Sunday, November 28, 2004

My own private homicide

Life, Liberty and all my limbs This one is for my Libertarian leaning readers. And for Shannon at Shenanigans, who appears to be in danger of advocating both positive and negative interpretations of freedom. I doubt that was intended, and I'm going to try and illustrate the problem as gently as I can. In her post on a pharmacist's right to sell or not sell birth control, she says:
If I did not succeed in getting my [birth control] prescription filled, I would inform them [the store owners] that in the future I would be taking my business elsewhere. I would be extremely annoyed at the inconvenience, and I would tell all my friends how annoyed I was and encourage them to shop elsewhere. What I would not do, however, is demand that the government-sanctioned body responsible for regulating pharmacists force this particular pharmacy to fill my prescription. I would not presume I have the right to demand that a private business person be forced by law to do what I want.
She's right to think that forcing pharmacists to sell something is an abuse of freedom. She's also right about being able to criticize a vendor's point of view on most things. These are both defensible from someone who thinks that freedom is freedom from coercion, which is known as negative freedom. But Shannon goes on to articulate a pro abortion ("choice") stance (which is implicit in the choice to use birth control, but that is another matter). She does not think anyone ought to be coerced into giving her what she wants when she's writing about birth control, but I'm left to wonder how she would react to a doctor who refused to perform an abortion. Is coercion justified then? Because if coercion is justified in this case, the argument is one of positive freedom, where we must be given certain things in order to be free. That would be completely at odds with the generally libertarian point of view she is putting forward, and I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she recognizes that. The ultimate point, however, is that abortion is inconsistent with even the negative view of freedom common to the kind of libertarian thought Shannon has articulated on her blog. I'm suggesting that a re-evaluation is in order if consistency is to be maintained, because:
The unalienable right to life, liberty, and property is, essentially, only one: the right to be free from aggression. This right stems from the obligation not to aggress against anyone; this right and this obligation are opposite sides of the same coin.
Libertarianism does not address morality in general. It addresses only one category of good versus evil: justice versus injustice, non-aggression versus aggression. To violate another's rights is to be unjust. Libertarianism's basic principle is the obligation not to violate rights. This non-aggression principle is the foundation, the sine qua non, of a moral society. We owe others non-aggression. People who commit murder, theft, kidnapping, rape, or fraud, or fail to pay their just debts, are aggressors.
No matter the circumstances, no individual or government may use the sword, except in fair responses to rights violations. Implicit in the non-aggression principle is the right of defense. We have no obligation to allow others to succeed in attacking us before we react. There is a related principle: no one has a right to negligently or intentionally endanger the innocent and then allow the harm to happen. If we endanger others without their consent, we incur a positive obligation to prevent the harm. This might be called the non-endangerment principle: you endanger them — you protect them from the harm.
Non-aggression is an ongoing obligation: it is never optional for anyone, even pregnant women. If the non-aggression obligation did not apply, then earning money versus stealing it and consensual sex versus rape would be morally indifferent behaviors. The obligation not to aggress is pre-political and pre-legal. It does not arise out of contract, agreement, or the law; rather, such devices presuppose this obligation. The obligation would exist even in a state of nature. This is because the obligation comes with our human nature, and we acquire this nature at conception. Each of us has this obligation regardless of contrary personal opinions, consensus, or laws. We have it whether we wish to obey it or not. We have it even when others are not able to defend themselves. This obligation can neither be created nor destroyed. It is logically necessary to the concepts of liberty and property.
This passage is from Libertarians for Life. The argument here is something like a Natural Rights, or Natural Law argument. As such, it has many similarities to Catholic teaching. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was a Natural Rights thinker and he is a very large figure in Catholic thought. I particularly liked this:
Some people appeal to "neutrality" in order to sidestep the question of prenatal rights in the abortion debate. Their contention is that the "law should not get involved." There is a distinction, however: the state can be "neutral" regarding only the desirability of an act, not the right to perform the act. Obviously, the state is not neutral in practice when it enables killing by legalizing it, subsidizing it, and giving it police protection.
Speaking about Row v. Wade, the argument they give is very good. It is, in fact, the same argument that I used in an earlier post:
The most notable evasion of the homicide charge was made by the United States Supreme Court on January 22, 1973. In two cases, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, seven of the nine justices on the Court legalized abortion on demand until birth. To rationalize their decision, they inappropriately invoked the right of privacy — while sidestepping both the moral nature and the rights of the prenatal child. Writing for the seven, Justice Harry A. Blackmun proclaimed, "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins." His explanation for why not was unsatisfactory. He went on to explain: "When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary at this point in the development of man's knowledge is not in a position to speculate as to the answer." This admission of intellectual inadequacy on the main objection to abortion — homicide merely serves to prove that the judiciary had no good reason to legalize abortion. ... How should courts act when undecided on pivotal questions affecting two parties and when they cannot avoid making a decision? Tossing a coin will not do in such cases. Their only reasonable course is to weigh the possible injuries that they would impose by a wrongful decision either way and then choose to avoid the worst possibility. When a human being's life is on the block, a proper legal system gives the benefit of the doubt to life. This is why even advocates of capital punishment call for stringent proof. If individuals accused of felonies get the benefit of such doubt, why not the beings in the womb? What possible wrongful injuries should the Roe Court have considered? The pregnant woman allegedly faces a partial and temporary loss of liberty; her fetus, however, allegedly faces the total and permanent loss of life and therefore liberty as well. The answer is obvious. The Court should have decided for life. Instead, the Court wrote that "the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense." Interestingly, lack of legal personhood is not necessarily a disqualification for legal protection under current law. For example, eagles and their eggs are not considered persons, yet they have legal protection. In Roe, the Court went beyond a two-tiered view of humanity that perceives human fetuses as inferior to human adults, for it saw human fetuses as also inferior to eagle fetuses.
The article goes on to note that blacks and women have, in the past, been denied the full benefit of their personhood, to our shame. Only cranks and cackpots will today argue that either group is any less than a full human being, with all the rights that follow. We are now in a precarious position because the court sidestepped its duty to protect life and liberty. It caved in to power and wealth in arguing that the individual has the right to decide the question alone and in private.
If the Court could have shown that abortion is not homicide, it would have done so. And that would have resolved the debate, at least for libertarians. Libertarians support the right to privacy. But homicide, the killing of one human being by another, is not a private matter. It is not a simple matter of choice. If it were, then "rights" would mean that the weak have no rights, and libertarianism and the very idea of rights would be meaningless.
The article goes on to counter many common arguments for abortion. I encourage everyone to give read it and give it some thought. Who knows, perhaps generations of future people will thank you for these moments of your time.

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