[Note: I consider the basic ideas used in this essay to be Ayn Rand’s, but the content of the entire essay is mine. Also, a summary follows this essay.]
The author and philosopher of Objectivism, Ayn Rand, was a champion of capitalism and a staunch advocate for the principle of individual rights. Yet, unlike most of today’s conservatives and Tea Party supporters, Ayn Rand supported the right of a woman to abortion. (She was “pro-choice.”) This post will argue that Rand was right about abortion, and that any conservative who wants to be reasonable in his or her advocacy of human rights should advocate for the right to abort a pregnancy.
Should it be illegal to slaughter cattle for meat? Do the emotions of sympathy that some activists have for animals mean that cattle have rights, and thereby mean that killing cattle for food should be illegal? If someone shows you a picture of a freshly slaughtered cow, and you say “Oh, how awful,” does that mean the cow’s killer should be given a jail term?
No, sympathetic emotions and graphic pictures are not enough to establish that animals have rights, the violation of which should be punished by the government. So it is with human beings, fetuses, embryos and human kidneys. Our emotional reactions are not enough to establish that any of these entities has rights. We must look at what the entity is and identify facts about it to establish whether or not it has rights that should be protected by the government. If, instead of going through this process, I claimed that Zeus told me through my emotions that trees have a right to life, you would have good reason to say that I was being irrational.
If a doctor performs surgery on you, will he find a body part called a “right to life”? If someone analyzes your DNA, will he find a gene that encodes for human rights? Obviously not.
Does a right to life serve as a physical barrier to harm? If you tell a ravening tiger or a Nazi soldier that you have a right to life, will that stop him from killing you? No?
What about the Bible? Are rights violations the criteria by which Christ separates the righteous from the wicked? That’s not what I remember Jesus saying about salvation. What about the Old Testament? Do rights come from the Commandments? Well, the Israelites practice slavery and participate in a tremendous amount of non-defensive killing, with the Old-Testament God’s approval, after the Commandments are given. (See: Ex. 32:27-29, Lev. 24:10-23, 1 Sam. 15:2-11, Jos. 6:1-21.) Further, Yahweh’s laws for the Israelites violate the US Founding Fathers’ notion of individual rights in countless ways. (No freedom of religious speech; no right to a fair trial, etc.) In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul and Peter encourage followers not to defend their rights against others, or exercise their personal property rights. (See: Mt. 5:38-42, Mt. 16:23-25, Mt. 19:21, Acts 2:42-45, 1 Cor. 4:10-13, 1 Pet. 2:18-25.)
In fact, the “rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” on which the US was founded are not mentioned once in the entire Bible. What then are “rights” and where do they come from?
What Rights Are
Rights are rational, moral-political principles. That is, rights are neither arbitrary grants of the government, nor inborn parts of people, but principles implemented by human beings, in accordance with objective facts about human nature, toward the goal of maintaining the societal conditions necessary for human life and happiness. They are fundamental rules of conduct that must be adhered to if human life is to flourish in a society on earth.
More specifically, rights are prohibitions against the use of force to prevent other people from acting in pursuit of certain goals. The individual’s right to life is not the right to be supported by the forced labor of others, but the right not to be prevented from living, by the coercive act of another person. That is, the right to life is the right not to be killed by another person.
Similarly, the right to property is not the right to be provided with property by the efforts of others, but the right to not have one’s property forcibly confiscated by others.
So let’s ask 1) What makes the recognition of rights possible? and 2) What makes the recognition of rights necessary?
1) It is only possible for rational decision makers–who can choose their actions by reasoning–to recognize rights. A lion is incapable of considering your rights before it attacks you. Whether it is friendly to you or hostile, what a lion cannot do is say to itself “I feel like killing that human, but he has a right to life, so I’d better not.”
Nor can your liver recognize your rights. It cannot say to itself “I’d like to stop functioning, but my host has a right to life, so I have to keep going.”
The recognition of rights is only possible to conscious human persons.
2) What makes rights necessary is that individual human beings need to use their own independent judgment to live, thrive and achieve happiness in reality. To the extent that people are forcibly prevented from pursuing their happiness–when they are killed, brutalized, imprisoned, robbed, etc.–human life, growth and happiness in general become impossible. (The perpetrators suffer along with the victims, especially since the perpetrators of today can very easily become the victims of tomorrow.)
For example, in the Middle Ages of Europe, individual rights were not respected. The cardinal values of the age were faith and obedience, rather than reason and freedom. Rulers could wield arbitrary force against their subjects. As a result, everyone suffered relative to what their condition would have been had individual rights been respected: the feudal serfs weren’t allowed to innovate, improve their farming or other skills, and thereby improve their own lot and that of others. Monks in the monasteries couldn’t pursue any discoveries or ancient science that contradicted the dogma of The Church. The nobility faced power struggles that often resulted in assassination, usurpation, and brutal torture. Everyone was subject to sudden death by diseases that human ingenuity was not allowed to combat.
In more modern times, the lack of respect for individual rights in the USSR produced a society of malnourished gulag prisoners, unhappy, drunkard workers, cynical, apathetic politicians, and useless, hated KGB spies. Privation, terror, sorrow, apathy and stagnation abounded.
Contrast these examples with the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when individual rights were the most protected in history. Technology, standard of living and human fulfillment all skyrocketed. (Real wages for US factory workers doubled in the first half of the 19th Century, then doubled again in the last half.) Workplace safety steadily improved; medicine started its dramatic rise in power with the work of Louis Pasteur.
The principle of individual rights is a tremendous boon to living, rationally acting human beings on earth. Violations of rights tend to destroy those who attempt to support and better their own lives. This is the reason that the government should enforce the rights of human persons.
Note here that most governments quite properly recognize fewer rights in children than in adults. This is proper because children, by their nature, have less ability to be rational and self-supporting. Children have a right to life, but many of children’s other rights are “held in trust” by their parents. A toddler doesn’t have the right to own a gun, because they don’t have the experience and conceptual development to understand and to have proper respect for how dangerous it is. This is a morally justified curtailing of the child’s right to property. The child’s right to liberty is also curtailed, such that parents can ground their children for actions which are not violations of the rights of others.
Note also that animals do not have rights, nor recognize them, precisely because they have no capacity for rationality: They live, not by using a conceptual mind to plan their lives, but by brute force, instincts, conditioning, and the emotion of the moment.
Are Embryos and Pre-Viable Fetuses Persons?
We have seen that the basis of the principle of individual rights does not come from the Bible, nor from strands of DNA, but from the fact that human persons need to be free to take the actions necessary to support their lives, if they are to live and thrive on earth.
Things with human DNA that are not persons, such as severed kidneys, cannot act independently and rationally to sustain themselves and thus do not have rights that need to be respected by persons.
The facts that make a human a person are the same ones that cause the principle of individual rights to apply.
So are pre-viable fetuses persons? No. They cannot even survive apart from the mother, let alone act independently and rationally. This puts pre-viable fetuses in the same category as internal organs with respect to rights.
Actual Versus Potential
Some advocates against the legal and/or moral right to abortion may object at this point that human organs will not become persons if left alone, whereas fetuses will. This, they may argue, is the basis of fetal rights: a fetus is a potential person.
Yet a child is a potential adult, and we don’t give children the rights of adults because they are potential adults. An adult is a potential corpse, and yet we don’t take away the rights of adults because they are potential corpses. The attribution of rights is properly based on what the entity currently is, not what it potentially could be. If we attempt to base rights on potentials, then we would have to say that a toddler simultaneously has a right to own a gun as a potential adult, and no right to life at all as a potential corpse.
A pre-viable fetus is only a potential person, not an actual person, and thus has no rights whatever.
What About Viable Fetuses?
Even though individual rights clearly and definitively do not apply to pre-viable fetuses, what about viable ones (those over about 7 months gestation)? They are developed such that they could be removed from the uterus and live as biologically independent humans.
This fact puts the position of “post-viability evictionism”: the position that viable fetuses can be legally removed from the womb, but not legally killed, at least within the realm of reasonable debate. It is not a completely indefensible position like the prohibition of pre-viable abortion.
There are reasons, however, to reserve rights for those who have been carried to term and born:
1) The distinctively human process of conceptual development–the process of becoming rational and gaining the characteristics that make rights possible and necessary–only begins after birth. It can only begin after the newborn is confronted with the world of perceptible entities outside the womb, that enable him to form concepts. This process is essential to making a functioning person out of a body of bones, muscles, skin and organs.
2) So long as a woman carries a fetus inside her, its health is intimately connected to her health, and it poses a significant biological risk to her. Women can and do die in chlidbirth and get other health problems related to pregnancy, such as eclampsia. (Though deaths are much less common in countries with modern medical technology.) The woman, as a full, unqualified person, has a sovereign right over her own body as it relates to her health. Any “rights” of a fetus to life could conflict with the woman’s best judgment of what action to take to maintain the health of her body. If two alleged rights conflict, then at least one of them is not actually a right. In this case, that is clearly the fetus’s “right to life.”
Being Strictly Against Abortion is Advocating for Destructive Sacrifice
Parenthood is a hugely time-consuming responsibility. Responsible pregnancy is time-consuming and can prevent a woman from doing a lot of things that she would otherwise do, such as working full time at a fast-paced and/or high-travel job, drinking wine, riding amusement park rides, etc. Pregnancy can cause health issues that require expensive doctor/hospital visits and medical procedures. Pregnancy carries a higher health risk than non-pregnancy.
Once an actual child is born, the mother has a choice between raising the child herself and adopting the child out. If the mother did not want the child, then raising the child is a sacrifice of her happiness. There is no “mothering instinct” in humans and not every woman wants to raise children; some would be much happier in a full-time career. The child of a woman who genuinely didn’t want him will suffer at least some subconscious resentment from his mother for her screwed-up life-plan and the tremendous amount of work she has to do that she didn’t want to do.
A child that is adopted out will likely face significant periods of time in different foster homes and without a stable parental relationship. This is a bad situation for the actual child that was born unwanted.
Those who categorically denounce abortion as a violation of morality are advocating self-sacrifice on the part of unwillingly pregnant women; that is, they are advocating for the destruction of some people’s happiness by their own actions. Those who advocate for legal bans on abortion are advocating for the forced sacrifice of unwillingly pregnant women; they are advocating for the forced destruction of some people’s happiness.
Argument-Immune Anti-Abortionists are Like Argument-Immune Leftists in their Irrationality and Denial of Human Rights
Those on the political left want to force people into relationships with others that the individuals themselves did not freely choose. They want the government to rob the people who earned money, in order to distribute it to those who did not earn it. They want to partially enslave the producers through regulations that violate their right to liberty.
Many of them rationalize this by inventing new so-called “rights”: the “right” to food, shelter, medical care, etc. Rights to things provided by the labor of someone else. But below this rationalization, many on the left are driven by sheer emotion: The emotion of sympathy for those who are unwilling or unable to earn their own way in life. (Many also feel a robbers’ envy for those who earn wealth, a desire to take what they didn’t earn, a desire to chain to themselves those who dare to be more prosperous in life than they are.)
Such leftists, so long as they allow their political positions to be driven by such emotions, are irrational and cannot be reasoned with. No argument will sway them toward the truth. They feel that their emotions give them the right to rob able people through government, destructive consequences be damned!
Similarly, many anti-abortionists are immune to reason because they are letting raw emotions dictate their position. They throw out a few shoddy rationalizations for the sacrifice of an adult person to a non-person inside her: “It’s human. Therefore it has rights and killing it is murder!” A biologically living, severed kidney has rights? Is killing a patrolling enemy soldier in war murder? “It’s a harmless baby!” No, it isn’t. It’s a mentally inert, biologically dependent fetus that carries a health risk to the mother. “Scientists think that half-developed fetuses feel pain. Killing it is wrong!” Cattle feel pain. Does that mean they have the right not to be killed? “Look at this picture. How can you say that’s not a baby!?” Look at this little doll; it looks like a baby too. Looks don’t determine rights.
But beneath this, there is often a blind, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, because I feel it!” Those abortion abolitionists who base their position on this feeling are no better in principle than the socialists who base their anti-property ideology on their seething hatred of just deserts for those who work hard, and their desire to live in luxury without having to put in the energy necessary to succeed on their own. Both types want to impose their own irrational, emotional commitments on others by force. Both types want to violate people’s rights and damage their lives.
A proper, reasoned understanding of what rights are and why people have them is not only important to a correct stance on the abortion issue, but is also crucial to the cultural fight for liberty, more broadly. Whatever people’s momentary emotional commitments, over the long-term, people are persuaded by rational arguments:
It was the philosophical arguments of Thomas Aquinas that brought the pro-reason, pro-world Aristotelian philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) into Medieval Christianity, eventually bringing about the Renaissance. It was the moral arguments of the slavery abolitionists, that blacks were people with rights–just like whites–that kept slavery out of the Northern US and eventually brought the issue of slavery to a head in the Civil War. (Most Southerners had an emotional commitment to slavery, whereas most Northerners had an emotional commitment against it. Why the difference? See: Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments) It was the moral arguments of the “progressives,” largely unopposed by moral arguments from conservatives, that brought about the transition of the US to the welfare state in the 20th Century. (In the late 19th Century, it was considered shameful to be dependent on handouts. This changed as people were convinced of the alleged propriety of government redistribution.)
The individual rights that the Founding Fathers so cherished are actually based on the fact that individuals possess the capacity to reason. They are, contrary to what Jefferson wrote, not self-evident and not a simple natural endowment, like an internal organ. So what advocates of liberty need to do to attain a culture of liberty is to make rational moral arguments for individual rights, confidently and publicly. This involves understanding and embracing a rational morality, rather than a mystical one. It involves appealing to facts and reason, rather than to blind faith.
This sort of rational argument is what Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism provides. I encourage lovers of liberty to read this post: The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes, watch this video:
…and read these books: Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins and Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.
- Neither our emotions, nor the Bible will tell us what rights are or who has them. If people’s negative emotions for death gave rights, then food animals would have rights and the government should prosecute slaughterhouse workers for murder. The Bible prohibits murder and theft, but does not mention nor define rights; freedom of speech and religion are not established by The Commandments. Jesus makes no declaration of human rights and discourages the defense of one’s own rights.
- Rights are moral-political principles implemented by human beings (persons) in accordance with objective facts about human nature, toward the goal of maintaining the societal conditions necessary for human life and happiness. They are fundamental rules of conduct that must be adhered to if human life is to flourish in a society on earth.
- More specifically, rights are prohibitions against the use of force to prevent other people from acting in pursuit of certain goals. The individual’s right to life is not the right to be supported by the forced labor of others, but the right not to be prevented from living by the coercive act of another person. The right to life is the right not to be killed by another person.
- Rights apply only to biologically self-sustaining persons who are capable of functioning on the conceptual level, or who are in the active process of developing that capability. (If rights applied to anything with human DNA, then severed kidneys would have rights. But kidneys have no consciousness and no way to exercise any “rights” to action.)
- Embryos and pre-viable fetuses are clearly not persons. They are not biologically self-sustaining, are incapable of forming concepts, and incapable of rational thought and rational action.
- Embryos/pre-viable fetuses, therefore, do not have rights.
- The mother, though, is a person and does have rights. She has the right to take whatever actions necessary for the the optimum health of her body and mind, (so long as she doesn’t violate the rights of other persons by using force against them.)
- Viable fetuses, while capable of living biologically independent of the mother, still have not started the process of conceptual development and represent a health hazard to the mother. Thus, they still cannot be regarded as having any rights.
- Abortion can be the best thing for the woman’s long-term life and happiness. Prohibition of abortion is a forced sacrifice of the woman’s goals and well-being, lasting at least 9 months and possibly much longer.
- People who support abortion bans based on irrational, emotional motivations are no better, in principle, than socialists who want to confiscate people’s property to placate their own alleged sympathy for the poor, and their seething outrage at successful individualists. Both want to force other people into their fantasy world, and do great harm to people in the process.
- Having a real understanding of rights, based on reason, is a tremendous benefit when it comes to defending what is essentially the US Founding Fathers’ view of rights, placed on a more rigorous foundation. Appealing to a vague “nature” and mysterious “endowments” will not get the job done; especially when the “rationally unknowable Creator” didn’t bother to put a declaration of human rights in his holy book. (Rights were not discovered until relatively modern times.)
- Rights are moral concepts that are properly derived from the Objectivist moral framework. I strongly recommend reading Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins and Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle.