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Block on Abortion

by Roger E. Bissell

The Libertarian Forum, March-April 1978, p. 4

[Note to the reader: this essay is an early version of my thinking on the issue. I include it partly because it contains a very revealing response from LF's editor, the late Murray N. Rothbard. For a much more comprehensive statement of my position, see "A Calm Look at Abortion Arguments," which was written and published in Reason magazine in 1981 and with which I am still in agreement--REB, November 2008]

In his article in the September 1977 Libertarian Forum, Walter Block correctly argues that the foetus is a human life--i.e., that it is alive and is human--and not merely a potential, but an actual human life (even from the two-cell stage of development, immediately after conception). He further demonstrates that "the foetus conceived in rape has as many (or as few) rights as any other," that all foetuses are created equal, giving mothers of such foetuses no special right to abortion not possessed by other pregnant mothers.

Mr. Block wisely distinguishes normal, healthy pregnancy from "medically contra-indicated pregnancy," in which the mother's life is in danger. The latter, he shows, is a true "life-boat situation," where only one of them (at best) can survive. The mother is justified in having an abortion by her right to self-defense, to the preservation of her life in the face of the mortal threat (which continuing to carry the foetus would pose).

If only Mr. Block had stopped at this point, all would be well. But he goes on to say that a woman may have an abortion for any reason which seems compelling to her, any strong desire not to carry the foetus, not merely the fear of death. Interestingly, part of his preceding discussion provides a clue to just where his argument went off course and how it can be corrected. 

Arguing from the analogy between a homeowner or host and the pregnant mother, Mr. Block claims that "if the foetus is unwelcome, it than becomes a trespasser inside the mother's body." What does one do with trespassers? By right, one can ask them to leave, or can otherwise remove them; for they cannot insist on a long-term sanctuary, nor is one obliged to provide it.

What of the helpless individual? The host, while not obligated to care for him, is certainly not entitled to kill him either. "What he can do," says Block, "is transport (him) to the 'church steps' or the modern equivalent, in as gentle a manner as possible." The homeowner may carry him to some “public meeting place where unwanted (are) commonly left for people to pick them up…

It now seems reasonable to ask: Why not extend this to the case of the foetus and the pregnant mother? Presumably because the length of time required is considerably greater for the pregnant mother to transport the nine-month dinner guest (her foetus) to the ‘church steps’, than for other hosts with already physically separate individuals trespassing on their property.

Let’s explore this facet of Mr. Block’s argument some more. He claims that “a dinner guest does not have the right to insist on a nine-month visit.” Yet, if you invite a guest out for an airplane ride, according to Block, your guest does have the right to be transported back to the ground (or at least given a parachute), and not to be evicted from the plane at an altitude of 10,000 feet simply because one desires that he no longer remain in one's property. 

True, plane rides are relatively short, but what of extended ocean voyages of several days or weeks, with no life preservers or lifeboats, through shark-infested waters? What of space voyages of several weeks, months or years? Is one any less entitled to have transport back to safety, rather than immediate eviction as a "trespasser," regardless of the consequences, merely because the required period of time to do so is longer?

It should be clear that the length of time one is morally obligated to spend in transporting an unwanted guest to the "church steps" is the minimum necessary time to do so. There is no arbitrary cutoff point beyond which one is no longer obligated to make an effort.

Naturally, as technology progresses, this minimum necessary period of time will be drastically shortened. As Mr. Block points out, life-preserving methods of removing foetuses will allow the unwilling mother to make the trip to the "church steps" relatively swiftly.

Even at present, it should be recognized that full-term pregnancy could be a lower-cost option of discharging one's unwanted guest, than is abortion, were one only permitted to sell one's guardianship rights over the baby on an open market. Here, then, is yet another example of state intervention creating a victimless crime, distorting and limiting the options open to individuals, while not only permitting the murder of nonlife-threatening foetuses to go unpunished, but sanctioning such murder as well.

The Editor Replies: In his critique of Block's article on abortion, Mr. Bissell continues Block's point about the unwanted dinner guest, and escalates it to a ship or space voyage. Actually, the proper analogy would not be a dinner guest or an invited traveller who outstays his welcome, but a stowaway who aggresses against the ship or plan owner from the very beginning. But the important point is something else that needs saying: It may well seem  like overkill, even if punctiliously correct from the point of view of libertarian law, to toss a stowaway overboard. But just as it is a far greater crime to murder or assault someone than to steal his property, so it is a far graver trespass to invade his or her body than it is to stow away on his property. The fetus is an invader of, an aggressor against, a woman's body, and hence insisting on immediate ejection does not carry the same bizarre connotation as tossing a stowaway overboard. A woman should have the right to eject an unwanted parasite within her body as rapidly as possible--whether or not thge parasite is considered "human."