One of my fundamental axioms is that each person has their own set of values and preferences. Pretty much everyone agrees that we need a publicly funded system of defense and justice to protect our right to live and work in peace. And putting aside socialist theory for the moment, for the most part we agree that we should all be free to pursue our own idea of happiness according to our own skill and ambition.
But we also live in a society that in several important ways finds it acceptable to force us to act according to the moral preferences of others. One way that this happens is that we are taxed and the proceeds are redistributed through a number of social welfare programs. Another is that we expect everyone to live according to certain moral norms aside from those necessary to protect the basic liberty of our citizens. Protecting the lives of the unborn is one such moral imperative that is enforced to some extent, but as we are all aware, is still the subject of intense debate in our society.
Yesterday I watched a video that actually showed the process of late term abortions, as well as the aborted bodies of a number of fetuses at various stages of development. It was very disturbing to say the least. I think we can all agree that abortion is a very tragic practice. In any case, it seems to me that regardless of whether these fetuses are considered human beings, they are yet not autonomous citizens of our society. But if we want to prevent them from being killed we must force adult members of our society to continue through pregnancy and the labor of birth. So the question is whether my extreme disgust at the practice of abortion, together with my sympathy for the little beings, is enough to justify forcing another member of my society to act against her will.
Despite the attempts of people on both sides to argue to the contrary, I resist the idea that there is an easy answer to this question. I think it is clear that an abortion constitutes a tragic end to a human life. It is also clear to me that to force a woman to carry a child is a violation of her liberty. A fetus is alive but it is not yet an autonomous member of society, so before we extend it the full protection of our laws we have to resolve the underlying moral questions.
So if most people agree with me that abortion is tragic, is there any reason we shouldn't make it illegal? I there are several considerations we should take into account:
- First, even if we don't agree with what they are doing we should realize that by restricting the liberty of our neighbors we are harming them. This is true even if we think the immediate harm done to them will be beneficial in the long run (e.g., if they later regret having an abortion), or if the harm is necessary to prevent harm to someone else.
- Second, by violating the liberty of the minority we may find our own moral agency at risk in the future. Without strict limits on the degree to which we can coerce each other, we may enjoy some moral victories while we are in the majority but find ourselves (or or descendants) oppressed to some degree if we are ever in the minority.
- Third, even if we are part of a stable majority coalition of like-minded people that is not likely to suffer oppression without such limits, it is possible that our moral coercion will cause significant social unrest and perhaps even rebellion among those who don't share our moral preferences. At the very least, we may find it difficult to enlist their help in promoting other political objectives.
- Finally, we may find it appealing on principle to live in a society where there are strict limits on government coercion.
To be honest, the fourth consideration is probably the most compelling to me even though I hesitate to simply take anything "on principle." I prefer to have reasons that are tied to concrete interests. The primary interest underlying the appeal is probably based on the second consideration. I have some vague notion that if we don't limit government, it will come back to haunt us in all sorts of other ways. But while I can think of a number of ways that the government currently forces me to do things I don't agree with, it is not clear to me that restricting abortions would make my situation significantly worse in this regard. I am hesitant to rely solely on a slippery slope argument. So perhaps my Libertarian sentiment is really based on the third consideration. Maybe I hold out hope that the rest of society would listen if I said: "Ok, I will let you make your own decision on abortion and marijuana if you let me decide whether I want to buy health insurance, etc."
In the end, I think that there are better ways of pursuing my moral preferences (including the desire to protect the unborn) than using government coercion. I am inherently skeptical of relying on the state to resolve every social problem we face, and I think we do so at some risk to our own freedom. However, I understand that there are many people who believe that our moral duty to protect the unborn overrides each of the considerations I mentioned.