Libertarians and Bodily Integrity

In an article titled “A Libertarian Case Against Abortion,” Aaron Virkler hangs his case almost entirely on an idea that he puts forth in the third paragraph, stating, “[Libertarians] also are very pro-life in almost all other facets of life.”  He further supports his case in paragraph six where he says, “If we can support the right to life of a person from the time he/she is legally born to the time they die 80, 90, or 100 years later, then we can reasonably give that person the right to life 9 months beforehand.”

Now, it is certainly true that libertarians believe that life, in general, is integral to the idea of freedom.  However, it is not life that is the focus of libertarians, but rather it is a means to their primary concern, which is liberty.  More specifically, it is liberty and freedom from government tyranny that libertarians are concerned with, and not specifically life in and of itself.  Indeed, most libertarians feel that one has the fundamental right to risk one’s life or even destroy it, just so long as that choice is one’s own.  They also feel that forcibly taking one person’s freedom or risking their safety for the sake of potentially saving another’s life, remains immoral no matter the outcome.

This right to risk and/or take one’s own life, and maintain one’s freedom over the potential loss of another’s life, stems from a fundamental idea which has been stated as “bodily integrity,” or as some have stated it, “body autonomy.”  These are terms used to describe what most people consider to be intrinsically true — that one has the right to do with one’s body what one wishes.  The quote below is taken directly from Wikipedia (which references several works including “The Limits of Bodily Integrity” by Ruth Austin Miller – 2007).

Bodily integrity is the inviolability of the physical body and emphasizes the importance of personal autonomy and the self-determination of human beings over their own bodies. It considers the violation of bodily integrity as an unethical infringement, intrusive, and possibly criminal.

This concept has been used in the past in abortion arguments by holding that this is the foundation used to support laws against rape and assault.  It also stands as the basis for laws preventing non-consensual organ and blood donation.  Abortion supporters have held that it then follows from this concept, that a fetus is using someone’s body as a life support system, and under the concept of bodily integrity, it is there by permission and not by right.

Not surprisingly, counter-arguments have been posed which revolve around the following three ideas:

  1. A fetus is a human being
  2. The fetus is there (usually) by choice of the host, which means that “consent” was given.
  3. Organ and/or blood donation arguments don’t apply because with those, not allowing the donation does not directly threaten the life of the recipient – it indirectly threatens it.  Aborting a fetus is a direct act of violence against another human being.

And, of course, there are counters to the counter-arguments.  Very commonly, proponents of abortion rights dispute point #1 by stating that the fetus is “not yet human” and cannot be afforded any rights.  Others argue against #2 by saying that “consent must be continuous,” or that sometimes there is not consent.  Still others argue against #3 by saying that indirectly killing somebody vs. directly killing somebody is not functionally any different.

But what none of this takes into consideration is how it applies to the fundamental tenets of libertarianism. For, as we all know, libertarians are primarily concerned with human rights as they apply to the government, and arguably, not generally concerned with private matters unless they involve one depriving another of their freedoms.

So let’s rewind this and take a look at the concept of bodily integrity again, from the standpoint of a libertarian.  It can be argued that what a libertarian would be concerned with when hearing the phrase, “inviolability of the physical body,” is that this applies primarily to the government, and not the fetus at all.  In fact, it is arguable that libertarians believe intrinsically and before all other beliefs that the government never be allowed to interfere with a person’s bodily functions and choices, as it relates to what goes on inside of that person.  Plainly speaking, a government’s jurisdiction must rightfully end at its citizens’ skin.  Why? Simply put, because if one does not have dominion over one’s own body and mind, then it can be argued that one has dominion over nothing at all.

Taking the above idea to its logical conclusion, and as ugly as it may seem, what this means is that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the fetus is or is not human.  It doesn’t matter what trimester the pregnancy is in, whether or not the mother is “doing violence upon” it, and doesn’t even matter that it might be immoral.  It just matters that what is going on, and where all of this is happening, is in a place where the government currently does not, and should not have jurisdiction.  Any libertarian that understands what it means to be one, should be absolutely against giving the government any rights to legislate in this area.  This is because once we’ve let them past the barrier of our skin (breaching, so to speak, our “bodily integrity”), the potential for further abhorrent tyranny in this regard is far greater than any supposed gains of “justice” and the saving of lives.  And for those that would wish that this were not so, I welcome them to the Brave New World that they hope to make for themselves, and pray that I never have to live in it.

* Robert J. Wenzel graduated high school in 1981 after which he put himself through college, largely paying for it through the GI bill. He is now a small business owner who lives with his wife near Seattle, Washington, and he is sometimes overjoyed to be visited by his daughter who is spending much of his money attending university where, sadly, he suspects that she is becoming more and more liberal as each day passes. He still maintains the hope that she will be immune to such things. He is a long time on-and-off libertarian who was brought over to this thinking through the writings and thoughts of Ayn Rand and Milton Freidman. He believes that although government is a necessary entity, it should be as small as possible, and its services should be provided as close to the consumer of those services as is practical.

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