Friday, November 29, 2013

NAP and the Unborn Child

I have previously written about abortion and presented the case against abortion solely in terms of both contract rights and property rights in the womb for the duration of the pregnancy – both of which, I conclude, favor the unborn child.

A few days ago, via a circuitous path not worth retracing, I came back to the topic – this time in my first and stumbling attempt to address it in a different manner, asking the question when is a human human.  I was hoping for some dialogue in that thread, dialogue that would help me clarify if not my thinking, at least the questions; my hope was fulfilled. 

Well, I think I understand the questions to be addressed; in this post, I will take a crack at answering them in a less stumbling manner than in the last post.  I have no idea if I will end up with something coherent, but at least I hope to push my thinking along.

I will start with my view on the NAP and life.  It seems obvious to me that the end of life is the ultimate separation from the possibility of liberty (absent a person’s views about an afterlife – far beyond my scope).  I guess I have to state that because not all violations of the NAP are created equal in my view.

Given this, any view that justifies the taking of life must be weighed carefully – it seems to me the burden of proof must be on the one taking action to take a life.  Given the significance of the taking of a life as it relates to liberty, the weight of evidence must be significantly in favor of the taking of life.

This seems easy to do in the various war actions taken by most states – almost all offensive and therefore completely unjustifiable.  Carpet bombing civilians, nuclear bombs, Agent Orange, drone strikes, depleted uranium – all violations of the NAP.

What of self-defense, or defending another who is in jeopardy?  Here, the theory seems easy although at times the application might be a little difficult.  For this post I am focused on theory, not application.

What about the death penalty?  I have come to conclude, even without leaning on the reality that the state cannot be trusted to make such a decision, that it is not right for anyone to take such a decision.  Taking a life is so…final, no matter who does the taking.  This is no act of self-defense.  Lock them up and be done with it.

Now I come to abortion.  And now I come to what I believe are the right questions.

When is a human human?

Somewhere between the moment of conception and the moment of birth, it seems clear that there is a human.  I know that many try to pinpoint the time in development – a heartbeat, brainwaves, whatever. 

It strikes me that such attempts are nothing more than splitting hairs.  No one can say with certainty regarding the occurrence of any of these events and the becoming of human.  The only thing certain is that at some point the developing child will clearly be human.  But at what point?

Block and Whitehead have offered the following:

At what point does human life begin?  There are really only two reasonable possibilities: at conception or at birth; all other points of development in between are merely points along a continuum which begins and ends with these two options.

This seems to me to be correct, and I am hard-pressed to choose other than one of these two points.  No one can say with certainty, and as there is no certainty in this question I am left to consider either the one objective event or the other.  All points in between are subjective (and perhaps guesswork) – there is nothing concrete about any other particular stage in development.

So which point is it?  I will start by looking at the birth; if the newborn is human, what of the unborn child a few moments before?  It seems impossible to differentiate two newborns side-by-side: one born after full term, and the second induced a few days or hours prior to its natural term (for whatever reason).  Place the two newborns side-by-side – what difference is there?

There is no difference – full-term as opposed to shortly before full-term.  So, the one extreme point – birth – does not seem to be the reasonable point at which to differentiate human from not human.

This leaves the moment of conception.  It is the only objective event where both a specific and identifiable transition occurs and where the transition is marked by an obvious difference in the before vs. after condition. Once conceived, there is an obvious and scientifically objective change in condition from what came before.

Immediately, however, the objection is raised: the unborn child is not viable.

This again begs for some objective milestone.  I guess I will ask: is the newborn child any more viable than the unborn child a few moments before birth?  Both require care to be provided by another.  Place a newborn on a table and leave him there unattended – how viable is he?

Does the argument come down to splitting hairs about the level of care necessary, another subjective post?

What do I mean by viable?   This, again, begs for a specific and meaningful definition.  My definition is: the ability to function in the modern division-of-labor economy.  Yes, open to some interpretation (but again, I am dealing with theory in this post); however, until one is able to function in a division-of-labor economy (or maintain autonomous self-dependence on a farm or some such) he is dependent on others to ensure his viability.  The shades of viability might change over time, but the individual is still dependent.

Is another milestone appropriate?  Perhaps when the newborn takes food by his mouth?  Breathes on his own?  Does the ability to walk make the difference?  Potty-trained?  Puberty (frankly, a step back for most)?  It is not too difficult to suggest that even most teenagers are not yet viable.

I find none of these possibilities convincing, as with each event other dependencies remain.  I cannot identify another point at which the transition from unviable to viable can be so clearly and completely identified.

So I conclude that a human is human at the moment of conception, and that in this the question of viability regarding the unborn child is irrelevant – unless one wants to suggest that most individuals even in their teenage years are not viable; and where would that suggestion leave you as it applies to this issue?

At what point in the development of the human does he achieve full standing within the framework of NAP?

This is an interesting question; in its simplest form, it can be addressed in the relationship of parents and their children.  To consider this, I will lean on my views about “governance” – not to be confused with “government.”

For all of the words written regarding anarchism (my definition of the word consistent with the best Rothbardian sense), it is amazing how many people advocate that this means no rules or no laws.  This is impossible – there is no society possible without some form of common understanding about appropriate behavior as well as sanctions – both positive and negative.

Some call this culture, religion, whatever.  It is community, and to function reasonably well in a community requires living in a manner that the community deems acceptable when it comes to interactions with your fellows.  This requires governance in some form.  In a voluntary society, respective of the non-aggression principle, there must be governance – try to explain how such a society would last absent governance.

Self-governance, family-governance, community-governance, church-governance, market governance, etc.  Each plays a role in developing and maintaining a civil society.   

How does this apply to the child – born or unborn?  In simple terms, as the parent is providing care until the child reaches viability, the parent has the right to set rules and boundaries within which the child is expected to live.

I am not concerned here about what those rules are; I am not concerned about the fact that certain authoritarian models of parenting might create an adult susceptible to state control.  My only point is this: if the parent is providing for the child, the parent gets to set some rules (and, in my opinion, has a responsibility to do so).  It is clear that some of those rules might limit what is otherwise available to a viable adult in a libertarian world.

Libertarians have to regularly point out that libertarian does not mean libertine: for example, while a libertarian advocates that what a consenting adult does with his own body is his own business, this does not imply that the libertarian advocates such behavior – drugs and prostitution are obvious examples.

But the issue is clear – this is regarding consenting adults.  The rules regarding children must be different.  Additionally, it seems clear that for a libertarian world to survive and thrive there must be such values imparted on children.  The method of training and discipline is up to the individuals providing the shelter, if you will.  That is, the parents. 

Unless one advocates that a third party should take on this role (the state?), or that this role is not necessary in order to maintain a libertarian (or civil) society…please, feel free to make the case.  It seems impossible to me.

This training and discipline, of necessity, places limits on the receiving of the full benefits of the NAP until one reaches viability.

Until that point, what minimum protection under NAP does the individual have?

As I have described, much of this can only be properly decided by the parents.  And much of the decision made by the parents is influenced by various societal and religious factors (as well as upbringing).

There are behaviors demonstrated by some parents that others will find disagreeable – some form of physical punishment is one such controversial topic.  What sanctions are appropriate and not appropriate?

I cannot answer that question for everyone, nor is it necessary for me to attempt to do so for the purposes of the topic at hand.  However, I feel on safe ground to suggest that death as punishment for the child (or abandonment unto death as the parents created the responsibility for themselves) is certainly a solid line that cannot be crossed.  At minimum, it seems clear that every human has claim to at least this bare minimum protection under NAP if the principle is to mean anything.

And this claim, being the bare minimum, carries far more weight than the woman’s (inaccurate) claim (based on my conclusions regarding property rights) to her womb.  Keep in mind, the child was invited by the actions of two adult.  The child committed no trespass. (This is dealt with thoroughly in my previous post.) 

This benefit under the NAP applies to all humans, of course.  And at what point is “human” reached?  Go back up a couple of questions for the answer. (Reminder: conception.)

When there is potential conflict between two humans under NAP, then what?

The child’s protection to life vs. the mother’s control of her body (which I will grant for purpose of this discussion, but which I conclude is also a faulty claim).

There is no more permanent and absolute separation from the benefits of NAP than that separation caused by death.  No other transgression comes close.

A trespasser crosses your property, is walking away from the house, and is clearly exiting the property; shoot him and then claim trespass as your defense.  Yes, the trespasser violated the NAP; and no, your defense, if any sense of society is to be maintained, will not fly.


It seems to me that the only place to draw a firm line regarding when human life begins is either at conception or at birth; given that the change in life from the moment before birth to the moment after birth is virtually unnoticeable, this leaves me to conclude that conception – where the change is quite obvious – is when human life begins.  All points in between are merely transitional, with none as meaningful or scientifically distinct as the moment of conception.

Viability is irrelevant in this – a newborn is no more viable than an unborn child after eight-and-one-half months; and until one reaches the ability to function independently in a division-of-labor economy, viability is not reached.  This would include many people even in their teenage years.

However, until a human reaches this level of viability, and because he is dependent on others for support, he cannot lay claim to the full benefits of the NAP.  At minimum, however, if he cannot claim even the benefit of life, then the NAP is meaningless.  Try establishing a society where initiating an action resulting in the taking of the life of a school child is not considered a violation, and see where this leads.

The path from conception to viability offers nothing but points on a continuum.  In order to justify taking a life, the burden of proof is high; no other objective point within this continuum can overcome this burden.

Abortion violates the non-aggression principle.  It results in taking the life of another human (as I have presented that term here), one who has committed no transgression (given my view of the property rights in the womb), or at worst, has committed a violation that pales in comparison to the violation of taking a life. 

When weighed against any other possible violation (including the non-violations of trespass in the womb), it is a violation of the single-most important application of the non-aggression principle: the difference of life and death.


  1. The Rothardian view makes the whole discussion of viability and "when life begins" null and void. Simply put a person has no positive right to life, period. If you can't support yourself and no one wants to help you out then you're done for regardless of how young or old you are. Instead folks should simply grateful for the fact that they were born in a society where life is valued to strong degree as opposed to, say, the Spartans and that they became self-sufficient before others stop caring for them.

    1. I am not concerned with the Rothbardian view.

      Once it is accepted that an individual is not responsible for his actions, there is no society.

    2. Because the Rothbardian view is pure Libertarianism. Why dicker over whether a foetus is a full human? As said in the previous article you're free to raise your own children and adopt any abandoned children you like but if other adults have no interest in caring for any one else then how it is any of your concern? If you found out you next-door neighbours aborted their unborn child for superficial reasons: what right do you have at all? To make a kerfuffle about abortion is to say the those who seek, undergo and perform abortions should be severely punished. If Anarcho-Libertarians think abortion is murder then this supposes they could bomb abortion clinics and shoot dead the former mother without fear of any retaliation from private families, PDAs or private arbitrators because they never "initiated" any force.

    3. “Because the Rothbardian view is pure Libertarianism.”

      Rothbard is fabulous, but he isn’t infallible - and I suspect even he wouldn't refer to himself as "pure" in any field.

      “Why dicker over whether a foetus is a full human?”

      Dicker? This is the crux of the issue!

      “If you found out you next-door neighbours aborted their unborn child for superficial reasons: what right do you have at all?”

      If you found out your next-door neighbours murdered their two-hour old child for superficial reasons: what right do you have at all?

      I don’t know, Gil – what “right” does anyone have under NAP? If society doesn’t value life, there is no society. You keep returning to this idea that a libertarian society must be a lawless society. Shed yourself of this fallacy - I don't know of any thoughtful libertarians that hold such a view.

      “To make a kerfuffle about abortion is to say the those who seek, undergo and perform abortions should be severely punished.”

      Kerfuffle? You seem to take pleasure in making light of a significant issue. As to severely punishing those involved, certainly yes if society deems it murder.

    4. If I found out a crime has been committed that doesn't affect me in anyway? Nothing really. In a statist society I guess I could call the police. But in an Libertarian society? Nothing at all because my rights haven't been violated in any way and the best I could do would be boycotting them.

      In an anarchist-Libertarian there's no law but what private people make. Some might call it lawlessness, other might call it "polycentric".

      Yes, abortion is not much of an issue in the current statist society as it is perfectly legal. It was never an issue for the most of human history as infanticide was perfectly acceptable too.

    5. "But in an Libertarian society? Nothing at all because my rights haven't been violated in any way and the best I could do would be boycotting them."

      Self-defense justifies the possibility of coming to the defense of another.

      "In an anarchist-Libertarian there's no law but what private people make."

      There is no anarchist-libertarian society without a moral underpinning - please make a case otherwise, else get off of this point.

      The taking of life is the most moral issue - and the gravest violation of the NAP. So the question must be addressed - is an unborn child human?

      You have ignored this question (more, you have attempted to dismiss it), strongly suggesting that you do not want to think through or confront its implications.

      So what if some group of private people determine that an unborn child is human? And they make a law? What will you do to stop them? Will you use force?

      Answer some of the many questions I have kept raising with you; address the points that I have made in the posts.

      Else get off it.

    6. Your take is akin to expecting the U.S. Government to be the world police and sort out every bad country in the world whereas real Libertarians would argue that you can privately become some sort of hero who goes to the harshest parts of the world and tries to make a difference but don't force others to do your bidding. You quite clearly want abortion to be illegal and want the mother (possibly the father) and the abortion providers to either spend the rest of their lives in jail or on death row for conspiracy to commit murder but society suggests otherwise. Doubly so as there's no substance to the notion that a Libertarian society would act any differently. To say something about "coming to the defence of the innocent" smacks of those who bomb abortion clinics as well as shoot dead anyone works at such a clinic.

  2. Firstly, If under private law, the point is mute since it would presumably cover this case explicitly. Otherwise...

    I think it is important to consider in a free society whom has the right to seek reparations from whom under what circumstances. For instance in the plain case of murder it is really up to the people closest to the victim to seek reparations from the murderer. I think the same is true regardless of the victim's age. This of course, could be handled by various means but for the sake of brevity I will say that they have a claim of reparations. I think anyone close to the person murdered could have some claim, and if the murderer was caught would have to pay reparations to the claimants.

    This should be equally applied to young children and babies. The only difference really would be that they would have less claimants, as the child would tend not to have as many people close to them. People whom can have claims in abortion cases would be limited in almost every case to the mother and the father (who would presumably have a weaker claim). This would vary depending on the societies morals, norms and laws. It sounds harsh, but I am not sure how this would be handled fairly any other way, We can't have an overarching state punish offenders after all. It is also worth mentioning that pariah(ship?) is certainly a valid function in a free society, and people whom constantly kill their children most likely would be pariahs.

  3. I hope you don't mind such a late comment to this post.

    I'm curious about your view on the morality of miscarriages. From what I understand, as many as one out of every three pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. Presumably, these terminations of pregnancies are purely unconscious on the part of the mothers involved. Yet they nevertheless have evicted other (genetically human) lives - lives which cannot persist outside of the wombs they were created in.

    So, do you think women should be held responsible for having miscarriages? Do you think miscarriages are violations of the non-aggression principle? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

    1. Absent a deliberate act, it is difficult for me to see it as a violation.

    2. Thanks for your reply. I'm now curious, though, about whether you consider an unintentional killing in general to be a violation of the non-aggression principle. For example, let's say that I'm driving on a street and a child runs out right in front of my car, such that I'm unable to keep from hitting him with deadly force. Would you say that I should be held liable to any extent for the child's death?

    3. I am now curious:do you have some theory that would hold an unintentional killing to be a violation of the NAP?

      I would welcome an explanation.

    4. My apologies for the delay in replying.

      Please understand that I'm not being hostile or otherwise confrontational. My intention here is not at all to somehow paint you into a corner, make you look like a hypocrite, etc. I'm simply curious about your position on the subject I raised.

    5. Accidents happen; I see no violation.

    6. Thanks - I agree. However, my example deliberately contained no recklessness or negligence. I'm also curious about your positions on these. Do you think harm resulting from recklessness or negligence also constitutes aggression? My own position here is that it does.