Walter Block is well-known in libertarian circles. He’s a professor and chair of economics at Loyola University and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Block first articulated his position on abortion, known as evictionism, back in 1977 and is built upon Murray Rothbard’s work on property rights being the basis for human rights.
Block attempts to bring the strongest argument possible by assuming the strongest premises from both sides of the debate.
- That life begins at conception, and the fetus is a rights-bearing individual. (pro-life assumption)
- That a woman’s body is her own and she doesn’t have to allow it to be used for pregnancy against her will. (pro-choice assumption)
Many conservative pro-lifers suppose personhood legislation would end the debate once and for all. However, Block argues that it changes very little. In Block’s view, an unwanted fetus is a trespasser, and therefore the unwanted fetus is violating the rights of the woman permitting her to act against it in self-defense.
This may sound jarring to our moral sensibilities, but so far, Block’s critics haven’t been able to argue successfully against his position. At least, his critics haven’t been able to present a better theory consistent with libertarianism. Block’s motivation, however, is not to offer an “idealistic” theory incapable of concrete application. He claims evictionism is also pragmatic; practical, if acted on, in achieving one of the primary aims of the prolife movement – saving as many lives as possible. And Block believes it may even result in a fully pro-life society afterall, technology permitting.
“While a pregnant woman should be legally required to help the fetus survive outside her body whenever that is possible, she retains the legal right to evict the fetus at any time during her pregnancy.”
In Block’s view, eviction is a distinct element of abortion. It’s critically important to understanding Block’s argument that he doesn’t view abortion as a single act, but a complex action of eviction plus killing. More precisely, eviction (as opposed to abortion) is an early end to pregnancy that doesn’t unnecessarily result in fetal death. A non-viable fetus may be evicted from the mother’s womb even though it will inevitably result in fetal death. Viability is the point at which a fetus can survive outside the mother’s womb. By definition, a fetus cannot survive before “viability” and will die outside the womb.
Block argues that since the fetus is an “innocent trespasser”, eviction must be by the “gentlest means possible.” Since eviction is a woman’s right as a property owner, there may be no legal prohibition against her liberty to evict. Since we do not yet have technology to extend viability to the earliest stages of pregnancy, lethal eviction during non-viability is, in Block’s view, the gentlest means of eviction possible, and does not constitute abortion.
Over time, technological advancement could extend viability to near conception, and make lethal eviction obsolete. Surely, this creates motivation on the part of prolifers to push for medical innovations in order to save fetal lives, moving towards a legal order that permits only non-lethal eviction. Evictionism would also allow for present legal prohibition against late-term abortion. It would also legally require a woman who evicted her viable fetus to secure a substitute caretaker.
In the meantime, pro-choice women would only be permitted legal access to lethal eviction pre-viability. After viability, she could still have access to non-lethal eviction, thus protecting her rights to bodily autonomy throughout her entire pregnancy.
The key is property rights
The basis for rights in libertarianism is self-ownership, and is the key to understanding the rights of both the woman and the fetus. Unlike prochoice arguments, Block affirms the fetus is a person; a rights-bearing individual. However, being a rights-bearing individual in this instance isn’t enough in Block’s view to prohibit lethal options pre-viability.
First, holding to Rothbard’s view, Block asserts that, technically speaking, there is no positive “right to life,” rather, we only have a negative right to not be aggressed against. Eviction and inevitable death of a non-viable fetus doesn’t count as murder or any other act of aggression in Block’s view. Why? Because in Block’s estimation, the fetus is a trespasser (an aggressor) – even if an innocent and unwitting one.
Block modifies Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist thought experiment and uses it to support his claim. It’s essentially this: if you woke up one morning, connected by medical tubes to the body of an unconscious violinist, surely you shouldn’t be legally obligated to remain attached, because that would constitute slavery. You are free to disconnect yourself, even though the violinist will soon die disconnected from your life support.
The violinist, though unconscious, is in effect trespassing the property of your body, and therefore you have the right to evict. It’s impermissible for you to end this involuntary connection by slitting the violinist’s throat; that would be unnecessary, and thus murder. You should notify someone …