Are Libertarians pro-choice? On the 50th anniversary of the Libertarian Party (LP), the platform now stands silent on abortion. This is no insignificant change. It doesn’t mean the party is now officially pro-life. It also doesn’t mean the party has abandoned its principles with regard to the rights of women. To understand what this means, and what it doesn’t mean, and implications for the future of libertarian thought and practice, two things must be understood. First, the LP Platform is not libertarian philosophy, but is no less expected to accurately reflect libertarian philosophy. Second, the historical evolution of the platform on abortion and children’s rights demonstrates the lack of consistent philosophical outworking with regard to these issues.
Are Libertarians Pro-Choice?
The Libertarian Party is Officially Silent on Abortion
“A great deal of publicity accruing to a party which represents only a small fraction of libertarians, most libertarians will feel called upon to take steps to dissociate themselves from a platform or candidates which do not reﬂect their views, either of ideology or of strategy. None of this can be.” – Murray Rothbard, The Party, March 1972 edition of The Libertarian Forum, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 1–2.
A brief history of the Libertarian Party on abortion
Many people have assumed abortion-on-demand is a mainstay of libertarianism. The reason for this, I’ll get to in a moment. The LP published its first full platform in 1972. It included a plank regarding “overpopulation” that supported repealing laws prohibiting “voluntary termination of pregnancies” during their first hundred days,” roughly 14 weeks.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v Wade, the LP dropped that limitation. The Party was still not explicitly in favor of abortion-on-demand, however. Roe itself limited abortion up to viability, about 24 weeks at the time. The platform changed again in 1982. The LP blamed government policies for causing pregnancies to be unwanted or unplanned, and called for a repeal of economic regulations on voluntary exchanges of goods and services. They also opposed restrictions on alternatives to abortions including the heavy regulation on adoption services.
In 1986, the LP moved abortion from “Domestic Ills: Population” to “Individual Rights and Civil Order: Women’s Rights” and also added a provision for “Children’s Rights.” In section 20 on Women’s Rights, the LP recognized the self-ownership of women and that their rights were derived thereby. They extended the rights of self-ownership to a right to abort. The Children’s Rights plank, section 21, recognized that all children are human beings and such have all the rights of human beings. In 1992, a platform on Family Life was added and in 1994, language opposing “fetal protection doctrine” was added to the Women’s Rights and Abortion plank. Their reasoning seemed to be more about opposing government controls on a woman’s decisions for wanted pregnancies, though no doubt had implications for unwanted pregnancies as well.
The 1994 platform may have been the most strongly supportive of abortion rights. It was in 1994 that LP state affiliates began distancing themselves from the national LP on abortion. The Pennsylvania LP, for example, voted to remove abortion from their platform. The Children’s Rights plank was removed in 1996. Doris Gordan, proprietor of the Libertarians for Life website, remarks in hindsight about the 1996 LP Convention:
Various problems in it seemed too complex to resolve on the floor, e.g., where it said, “Children are human beings and as such have all the rights of human beings.” Does this mean, one delegate objected, that a four-year-old has the right to pack a loaded pistol in his pocket? In 1998, an attempt in PlatCom to rewrite failed, but Henry Haller drafted a new “Families and Children” plank for 2000. I suggested some modifications, and after making some others, PlatCom accepted the plank. Passed by a voice vote on the floor, the platform now says, “A child is a human being and, as such, deserves to be treated justly.” It also says, “Parents have no right to abandon or recklessly endanger their children. Whenever they are unable or unwilling to raise their children, they have the obligation to find other person(s) willing to assume guardianship.” On this, I had something to cheer about. I worked for over fifteen years to get such positions on children’s rights into the platform.
In 2002, significant changes were made to the whole platform, paring down each plank. Changes continued in 2004 and 2006, replacing “Women’s Rights” and “Family and Children’s Rights” with Reproductive Rights. And in 2008, the platform was pared down significantly again, this time leaving section 1.4, later moved to 1.5 in 2014, and section 1.6 on Parental Rights restored in 2016. Section 1.5 on Abortion reads as follows:
Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.
Further information about the struggle in the LP to reconcile women’s and children’s rights can be found at the Libertarians for Life website. There’s a wealth of information there. Newly re-elected LP Secretary, Caryn Ann Harlos, wrote back in 2015 that there was no consensus within the party on abortion. Roughly one third prolife, one third prochoice, and one third in the middle.
Therefore, to suggest the LP has historically been on the side of abortion rights is not at all accurate. From the early days of the party, they have always perceived limits, and they’ve been divided. Even Dr. Walter Block’s theory of Evictionism, first formulated in 1977, was really a defense of Roe v Wade in libertarian terms. Evictionism still supports legal restrictions post-viability.
A neutral platform?
The long standing argument favoring the wording of section 1.5 was that it was “genuinely neutral.” Neutrality was one possible “compromise position” you might say because pro-life libertarians have made substantial arguments that abortion is a violation of the non-aggression principle, and therefore a crime.
Plank supporters, include both self-described pro-choice and pro-life libertarians, call it “beautifully written” because it emphasizes the common ground of prolife and prochoice libertarians: “ … that government should be kept out …” Critics, however, who also include both self-described pro-choice and pro-life libertarians, have pointed out that it’s still fundamentally a pro-choice platform with these words, “leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”
Victoria Berger, Secretary of the New Hampshire affiliate, is pro-choice and supported removing the abortion plank. She said in an email,
“It was a self-contradictory plank: It claimed to be neutral, but it was clearly pro-choice. If one genuinely believes there are good-faith views on all sides (and I do), we cannot have an abortion plank … If we have an abortion plank, whether pro-life or pro-choice, one side or the other will say it’s bad and we will continue to argue over it. We do not need to waste time at every convention arguing. While we have the plank, we know it’s always going to come up. Our platform will not save a single baby’s life nor will it help someone in trouble get an abortion. It’s better to not have it at all and let individual candidates state their position on the issue.”
Sean Brennan, a pro-choice delegate also from New Hampshire stated in an email, “I voted to delete plank 1.5 because I don’t want to hear about it and I want to be able to work with people on both sides.”
Another pro-choice delegate in support of removing the abortion plank, wishing to remain anonymous stated,
“I voted to delete it because I feel like the Self-Ownership plank addresses the same thing: ownership of one’s body. Whether the mother or the fetus is having its bodily autonomy violated depends on the fundamental philosophical issues at the core of the abortion debate (where does life begin), and I don’t feel it appropriate to address within the platform”
The Mises Caucus also supported the removal of the abortion plank. Jacob Winograd, PA State Organizer of the Mises Caucus, shared with me this official statement on behalf of the Mises Caucus. (It was also passed around to the Convention delegation to persuade removal):
The current platform is explicitly pro-choice while giving lip service to the idea that the issue itself is contentious. There is no consensus among libertarian thought, literature, candidates, thinkers or the community as to whether or not abortion should be considered a violation of the non-aggression principle. Furthermore, the Dallas Accord is a well established agreement within the Libertarian Party that the party is neither explicitly minarchist or anarchist, meaning it is a party for all libertarians. This includes pro-life minarchists who see conception as the beginning of life. Due to this lack of consensus, the most truly representative thing to do is to have the party as a whole take no position and let the candidates speak to their conscience and their principles on the matter. As it stands now, the pro-choice plank stands to maintain a progressive cultural hegemony over the LP and takes a position where there is no monolithic answer. We would likewise oppose any effort to add a pro-life plank to the platform.“ (emphasis added)
Albert Veldhuyzen, Secretary of the Pro-Life Libertarian Caucus (PLLC), was one of the primary organizers on the effort to delete the abortion plank, stated this in an email,
“As a pro-lifer, I do believe that government has a role in stopping rights violations and abortion is a huge one, just like murder. And millions of people believe as I do and many didn’t consider the LP for this reason alone. I know because I was there. What we did this weekend opens the floodgates to the broader pro-life liberty movement which can now feel welcome in the LP.”
Veldhuyzen also addressed the question of why the PLLC didn’t try to replace the abortion plank with a more pro-life one.
“Replacement of plank 1.5 was simply not politically pragmatic because it only takes a majority to delete a plank but 2/3rds to amend or add a plank to the platform. Furthermore, with the impending reversal of Roe v. Wade which will devolve the abortion issue to the States, it might make more sense for the National Libertarian Party to respect the federalist decentralist notion that this issue belongs to the States and localities. Consequently, it’s best for State and local LPs to take a position on this issue.”
So, try as they did, for fifty years the LP has not been successful in articulating a plank on women’s and children’s rights that adequately captures the libertarian position on these topics.
There’s a reason for this.
Is silence (on abortion) violence (against women’s rights)?
Several posts on social media have other pro-choice libertarians worried about a number of things. Concerns range from rather typical objections against the pro-life position to just the fact of silence on the topic, given it’s politicized nature. (And perhaps especially in light of the potential overturn of Roe v Wade by the SCOTUS this June).
One prominent voice, Avens O’Brien, believes that having no abortion plank removes the established precedent that the LP position is to “keep government out,” and will encourage people to the party who favor government prohibition of otherwise personal choices. The other major concern is over a woman’s bodily autonomy and agency, specifically as they pertain to rights of reproduction more broadly.
“Keep the government out”
Abortion has been assumed to be a mainstay of libertarianism because of a confusion about it’s core principles. Is a core tenet of libertarianism to just “keep government out?” Certainly, libertarians oppose government intervention on a number of levels, but ‘why?’ is the question that leads to the fundamental position of libertarianism.
One of the major grievances philosophical libertarians have had against the LP is the apparent lack of principled positions in the “Party of Principle.” And while “keep government out” is a useful catchphrase (or, “pro-choice on everything”), if it’s founded in nothing other than sentimental populism then it’s hardly a principled position.
Libertarian philosophy holds to the principle that civil governance (whether minarchist or anarchist) is strictly limited to a properly defined role. That strict limitation is what keeps the government out … out of roles not in its purview. This is, of course, where the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression come in. But what is within a libertarian purview of civil governance, is the adjudication of contract disputes and restitution for rights violations. Libertarianism does not advocate keeping government out of its properly defined role. The question at stake in the abortion debate among libertarians, is whether abortion constitutes a rights violation.
If it does not, government should be kept out.
If it does, government has a place in restitution.
The reason many libertarians fail to present an adequate position on abortion
In my debate with Walter Block at the Soho Forum, I pointed out that conflict on this issue still exists because of compromise. Pro-choicers tend to compromise fetal rights in favor of the woman. Pro-lifers tend to compromise women’s rights in favor of the fetus. Berger articulates this as well:
“While we pride ourselves on having a consistent, principled philosophy, abortion is an issue where libertarian principles cannot be applied consistently: Either you consider the bodily autonomy of the baby or the mother, it’s impossible to do both.”
While I respectfully disagree that libertarianism cannot be applied consistently to this issue, it’s true that libertarian philosophers have yet to present a reconciliation of the rights of women and offspring in a manner satisfying to the bulk of libertarians. This doesn’t mean it cannot be done, nor is it to say that no one has tried. Doris Gordon, Dr. Ron Paul, Wendy McElroy, Dr. Walter Block, Sharon Pressley, Sean Parr, and myself are some who’ve presented possible resolutions.
Arguments by pro-choice libertarians against abortion prohibition tend to address problems in tangential issues: social and economic regulations interfering with the cost of motherhood, authoritarian policies enacted in the name of “protecting the children” (when they’re really just power grabs), and, of course, the egregious injustice that is the American criminal justice system. If a police officer can get away with roadside strip searches and body cavity searches in the name of finding illicit drugs (for recreational use) on the whim of mere suspicion, what’s to stop them from employing the same practice in the name of finding illicit drugs (for abortive use)? The other problem with the American criminal justice system is its lackadaisical effort to provide justice for victims of sexual violence. Rape is the one violent crime in America where judges will consider leniency for the offender to temper the effect of a conviction on his reputation, or ask women if they “invited” the crime in some fashion.
These grievances, however, are not arguments that principally support a natural inherent human right to abortion. They are indictments against the authoritarian state, and grievances that should be (easily) shared by pro-life libertarians.
What removal doesn’t mean. Should pro-choice libertarians be worried?
It’s hard to say how many of the majority delegates are actually pro-life and pro-choice. But given the other platform changes, there’s very little reason to believe these are a bunch of disgruntled Republicans. Reading over the rest of the LP platform (which has been updated since the 2022 Convention), we see principles delineated that actually leave a large part of the 1994 abortion plank intact, in principle.
- Inherent rights should not be denied or abridged on the basis of gender? Read section 3.5
- Repeal of protectionist economic regulations? Read section 2.11
- Recognition of full and equal rights concerning marriage and divorce? Read section 1.6.
- Opposition to laws restricting free choice, and use of private property? Read sections 1.7, 2.8, 2.13, 2.15, and 3.7
- Opposition to laws regulating the abortion industry are entailed in the above mentioned sections.
- Does a woman have self-ownership? Read sections 1.1 and 2.1.
- additionally, section 1.7 now more strongly condemns injustice created by policing policies.
Berger also likewise notes,
“if you’re pro-choice you can still find planks in our platform to support your position. The self-ownership plank affirms one’s agency and bodily autonomy. The newly amended Health Care plank also opposes government restrictions on medical treatments or procedures. The only difference is it leaves out the word ‘abortion’.”
Literally the only remaining question is whether self-ownership extends to the right to abort. Every other matter of concern for pro-choice libertarians is resolved by the platform.
And the party’s response to the question of abortion? Silence. Do pro-lifers need to be worried? While for some pro-lifers being silent is still not preferable, the effect of deleting the plank means more pro-life libertarians will be welcome to join the party and run for office. They won’t have to navigate the question of section 1.5. That’s an improvement over the alternative – leave it in and continue to be treated as second-class in our views regarding women.
Silence is the most consistent position for the platform … at this point!
If advocates of the now defunct abortion plank wanted it for its common ground, then removing it altogether is the more consistent way to go. Every other concern relevant to bodily autonomy, agency, and reproductive rights are already agreed upon by both prolife and prochoice libertarians.
However, libertarians cannot remain silent on this issue for long. We adhere to a philosophy that claims our rights are inherent in our humanity; absolute and unalienable, limited only by the non-aggression principle and our own potential. And yet, up to now we have unresolved issues reconciling this principle for two-thirds of humanity (women and offspring).
Implications for the future of libertarianism
The LP platform should reflect libertarian philosophy. Given this philosophical debate is yet to be resolved, the platform logically should remain silent on abortion itself. Libertarian philosophers now have a monumental task to fulfill: resolve the inconsistent application of libertarian principles to women and offspring, and present a case befitting our theoretical framework.
Pro-choice libertarians will have to do more than default to numerous tangential grievances against the state, or employ the old tired non-libertarian arguments favoring abortion. The key question will be, “what norm is most consistent with self-ownership and the non-aggression principle?” For my part I intend to submit a formal presentation toward this end. Members of my website, mereliberty.com, are receiving regular monthly updates on that progress, and I will continue to write articles on this issue here with LCI.