What about Fetal Rights?

In response to my letter on abortion recently published in Reason Magazine, several people have asked me, “What about fetal rights?” I addressed that issue in my original letter but it was edited out. Below is the letter I submitted with the portions that were deleted in bold.

Libertarian and Mother of Four

As a libertarian and a mother of four, I take issue with Radley Balko’s characterization of the abortion debate in “Getting Beyond Roe” (Aug/Sep) as being about “setting community standards” and that issues such as abortion “are best dealt with in those diverse laboratories of democracy, the states.” Abortion should no more be a question for local politics than slavery.

Community standards are the greatest threat to individual liberty there is. They have led to witch trials, kangaroo courts, censorship and egregious takings through eminent domain. And now Balko would like to let them decide the reproductive fate of women. Our country is not a democracy, not even a federalist democracy, but a constitutional republic — a country in which the Constitution protects individuals against majoritarian trespass. As far as individual rights are concerned, the Constitution is useless if it can’t protect one portion of the population from being forced into involuntary servitude by another, no matter at what level of government the enslavement takes place.

The right to have an abortion per se is not the issue, but the right to self-determination, the right not to be used as a means to an end against one’s will, the right not to be considered a communal resource — in short, the right for women to have the same control over their own bodies and their own fates as men.

Perhaps Roe was decided wrongly, not because it nationalized a right to abortion, but because it was decided in reliance on the wrong precedents. The 13th Amendment is more germane to the abortion debate than the Griswold v. Conn. line of cases and their amorphous right to privacy. Blackmun, in Roe, showed sympathy for the plight of women but also a profound paternalistic disrespect for those very people he was trying to help. To hinge the right of women to control their own bodies on privacy instead of every individual’s right, whether male or female, not to be treated as a public resource indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake.

I believe abortion is morally wrong, but I also believe that in a conflict between mother and fetus, a woman’s right must always take precedence. A human being’s rights under the law increase with maturity. That has been the tradition under Anglo-American law as well as world wide for most of history. To suggest that a fetus has the same rights as a mature adult individual borders on the perverse. A woman’s rights should never be placed second to the needs of her fetus. To do so is to treat women first and foremost as communally owned vessels for bringing forth life and only second as autonomous individuals.

For those, like myself, who believe abortion is fraught with moral difficulties, the correct course of action is to teach, communicate, and discuss the importance of valuing human life with our daughters, our female neighbors and our friends. We must help them come to the correct conclusion based on good clear reasoning and the strength of our convictions. To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth unwillingly is involuntary servitude, no matter what the rationale. Pregnancy and birth are the most dangerous work most women will ever do. To deprive them of medically feasible means for escaping those dangers, let alone planning their lives, is to treat women with the greatest disrespect.

There is no question that decisions about abortion are horrendously difficult, but just because a decision is difficult doesn’t mean women aren’t fit to make them. Life entails many difficult decisions, often involving life and death. Men make decisions about how to protect their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes those decisions involve going to war. Women, like men, make decisions about what is best for their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes such decisions involve abortions. Fetuses are potential children, not full grown adults, and women are full grown adults, not children. It is time we start treating each with the respect and dignity they deserve.