Abortion is a subject that never fails to spark controversy in American politics. Even among libertarians, a clear consensus is hard to achieve.
Pro-life libertarians believe a fetus is a human life whose individual rights must be respected throughout pregnancy. Conversely, pro-choice libertarians believe abortion access is a fundamental human right and an intimate matter to be decided in the privacy of the doctor’s office rather than by the state.
The debate picked up momentum again when the State of New York passed the Reproductive Health Act in late January, which removes abortion from the penal code. This allows more freedom for women and their doctors to perform an abortion if deemed necessary after 24 weeks. Criticism and praise were strong from each side of the debate. Pro-choicers applauded the law for promoting the further protection of medical and social rights, especially if Roe v Wade is at risk of being overturned. Pro-lifers decried the law as a sign of moral decay, a gross disrespect for the sanctity of life that encourages abortion at any stage of pregnancy.
Libertarianism distinguishes itself by rejecting a collectivist approach to matters of policy and culture, or at least it should. Naturally, there are topics that stir up more visceral reactions than others, which is a human thing to do.
But I have seen pro-life libertarians share news sources or memes in response to the passing of RHA that traffic in fear-mongering, shaming, and disgust. This approach only serves to shut down bridges of information and understanding with “baby killer” imagery. Also, conflating elective abortions with pressured or forced abortions in other countries for purposes of genocide or sex preference muddies the waters.
Effective reproductive health policy and a solid basis for discussion must be based on credible facts and statistics, no matter how one identifies on the abortion debate. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), The Guttmacher Institute, World Health Organization (WHO), and American Psychological Association (APA) are good places to start because their reporting is based off primary sources and peer-reviewed research.
The perennial question: when exactly life begins is a question that still begs a definitive answer from scientists, philosophers, and religious followers. Arthur Caplan, an award-winning professor of bioethics at New York University, told Slate, “Many scientists would say they don’t know when life begins. There are a series of landmark moments. The first is conception, the second is the development of the spine, the third the development of the brain, consciousness, and so on.”
Some cultures and religions view the path to personhood as a gradual one, designating the heartbeat or first breath as the threshold, while others believe life begins from conception. There is no definitive answer, as it truly depends on the individual’s decision to place weight on biological facts, religious beliefs, or some combination of both. But even assuming life begins from conception for argument’s sake, a black-and-white approach to abortion is still dubious.
Some of the outrage over RHA is that abortion will be encouraged as a primary birth control method. This is patently false since the law doesn’t seek to influence abortion patterns, but simply decriminalize existing ones which deviate sharply from various pro-life claims:
The facts are that women of all faiths and socio-economic backgrounds seek abortions. Most abortions, almost 90%, are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy. In fact, over half of all abortions are performed within the first 8 weeks, and fewer than 2% occur at 21 weeks or later. If abortion were used as a primary method of birth control, a typical woman would have at least two or three abortions per year, which would equal 30 or more during her lifetime. On the contrary, 52% of women who have abortions have had no previous abortions, while 26% of women have had one previous abortion. Considering that most women are fertile for over 30 years, and that birth control is not perfect, the likelihood of having one or two unintended pregnancies is highly probable. Abortions are expensive and hard to plan around. Also, legal restrictions such as forced sonogram procedures and mandatory waiting periods, which vary by state, are not easy to accommodate.
Accusing a woman seeking abortion as selfish or flippant about their pregnancy is also at the center of the outrage over RHA. Most women base their decision on several factors, the most common being lack of financial support or not being prepared to start or grow their existing families. Half of all women getting abortions report they used contraception during the month they became pregnant. No contraceptive method prevents pregnancy 100% of the time. Furthermore, women feel a range of emotions after getting an abortion not limited to regret or sadness. The APA reports it is prevalent for women to have one or more positive and negative feelings at the same time, and for these feelings to evolve over time. The intensity of these feelings depends on the woman, her beliefs, her support system and circumstances in her own life.
The fact is that heavy restrictions on access to abortion result in women having to suffer prolonged, potentially dangerous miscarriages and being forced to carry a dead baby to term because legislation left them no other choice. The RHA is particularly meant to help these women who would’ve been punished by the law otherwise. Claims of doctors encouraged to “abort” live babies are contrived, if not false altogether. Only a handful of doctors perform third-trimester abortions in the country, and they assert strict parameters regarding what they feel a woman’s situation merits. The medical community stresses that legal reasons to perform abortions in the third trimester are not easily exploitable loopholes.
Libertarians should be individualists, even when they don’t like something like abortion. That implies treating women as individuals, and not as vehicles to project personal beliefs informed by generalizations of who seeks an abortion and why.
A collectivist approach is the enemy of truth and nuance regarding a procedure that has profound ramifications in regards to public health.
I urge pro-life libertarians to discourage yellow journalism and commit to addressing the roots of unwanted pregnancies which everyone can agree on: share information on where to get low-cost birth control, counseling for rape victims, provide avenues to support adoption agencies, and more. These mindful approaches are crucial to combatting a political culture that profits off misinformation, anger and division.