Abortion, the NAP and Personal Autonomy

Abortion. Even if we were to downplay the nature of the debate surrounding it, we could still say with relative ease that it is one of the more controversial subjects of the secular age — its polarizing nature can transcend left and right or liberalism and conservatism. We’ve all witnessed abortion divide friends at parties and families over dinner. Indeed, it’s a delicate and hysteria-inducing topic — and still, that’s if we say the least about it.

For many years abortion was something I found myself largely silent on. Reasoning that discussing the topic from a libertarian perspective can be a tricky beast to ride, I always chose to steer clear of doing so, instead giving answers without any depth or authentic analysis of libertarian values and the morality of abortion. That is, until I was finally met with the questions: ‘Is there a single libertarian stance on abortion?’ — as the designated libertarian of most of my social circles, I’m often met with these kind of interrogations. And usually, I enjoy them — but abortion isn’t a topic I take a great deal of pleasure in addressing. However, I think we libertarians need to address the fact that to outsiders, we do not look to be entirely coherent on the matter.

To understand what may bring a libertarian to his or her conclusion on abortion, we must first understand a central and defining belief that moulds the libertarian outlook — the ‘NAP’ or ‘Non-Aggression Principle’. If you are reading this, I will assume you are already familiar with the term. However if you are not, I will take a paragraph to offer a brief outline (fellow liberty-lovers, skip straight to the following paragraph).

The NAP is a belief that the state or groups (or individuals) must be prohibited from using any kind of force, whether physical, financial, emotional or otherwise, against an individual. Anarcho-capitalists are more inclined to take the NAP to a literal (some would argue extreme) conclusion, whereas the everyday libertarian is slightly more fluid in his/her understanding of it — but nevertheless, it remains central to the political philosophy of libertarianism. All forms of coercion would be criminalized under a libertarian government, and the NAP would be central for such an administration. Generally speaking, the NAP would cover things such as conscription, the death penalty, domestic and foreign policy, drugs — and abortion.

On what side the NAP falls when it comes to abortion is incredibly divisive among libertarians. Many see the NAP as being grounds to have little regulation surrounding abortion: ‘a woman has total and complete autonomy over herself, which must not be shaken at any cost’. But on the other side, some libertarians interpret the NAP to be violated the moment a fetus becomes capable of experiencing pain and a mother chooses to terminate it. Religious libertarians might extend this to conception. If we were to make a sweeping assumption here, we could say that most libertarians fall in to the first camp. Libertarian Party policy in the US is vehemently pro-choice, for example. However, commentators and politicians like Austin Petersen and Julie Borowski are vocally pro-life, as are Gavin McInnes and Ben Shapiro, hard-line conservatives who lean libertarian.

Personally, I fall in to the first and second groups, but not without disagreements with the general pro-choice consensus. In my country (UK), abortion is legal up until the 24th week — I deem this to be inappropriate, and I think this should be cut down to 16–18 (I would go as further if I didn’t have an inclination for compromising with what’s realistic). And prior to this point where I believe the fetus counts as a human child, though ultimately I support a woman’s right to choose, I do not see abortion as the desirable outcome of a pregnancy. This does not mean that I have less respect for couples/women who choose to terminate their pregnancies (sometimes, in certain scenarios, it may be necessary) and it doesn’t mean that I think abortion is a shameful thing — my heart goes out to anybody who has had to go through the ordeal of abortion, whether due to economic reasons, age, health or anything else. But this does not mean I think abortion is ‘good’ thing. It is a solemn circumstance to say the least.

I do not speak for the libertarian movement here, only as an individual, but to my mind it would be preferable if a shift in attitudes towards family, parenthood and abortion occurs. I do not wish to live in a world where abortion is universally illegal, however I would certainly have a preference for a world where abortions were rare due to better sexual education, healthier attitudes to sex and relationships (I am a staunch advocate of monogamy, the nuclear family and only shagging people you actually love) and awe at the beauty of a new human life blessed with the world at his/her fingertips.

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