Libertarians and  Life

by Richard “Chip” Peterson, PhD, Aug. 4,2010


            Libertarians have no specific policy on abortion. They leave it to individual's conscience and individual views of morality. Basically, they see a conflict between two opposing views and arguments on each side. On the one hand, Libertarians believe that the government should insofar as possible, not interfere in an individual's life. Thus, according to this view, it is up to the potential mother to decide whether to have an abortion without government denying her freedom of choice. Conversely. Libertarians also believe that it is wrong for a person to harm, steal from, or defraud another human being, and that government action may be necessary to prevent an individual from doing so. Thus, under this view, some Libertarians argue that an unborn human must be protected by law because it would be wrong to harm a potential human being.

            The ultimate issue, in my opinion, depends upon when a fertilized human egg or fetus should become subject to the protection of the law. Some people take a basically religious view and believe that all human embryos should be protected from the moment of conception onward. People in this camp are opposed to stem cell research using human embryos as well as post conception birth control pills. At the other extreme, others take the view that a human being becomes subject to the protection of the law only after being born alive. Somewhere in the middle, others take the view that a human embryo that is sufficiently well developed so that it can survive if born should be protected under the law. There may be many gradations of the middle view, depending upon the development level of the fetus.

            In my opinion, a human being or potential human being is capable of thinking and feeling emotion, because the attributes that make humans human involve the ability to think, to feel, and to emote. I don't believe that a human being can be defined solely by the chromosomes and genes present in the fetus at the time of conception. Some humans are clearly human even if they don't have a normal complement of human chromosomes. Clearly, Down's Syndrome babies are human even if they have an extra chromosome. While their mental development may be impaired, they can still think and feel and emote-- and may well be affectionate human beings. Similarly, some people are born with an extra sex chromosome, but still function quite normally, even if they might be more impulsive or emotional, on average, than human beings with a normal set of chromosomes, most are indistinguishable in their form and behavior from “normal” humans.

            Other individuals may have a “normal” complement of chromosomes, but have experienced some genetic damage that renders them incapable of acting like a human being. When my best friend from high school was in medical school, he wrote me about a case that was very disturbing. He had helped deliver a child that was the product of incest. The child had no higher level brain functions. While alive, it could do nothing and he was concerned that it would spend a few years languishing in a crib, conscious of nothing, and being hand fed before eventually succumbing to pneumonia which was easy to catch in a care facility due to lack of exercise. Subsequently, I have read of other cases where humans were born with only a brain stem and missing higher brains. It was believed that these aberrations were caused by pollutant chemicals in the environment. Like the baby described by my friend, they could look forward to a short and possibly unhappy future (if they could emote at all). This raises the question, if one knew that a fetus would never be able to function as a human being, should it be born so it could have a short, possibly unhappy, life of misery that could only be maintained at great expense by the government or concerned relatives? It also raises the question of who should bear the considerable expense involved in facilitating its short, undeveloped life.

            Many anti-abortion proponents often allow abortions in the case of incest—possibly to prevent cases like my son friend observed—as well as in the case of rape or to preserve the life of the mother. In the case of rape it appears that people do not want rapists to profit by passing on their genes, while at the same time, making the woman suffer from the indignity and pain of the rape and acquire the unwanted responsibility of raising an unwanted baby. Preserving the life of the mother when a choice must be made makes sense to me since the mother is clearly a fully functional human being while the fetus is not yet formed completely. Also, the mother may well have the responsibility of taking care of other children.

            Overall, I am not in favor of unrestricted abortions. I don't believe abortion should generally be used as a means of birth control. I am generally opposed to partial birth abortions unless that is the only way to save the mother's life. In general I agree with abortions that are essential to save the life of the mother. I also would not argue with abortions in the case of incest or  in other cases where actual or potential genetic damage would prevent the fetus from functioning as a human being-- with cognition and feelings. I have more problems with abortions in the case of rape, but would respect the mother's right to make the decision in that case. I would not be opposed to birth control (morning after) pills that prevented an early stage zygote from implanting itself in the mother's womb (most particularly after a rape)—because the zygote has few characteristics of a human being at that time and I know that about 1/3 of all conceptions will spontaneously abort anyway. I also am not opposed to stem cell research that uses early stage zygotes that would otherwise be destroyed and does not let the zygote develop human characteristics. To some extent, I think the recent Nebraska law that would prevent abortions once the fetus is well-enough developed to have feelings makes sense. I don't know the exact particulars of the law, however, but I generally believe that a fetus should acquire  protections under the law once it has reached a stage where it has human attributes and , particularly, once it has reached a stage where it could potentially survive and function as an independent human being  if born. Once born, all human beings should be provided the full protection of the law.


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