HPRgument Blog, The Libertarian Perspective, United States — February 14, 2011 12:12 am

Funding for Abortion; Libertarian Nuances


Planned Parenthood has recently caused quite a stir in the portions of the blogosphere which classify themselves as ”pro-life.” Blogger Thomas Peters has highlighted a series of undercover investigations by a pro-life group, LiveAction.  LiveAction members, disguised as pimps and sex traffickers, have produced footage demonstrating that they received offers of help from local Planned Parenthood employees to provide underage (and hence illegal) sex workers with contraceptives, abortions, and other reproductive services, some of which would be administered in violation of federal laws (not to mention the scandal from aiding persons engaged in criminal activity). (Full footage of conversations at 5 different PP centers can be found here).

Naturally, this development has to some extent reignited a debate on whether or not organizations such as Planned Parenthood should receive any kind of financial support from the federal government. Several members of the House of Representatives are already considering drafting bills that would completely remove funding for such groups. Though the Hyde Amendment (and Executive Order 13535, which applies the Hyde Amendment to federal insurance subsidies resulting from the recent health care overhaul) prevents direct federal funding for abortions, congressional pro-lifers seek to permanently codify these measures into federal law. In fact, two new proposals, the “Protect Life Act” and “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” would seek to restrict even further the permissible use of federal funding for abortion-related activity. The ideological lines in this debate appear to be rather well-drawn. Pro-lifers, and their typically Republican allies, wish to further restrict or eliminate these sources of funding; pro-choicers, and their typically Democratic allies, seek to at the very least preserve the status quo.

But how do libertarians approach these kinds of sensitive policy questions?

This case is particularly interesting because it helps demonstrate that the libertarian approach to public policy questions is not always monolithic and without disagreements. Libertarians generally tend to agree on (sometimes) radical positions: widespread drug legalization, a drastic reduction in all sorts of government spending, reinforced protections for civil liberties, and the strengthening of private property rights. And though they essentially share concrete policy prescriptions even on federal funding of abortion, it is impossible to generalize libertarians as fitting squarely on one side of the “pro-life / pro-choice” spectrum.

This occurs because libertarians can sometimes have different reasons for supporting their choice of policy. Libertarians such as Milton Friedman or Harvard’s very own Jeffrey Miron adopt what is sometimes called a “consequentialist” approach: one that determines the merits of a policy from the standpoint of its costs and benefits. Seen from this perspective, federal funding for abortion is akin to broader federal involvement in issues such as health care – government should not have any involvement funding these sorts of procedures. The consequentialist approach does not focus on the “ethics” surrounding the issue. Rather, consequentialist libertarians typically advocate government involvement only when one can make a positive and convincing case that (1) there exists an important social problem (involving the presence of “large” externalities) and that (2) governmental action can, on the net, provide greater benefits than costs.  A typical consequentialist libertarian – even though he may be a supporter of legal protection for abortion  - will likely believe that federal funding for abortion services meets neither criterion.

The consequentialist view, therefore, examines this issue through a purely technical or economic lens. Other libertarians, however, take a deontological, or more “philosophical,” approach to the issue. In the deontological view, the question becomes not one of costs v. benefits, but of right v. wrong. That is, this perspective examines the ethical questions relevant to the case. Libertarians who take this path find that they fall on different sides of the pro-life/pro-choice divide.

Libertarians such as Prof. Walter Block and popular writer Ayn Rand, advocating philosophical libertarian principles echoed by many defenders of abortion today, hold that a right to abortion naturally stems from a woman’s ownership of her body.

Other libertarians, however, such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), oppose abortion on similar philosophical grounds, arguing that an unborn child, too, has rights – rights which are disproportionately violated in an act of elective abortion.

Both positions, however, reach the same policy conclusions regarding funding for abortion procedures. Prof. Block believes, just as Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick argues, that state financing for non-defense and non-protection purposes violates the rights of others. And pro-life libertarians such as the Pauls believe that public funding for abortion constitutes cooperating in a moral wrong.

Ultimately, then, both consequentialist and deontological libertarians reach the same conclusions: that government should not be involved in financing the provision of abortion. But this concurrence extends further, as both sides agree on the optimal policy concerning current abortion legislation. Both argue that abortion policy should be debated at the state level, giving each state the power to permit or regulate abortion as it sees fit. The “We the People Act,” sponsored by Rep. Paul, aims to do precisely that by removing the jurisdiction of federal courts in manners relating to abortion. Giving the states such latitude will probably result in (perhaps vastly) differing statutes concerning the practice, but, the argument goes, since the regulation of most criminal activity occurs on the state level, so, too, abortion should be a legal issue left to the states.

Again, the issue of abortion is of particular interest when examining libertarian approaches to public policy precisely because this highly contentious issue remains ultimately unresolved in the libertarian intellectual community. And though they are largely united in their short-term, legislature-ready policy prescriptions, libertarians recognize that their end of the political spectrum certainly has its own version of a “big tent” phenomenon.

Photo credit: RawStory

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  • Anonymous

    As I’ve tried to demonstrate in this article, I would think not. I’ve tried to show that there is a divide between consequentialist and deontological libertarians. Consequentialists, as the name suggests, believe that the consequences of policies deserve pride of place (or the only place) in discussion about the merits of a policy. Deontologists believe that many policy questions can be resolved by an appeal to ethics or other sorts of a priori reasoning.

    But even among these groups there are divisions and differences. Again, as I’ve demonstrated above, deontologists remain divided over what rights are had by both an unborn infant and its mother, and which rights take precedent over which.

    Consequentialists could in theory be divided, according to how the interpret the evidence. But again, they are generally united by the basic theory that intervention is only justified if (1) one can prove that a serious problem exists, and (2) that government intervention can solve said problem. Most, if not all, consequentialist libertarians are likely to think that public funding for abortion fails to meet at least one of these conditions. But yes, theoretically, there could be a division.

    What unites all of these groups is their general commitment to liberty, understood as the absence of control, or the prevention of violence. But there can be a great amount of disagreement on the application (or the source) of these principles. So in a very limited respect, libertarianism is “canonical,” but no more so than other political philosophies of today.

    Let’s not turn this into the typical semantic argument, where we argue whether “capitalism” is the right term for “free market” or not; or whether consequentialist or deontologists are “true” libertarians; or whether taxation constitutes “aggression” or not. At this point it’s simply worth pointing out that regardless of the fine (or large) philosophical differences, people who identify themselves as “libertarian” generally tend to arrive at similar conclusions about policy.

    At the end of the day we all have similar solutions, or at least a common general direction, for solving policy problems. Resolving finer philosophical differences is important, but it shouldn’t take precedent over actually moving in our common direction.

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