodities – as entries on a balance sheet. The fundamental arguments in favor of abortion tend to center around the financial burdens of unwanted children both on the state and on the mother. Here’s the problem – the minute we allow government to take an active (and controversial, scientifically) moral stand on abortion by making it legal, and in so doing sanctify the government’s role in deciding which lives are worth protecting, we empower politicians to argue in favor of all other manner of life-ending government interventions, from “end of life” healthcare rationing to forced sterilization of the poor and the prison population (already happening in California for prisoners!) to outright eugenics (nearly happened during FDR’s presidency and abortion’s biggest advocates are mainly people who argue in favor of eugenics). The risks of government deciding which specific types of murder are OK are far, far too great to let them enter this arena. Which leaves us with the opening question. Is a pre-born child a human life? That’s not even a question to anyone who is remotely objective on the issue.

Brad Warbany:

“This is a hard topic. I’m personally uncomfortable with abortion. Had anyone I had “relations” with in my life fallen pregnant unexpectedly, I can’t even fathom the idea of doing anything other than raising the child. Luckily, it’s not a position I’ve ever had to be in. The one woman in my life who I know has had an abortion is a woman who I am terrified will one day reproduce. My wife and I have cut her out of our lives after we had kids because we think she’s a toxic personality and don’t want her around us or our children. So as uncomfortable as I am with abortion, I’m not upset that that woman had one.

I’ve already touched this third rail here. In short, there is some point at which a zygote progresses to become a fetus and eventually a baby, and I am conflicted at to which point in the chain that entity becomes a human deserving of rights. I don’t think I’d support legal punishments for anyone aborting a pregnancy in the first trimester. At that point I don’t think there’s a viable consciousness yet. I think I would support punishment in the third trimester, because at that point you’re talking about a baby that would be viable outside the womb. If you can’t make a decision to terminate a pregnancy by the third trimester, at the very least continue it and put the child up for adoption. The second trimester is a grey area, and I hate the idea of throwing people in jail for a grey area.

I say this as someone who experienced two early-term miscarriages with my wife before we successfully had kids. When you lose a baby at 10 weeks, although it’s very sad, it’s mentally the loss of a potential baby. Someone I know who miscarried at 7 months was a completely different situation. That was tragic. This difference informs me that there truly is a qualitative difference between a first-trimester fetus and a third-trimester baby.

I realize my answer is a highly unsatisfying middle ground that will probably make the pro-life and the pro-choice people both hate me. So be it.”

Stephen Littau:

The abortion issue seems to be an issue one is either 100% in favor or 100% opposed. The reality is though, that most people can probably come to some common ground on the issue. For most people, it comes down to where the line should be drawn for when a pregnancy ought to be terminated.

The politics of this issue, however; is being driven by the extremists on both sides (for a very cynical reason: politics). Anti-choice extremists wish to take certain forms of birth control off the market based primarily on religious and/or philosophical ideas (rather than medical science) about ‘when life begins’ (some go even further arguing that ‘every sperm is sacred;’ ejaculation should only occur if procreation is at least theoretically possible). Pro-choice extremists on the other hand believe that women should have the right to have an abortion up to the time the baby exits the birth canal (some even think it should be legal to kill a baby right after delivery).

There does seem to be at least some wiggle room among those on the anti-choice side as some will argue that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in peril. The very idea that a woman should be forced to carry a baby to term that was a result of a rape is repugnant. That said, I don’t know how this would work as a practical matter. What is the burden of proof for a woman seeking an abortion who claims she was raped? The honor system? A criminal conviction for a crime that is very difficult to prove? (Men are already victims of being falsely accused of rape as much as 45% of the time; imagine if this incentive was added?)

I just want to caution my anti-choice friends that as with all legislation, there will be unintended consequences and women will still have abortions. If you really want fewer abortions (as all decent people should), you should be more tolerant of the use of birth control (this includes the morning after pill) and try to persuade women to keep their children or put them up for adoption instead of using the force of government against women in a difficult situation.

Sarah Baker:

The legal and philosophical framework of Roe v. Wade was sound. The woman’s right to autonomy must be balanced against the state’s legitimate interest in protecting life. Up until a certain point, the woman’s interests are overriding. Past a certain point, the state’s interests become overriding.

The difficulty is determining at what point that shift occurs.

As technology and scientific knowledge advance, we know more about the attributes of developing life. But only philosophy can answer what attributes entitle it to protection. A heartbeat? A brainstem? The capacity to feel pain? A preference for continued existence? The ability to fight for survival?

A decade ago, a colleague came back from her obstetrician’s appointment with a series of still shots of her 14-week old “fetus.” I believed then and continue to believe with my whole heart that what I saw that day had a soul. I therefore draw the line no later than, and possibly before, the end of the first trimester.

Kevin Boyd:

I’ve written on this topic before elsewhere and I generally stand by my latest previous writing on it. I’ve changed my views on this topic over the past few years based on experience.

While I oppose legalized second and third trimester abortions, I do believe that the best way to reduce the number of abortions (which should be the ultimate goal here) is to work through the culture. Christians and others who are pro-life need to support things such as crisis pregnancy centers, promoting adoption, and yes charities to help the families who are afraid they cannot afford to raise the children. We should also support increased access to birth control and more comprehensive sex education.

As for the first trimester, while I do believe that abortion for the sake of convenience is immoral and is murder, I have serious concerns about whether or not it is actually enforceable. Most natural miscarriages take place in this period and sometimes take place without the woman knowing she’s pregnant. So put me down as an undecided on this one.

What do you think? Please tell us in the comments below!


I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at The Hayride.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.