Question: What is the Objectivist view on abortion and how would one defend this view?
Answer: (Originally printed in Navigator, March, 1999, Vol.2, No. 7 pp. 18-19.) In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court declared a constitutionally protected right to abortion. Far from resolving the debate that gave rise to it, this decision only increased the vehemence of disagreement in the United States over the legalization of abortion and its status as protected by right. The profundity of the issues at stake provides both sides of the debate ample grounds to employ strong words and harsh means in defense of their respective positions. On the one hand, if one favors a right to abortion, one likely does so because the most basic privacy and self-ownership of the woman is at stake; on the other hand, if one opposes it, one likely does so because one regards abortion as a species of murder, and therefore the gravest of crimes.
held that "abortion is a moral right-which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved." ("Of Living Death," The Objectivist, Oct. 1968, 6) In her view opposition to abortion arises from a failure to grasp both the context of rights and the imposition that child-bearing places on women. As she put it: "A piece of protoplasm has no rights-and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable." ("A Last Survey," The Ayn Rand
Letter, IV, 2, 3) These conclusions rest on the distinctively Objectivist approach to the relationship between human nature and rights, so to understand Rand's position we must begin with her distinctive view of rights.
Rights: Intrinsic or Objective?
One way to argue against abortion rights is to hold that a fertilized ovum is just as much a person as an adult human being is, and as such has rights of its own. This amounts to an intrinsicist view that human life, whatever its stage of development, possesses rights. Such a view is common among Christians, for example, who hold that the soul - supposedly created at conception- is the source of one's moral and legal claims.
Against this Objectivism
recognizes that, although rights derive from the nature of man, they do not inhere in anything. Rights are principles. As such they apply to beings with certain characteristics. Rights are based on the fact that the use of force against others is not a reliable means of gaining values, while dealing with others by production and trade is. Given this fact, it makes sense to ban force from our normal, value-seeking interactions with others, and restrict its use to self-defense and objectively controlled retaliation. Individual rights, then, define the areas or aspects of action which should be free from force.
We therefore apply rights principles to a person in virtue of his ability to live by production and trade. This in turn depends on his capacity for reason, on his conceptual mind. To live by production and trade, one must be able to project and pursue alternatives to what is given metaphysically in nature; grasp principles and thereby employ conceptual knowledge; and communicate and learn open-endedly, making possible agreements, friendship, and the transmission of knowledge. Beings that lack these capacities also lack rights: dogs, for instance, or termites. But some humans -infant children, embryos and fetuses- also lack these capacities; if we deny intrinsicism, whatever basic rights or legal claims they may deserve must be explained by an argument that follows not from their actual, existing capacities, but from their potential to develop.
The Right To Life
In the Objectivist view, one's fundamental rights are unitary, because they define the freedom that a rational being needs, in a social context, in order to live by production and trade. There is a single right to one's life, and to the freedom of action that one requires in order to achieve happiness in it. One's rights to property, contract, and freedom of speech are all corollaries or applications of the basic right to life. This right is not a positive claim on anyone else, and it is not bounded to a limited scope of action.
Because they are unable to support themselves by reason, we cannot extend this right to infants or the unborn in a clear and straightforward manner. An infant, for example, may possess a developing rational faculty, but he cannot use it to support his life; indeed, he requires so much care that to offer him the full right to life and liberty is to consign him to death. This author has discussed children's legal status elsewhere (see http://home.roadrunner.com/~wrthomas/papers.htm
). Here there is only space to advert to an important conclusion: it is hasty and cavalier to simply say that a fetus, or even an infant has rights in the sense that an adult does, or for the reasons an adult does. The "right to life" of an infant, for instance, amounts to little more than an entitlement not to be harmed or killed by force. Such a "right" does not prevent the infant from being manhandled, vaccinated, diapered, restrained, washed, and otherwise cared-for without the slightest rational consent.
The Claims of a Potential
If rights are not inherent in the actual properties of the unborn, then one can only oppose abortion rights by an analogy between an embryo and an infant. In this view, the mother has an obligation to nurture the prenatal development of a child, just as she would have an obligation to succor the child himself. But an infant, after all, is an independent living organism in the process of developing into a rational being. An embryo or early-term fetus, or an unfertilized ovum for that matter, also has the potential to develop into a rational being, but is not yet an independent organism. Can one be obligated to a potential-qua-potential? Obligated, not to a distinct living being, but to create such a being?
The development of a child is a complex process that passes through several stages. Before conception, causal processes in the male and female reproductive organs have the potential to bring about human life. The first stage of development after conception is the implantation of the embryo in the mother's uterus. Here the processes that create the child are localized; the embryo has its own genetic structure, and the range of potential characteristics of the future human being narrows. But the embryo is subject to many developmental pitfalls, and may be affected in its fundamental nature by many factors. Toward in the latter stages of the first trimester of pregnancy, a healthy embryo has developed the basic structure of most of the essential organs of a human being; it is now designated a fetus. There is a far from trivial difference between an embryo, in which the mother's body is still forming the nervous system, limbs and organs that will constitute the new human being, and a new-born infant, that acts and lives as distinct organism. And there is a far from absolute difference between the probabilistic character of the potential human before conception, and the uncertain future of the embryo.
Note that there is no radical difference between the potential closed off by contraception, and that closed off by the abortion of an embryo. In each case the future existence of rational being may be at stake. An obligation derived from that mere potential would be very open-ended indeed. Taken to its logical extreme, it could entail totally subordinating oneself to procreation. Even if, somewhat arbitrarily, we ignore this absurdity, it remains unclear why a line should be drawn at conception. If one holds that no potential human should be denied its chance for life, then one should oppose not only the abortion of embryos, but also "morning after" pills that induce menstruation and prevent the implantation of the embryo, and contraceptives that prevent fertilization. The Catholic Church, which condemns contraception along with abortion, at least has the virtue of consistency.
The Rights of an Actual
Opponents of abortion rights seek to impose obligations in the name of a process that leads to a human being, upon the rights of an actual human being: the mother. This is no small duty, but a long-term obligation to care for her child, on top of enduring the burdens of pregnancy and childbirth. Many hold that in choosing to engage in sexual relations, the woman assumes responsibility for bearing a child if she finds herself pregnant. But this simply accepts biology and tradition, and ignores the medical advances that have made contraception and safe abortion possible.
The right to an abortion follows as an aspect of a woman's right to her own life, as a rational, independent living being.
One can incur an obligation without choosing to do so; for instance, if one injures someone in an auto accident, one is responsible for seeing him right, regardless of whether one intended to have a wreck. But there is no reason to deny people choice in accepting great obligations, if choice is both possible and consonant with justice. A secure legal right to abortion ensures that the obligations of pregnancy and parenthood can be faced and chosen on their own merits, and not undertaken unwillingly. This would naturally matter little if one could demonstrate that an embryo is a being with rights, to whom obligations can be directly incurred. But it is not such a being.
Abortion is a right because it follows from recognizing that a woman's body is her own, to use as she sees fit. A woman is an independent living being with the rational capacities that make it appropriate to regard her as having rights. By contrast, in the first trimester of pregnancy, the embryo or early fetus is clearly neither an independent life form, nor does it possess a rational faculty. The development of the embryo into fetal form continues only with the active support of the mother's body, and its healthy development depends on the health and diet of the mother. Even after the fetal form has taken shape, there is much development that must occur before the fetus develops the neurological and physical capacities it will need to live independently.
The proper legal status of healthy, second and third trimester fetuses is less clear. In the third trimester a fetus is likely to be viable outside the womb. Concerning the second trimester, one can note that the cognitive processes of a human being are under way, although the fetus still lacks the clear-cut existence as an independent organism that is the key to the rights of infants. Although this is a gray area, this author is of the mind that a woman's right to control the use of her own body can be secured by her choice during the first trimester, and that in such a context, abortion in the second and third trimesters is inappropriate in the case of a healthy pregnancy. In this view the right to abortion not only falls, but may be fairly said to stand, on the issue of a woman's right to abort in the first trimester.
We have now seen why Ayn Rand
and other prominent Objectivists have favored the right to abortion. The right follows as an aspect of a woman's right to her own life, as a rational, independent living being. Opposition to that right founders on the fact that an embryo or early term fetus is not an independent or rational living being with rights of its own.
William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society. Thomas is currently a lecturer in the Department of Economics of the University at Albany.