The Case Against Egoistic, Libertarian Baby-Starving

by Roger E. Bissell

[If you are a Libertarian or Objectivist, you are no doubt either shuddering and wincing or shrugging and rolling your eyes at the title of this essay, depending on how you view the author's position on this topic. Anyone else reading this essay is likely to scratch his head in wonderment that there is a political or philosophical movement some of whose members would seriously maintain that it is not a violation of rights to allow one's children to starve. Rest assured that Libertarians and Objectivists have squabbled about this issue since at least the 1970s, and that this author has repeatedly tried, to no avail, to get his argument into print by the major Libertarian publications, including Reason and Liberty.]

According to some Libertarians and Objectivists,* it is permissible to abandon or refuse to feed one's children -- and (for the same reason) to abandon or refuse to feed any fetuses which may survive removal or ejection by a process of abortion. Their rationale? Why, those babies and fetuses -- once they become unwanted guests -- are just like trespassers!

[* Examples of the former include Murray Rothbard, writing in The Ethics of Liberty and Williamson Evers writing in Journal of Libertarian Studies; for the latter, consult the discussions of abortion and children's rights archived by now-defunct Internet discussion lists,,, and Objectivism-L.] 

How can anyone possibly justify putting babies and fetuses in the same category as people who deliberately violate one's property rights? How can they regard refusing to feed or shelter one's unwanted fetus or baby as equivalent to refusing to feed or shelter a cold, hungry trespasser? 

One argument is that the reason parents in a free society should be allowed to engage in child and fetal abandonment lies in "the fundamental distinction between killing someone and letting him die." Individual rights give each person a "negative right" to demand that others not aggress against him, but not a "positive right" to demand that others feed him. Such a "positive right," the argument goes, "would require that someone be forced to create the food and feed him." 

Is the right to child support fundamentally the same as so-called "welfare rights"? Is insisting on the right to child support nothing more than the "folly of involuntary altruism"? Some think so and say that doing away with the right to child support may go a long way toward solving such problems as welfarism. 

Just what is "involuntary altruism"? It certainly sounds evil to anyone remotely sympathetic to Libertarian and Objectivist values. Apparently it is supposed to mean: being forced to provide material values to someone to whom you don't want to provide material values. This is the only plausible way to put one's unwanted babies and fetuses in the same category with welfare recipients. 

But look who else gets included in the category of "someone to whom you don't want to provide material values:" people you have defrauded or stolen from, people whose bodies you have injured or disable, and people whose property you have damaged or destroyed. 

The common denominator of all these latter people is one very simple fact: another person has caused them to be, without their consent, in a state of being unable to exercise powers of free action (rights), whether in regard to sustaining their lives or gaining and/or keeping property. 

Does your or my putting these people in such a state violate their rights? Not necessarily. Deciding to carry a fetus and deciding to give birth to a baby both fit this category, but are obviously not violations of the fetus' or baby's rights. 

More importantly, however, refusing to help remedy the condition that you or I have caused most certainly is a violation of their rights. And far from being some fuzzy, problematic category of human interactions, this is one of the most common ways in which rights get (and continue to be) violated. 

Objectivist and Libertarian theory simply do not allow you to default on providing material values to someone to whom you have a legitimate legal obligation, just because they are also "someone to whom you don't want to provide material values." To paraphrase George Bush, this definition of involuntary altruism "will not stand." 

Involuntary altruism is properly defined as: being forced to provide material values to someone toward whom you do not have a legitimate legal obligation. Unfortunately for the radical baby-starvers, this definition includes only welfare recipients, orphans, etc. -- and not one's own fetuses and children. 

To see clearly how being forced to support your children and fetuses is not "involuntary altruism," it is helpful to compare them with a very similar group of people to whom you have a legitimate legal obligation: people whom you have disabled. 

In each case, you are responsible for having caused there to be a helpless human being -- and, therefore, in each case, you are legally obligated to support that human being until (and unless) it is no longer helpless. We might call this "the legal obligation to ameliorate caused helplessness." (To avoid collectivist interpretations, this should be taken to mean precisely: the individual's legal obligation to ameliorate helplessness he/she has caused.) 

It might be objected that someone who disables you owes you because he has harmed you, whereas someone who gives birth to you does not owe you because he has not harmed you. This misses the point. You are owed disability support per se not because someone has harmed you, but because he has made you unable to support yourself -- i.e., because he has made you unable to exercise your right to act in support of your own life. 

Consider this simple illustration. Two broken legs for an illiterate pro-basketball player is the same injury as two broken legs for a professional typist. But is it, really? While the typist suffers only medical harm, the athlete also suffers disability -- i.e., inability to support his own life. As people interested in justice, we should properly hold that the athlete in the example is entitled not just to medical compensation from the person who caused his medical harm, but also to disability compensation from the person who caused his disability. 

Surely it follows from this that, if an athlete or anyone else is legally entitled to be supported by a person who causes him to be unable to support his own life, then children and fetuses (if human) are, too. To deny this would mean that a human being you make helpless by disabling him has a legal claim to support not possessed by a human being you make helpless by creating him!) 

It might also be objected that parents do not initially cause their child's helplessness simply by conceiving it, that nature determines their helplessness. Even so, it's still true that each mother does cause there to be a helpless child, as the result of deliberate action on her part. 

Once a woman is aware that she is pregnant, regardless of how she got that way, she has a basic option. She can somehow terminate the pregnancy -- safely and legally at present, thanks to Roe v. Wade -- or she can continue it. Suppose she chooses the latter. She is then choosing to nurture and shelter her fetus -- which she knows is helpless -- to the point that it is no longer merely a helpless fetus (which most Objectivists and Libertarians believe does not possess rights), but a helpless human being (having rights). 

Carrying a fetus to personhood (the seventh month of pregnancy, full-term childbirth, or whatever) is necessarily an act of nurturing-and-sheltering-rather-than-aborting. It's a safe bet that well over 99% of all pregnant women in their trimester are aware that their fetus is helpless and a human being. (Even most radical pro-choice feminists seem willing to concede this point; they merely claim that the fetus' rights are subordinate to those of its mother.) 

So, even if nature determines that the fetus is helpless, the mother knows her fetus is helpless. And if she elects not to have an abortion, she is thus choosing to make it into a helpless human being. Through her deliberately chosen action, she caused its helplessness as a child. At some definite point, she knowingly, willingly took over from Mother Nature. 

In so doing, the mother has incurred a legal support obligation to that child just as surely as she would to Magic Johnson, if she broke both of his legs. True, there are radical differences in the original conditions of the two helpless human being -- one was a helpless, nonhuman being; the other a nonhelpless, human being -- and the actions causing the helplessness (carrying to personhood vs. physical assault). There are, however, two essential similarities: (1) the end-product, a helpless human being' and (2) her causing there to be that helpless human being by her own chosen action. 

And in each case, it is her chosen action and its consequence that determines her legal support responsibility -- an obligation that is not "slavery" or "involuntary altruism," no matter how strongly she feels it is "someone to whom [she doesn't] want to provide material values.

From this, it should be clear that in no way has the door been left open for "welfare rights" or "orphans' rights" or whatever. Based as it is on individual responsibility for one's chosen actions, the support claim of a baby or a disabled person is very specifically directed toward the person responsible for their condition, and only that person. This rules out "collective responsibility" and lets "society" (i.e., taxpayers) off the hook.

It should also be clear that child support is not some category of "special rights." Instead, it is merely one of many instances of a derivative or corollary right that all helpless and/or aggressed-upon persons have in relation specifically to the person who made them helpless and/or aggressed against them.

To those who would rather not bother with the long-term commitment involved in raising a child (or in returning someone they have disabled to functional, self-supporting life), there is only one way out. Find a proxy! Which means not: leave the baby in the woods, in a dumpster, or even on someone's doorstep. It means: find someone willing to take on the legal responsibility -- an adoption agency, or whoever.

Being required to find new guardians for one's children in this way does not, as some might claim, "technically violate the prohibition against slavery." Nor is it "a not unreasonable compromise." It's very simply the law -- as it should be in a truly free society.