“Right to life” vs. “License to kill”: A Libertarian Case for the Pro-Life Position

Promoted to the front by Erick based on a recommendation from several readers.

The abortion issue involves vast deeps of confusion about the nature of rights, freedom and the lack thereof, choice, license, responsibilities, and obligations. In this essay I attempt to cut away all the confusion to get to the heart of things from a classical liberal approach.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Until it gets to the First Amendment, the Constitution has nothing to say on the matter of Human Rights. This doesn’t mean they didn’t exist until then. Americans had Rights before the Bill of Rights passed. Our Rights descended from English common, statute, and chancery law, and before that from the ancient traditions of free Christian Englishmen (the 1689 Bill of Rights not least among these enumerations of rights). But those are peripheral sources of Rights for Americans. Most central to the American concept of Rights is The Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence, in which our Rights as Americans and humans were so eloquently advanced, stated that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable (intrinsic, non-severable) Rights. It does not state that humans are born equal, but created so. For this reason it matters when human life is created. For the answer we turn to science.

Ask any geneticist when life begins and (assuming sexual reproduction) they’ll tell you it’s when the ovum is fertilized by the sperm. At that point the fertilized egg has the same genetic structure it will have for its entire life, and much of the course of its future life is set, unless interrupted by accident or violent attack. Life begins when the genetic structure is in place and the biological processes begin. It’s the same with a human as it is with a kangaroo or an amoeba. Life, human or otherwise, begins at the beginning. That is the instant of creation. The act of creation invoked in the Declaration is found at the beginning of life.

Rights such as the rights to life, liberty, and property permit the rights-holder to live or die, to own, control, keep, give and sell his self, the product of his own labor, and the inventions of his mind as he likes, so long as he does not infringe on the rights of others. This is Liberty. Anything else is human bondage. Each human is created with a full set of rights, beginning with the right to life. The other rights are meaningless without the right to life so it stands alone as the foundation of all the rights.

The unalienable human rights do not include the so-called right to seize the property or infringe on the rights of another. Such so-called rights are better called “license,” as in James Bond’s fictional “license to kill” or the IRS’s all-too-real “license to tax.” License so understood is not any part of a society of free humans but rather a way of allowing one person to force others into bondage, slavery, or slaughter.

The right to life is the most basic, foundational right without which other rights mean nothing. So how is it that one person’s so-called rights can allow her to take away the foundational rights of another? The answer is they can’t. There are no such rights. This would be license. But license is not endowed upon humans by their Creator. It is claimed by those who wish to oppress others while claiming victimhood for themselves. By misusing the language of rights the proponents of a so-called right to abortion have invented a license to kill for the mother while denying the child any rights at all. This is hardly an example of human beings created equal. It is a much better example of human beings created different and at war.

But surely, you say, a woman has a choice not to carry a child to term. Yes, I would respond. She has that right of choice before a child grows within her. When she has sex she earns the responsibility to deal with the consequences of her actions. Responsibility is always the inevitable result of having done something to earn it.

What about force, you may probe more deeply. Does not a woman who is raped or the victim of incest have the right to choose whether to carry a child to term? Let us consider, I respond. This is where good people may differ. Some may say that when the woman’s right to choose when to have a child is infringed on by violence, she may lawfully exercise that right upon discovering she is pregnant. They say that if she likes, she may take on the obligation to carry the child of rape or incest to term, but obligation being a voluntary choice, it is not an inevitable result like a responsibility would be.

Others see it differently. I, for one, believe giving birth to a child even of rape or incest is still an inevitable responsibility, not a voluntary obligation.

This scenario may illustrate why. I believe it will be persuasive. A woman, let us call her Mary, catches typhoid fever. She is infected through no fault of her own. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time and became the target of a hostile microbe. She does not have an active infection, but is a carrier. Typhoid Mary has the right to do as she sees fit, so long as she does not infringe on the rights of others. Non-infringement on others’ rights is the only limit to rights. But this means she can’t simply do as she wishes, because she will keep on passing on the infection to others. Others will die from Typhoid Mary, unless she is quarantined. So she has the responsibility to quarantine herself away from other people until she is cured or no longer communicable. She has earned that responsibility by becoming infected with typhoid, even though she did not choose it. By this example, we see that responsibility is the inevitable result of voluntary and also involuntary actions and changes. It is not guilt. It is not blame. It is something else entirely.

Typhoid Mary did not choose to become infected with typhoid. A rape victim who becomes pregnant did not choose to have sex. Yet both have a responsibility to change what they do and where they go so as not to kill others. This is unfortunate. But there is no such thing as a right to good fortune.

Remember, any so-called right to good fortune or be free from want is actually a disguised license to take the life or property of others. The one who exercises such license becomes an oppressor.

Well, you ask, what about circumstances where the mother will die if she gives birth? Bingo, I respond. You finally got the circumstance where the libertarian argument is squarely on the side of abortion. You see, I simplified things earlier in the argument when I stated there are no rights to take away the rights of another. I did that so I wouldn’t throw too many thoughts in the air at once. That was incorrect. There is one such circumstance and right. It is the right to self-defense. There is one circumstance in which humans have a right to hurt, immobilize, disable or kill another human, and that is when the other human is going to kill them (whether intentionally or not). A woman who aborts a child for purposes of self-defense will be subject to investigation and perhaps trial by a jury of her peers, as will the doctors or others who assisted with or performed the abortion procedure. The presumption of innocence would be pretty strong in these self-defense cases. And I can’t imagine the penalties for most women who claim self-defense and abort their children, except the most egregious examples of women who make it a habit, being very severe. Doctors might have it somewhat rougher. The result will be as just as the justice system, which is at heart a system of mutual self-defense to protect precisely the rights I’ve been going on and on about, allows it to be.

The confusion in our society about rights, license, responsibility and obligation is monumental. That’s no reason why we cannot overcome it. In any case, the libertarian or classical liberal’s case for the unborn child’s right to life, buttressed by the Declaration of Independence, is air tight. I invite all libertarians who have not already done so to join the right side of the abortion issue.


Cross-posted at Beaglescout.