Few topics evoke such heated emotions and angry disputes as the legality of abortion, generally permitted in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, and affirmed by the 1992 ruling Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
For libertarians, the issue can be particularly difficult. Two bedrock principles – that everybody has the right to control their own body, and that the state should prevent and punish acts of aggression – seem to come into conflict. This tension is reflected in the Libertarian Party’s platform plank on abortion, which acknowledges “that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides.”
That doesn’t stop the party from taking a firmly pro-choice stance, continuing: “We believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.
A change, or a removal, or status quo, for the party’s pro-choice plank?
Whether or not the party’s position on abortion should be changed, or simply done away with, is the subject of ongoing dispute within the party. At the 2016 national convention, the delegates overwhelmingly shot down an effort by anti-abortion members to delete the party’s platform plank.
At the same convention, the party nominated two former governors, both of whom were supportive of abortion rights, and opposed legislation to prohibit the practice.
In its early days, the Libertarian Party was unapologetically pro-choice, and very few within the party seemed to disagree. One party banner at a pro-choice rally in Washington in the early 1990s, proclaimed that libertarians are “pro-choice on everything.” The issue was seen as one of a handful, like drug laws and gay rights, where libertarians could reach out the left and deflate the perception that the party was just a bunch of far-right extremists.
Ron Paul’s compromise with the Libertarian Party
That started to change in 1987, with the nomination of the staunchly anti-abortion former Congressman Ron Paul as the 1988 Libertarian presidential candidate. Abortion was one of the hot-button issues in the closely-contested nomination fight, with Paul narrowly beating out the pro-choice American Indian activist Russell Means.
In order to win the Libertarian nomination, Paul compromised with the party’s pro-choice sensibilities. He pledged to not campaign on the issue. When asked, he was careful to distinguish his personal views from that of the party’s. It was a pledge he kept, until eventually returning to the GOP in the mid-1990s.
Over time, the Libertarian Party has become more accommodating towards pro-life candidates. So long as banning abortion is not a major campaign theme, the party usually supports those candidates who disagree with the official pro-choice position. In 2008, the party nominated another anti-abortion presidential candidate, another former Republican congressman, Bob Barr of Georgia.
The debate continues within the Libertarian Party
The debate remains live, however. Caryn Ann Harlos, a member of the Libertarian National Committee associated with the radical anarchist wing of the party, has argued in favor of the prohibition of abortion. It might seem confused or contradictory to simultaneously profess anarchism and a desire for laws against abortion, but some Libertarians try to square that circle.
Groups like Pro-Choice Libertarians and the Association of Libertarian Feminists have pushed back, successfully rallying convention delegates to defeat prohibitionist attempts to change or water-down the platform. Some Libertarians, like 2016 vice-presidential candidate Gov. Bill Weld, have even made support of a woman’s right to choose a signature issue.
For decades before switching parties, Weld openly butted heads with anti-abortion Republicans, and frequently cited the issue as one of his reasons for ditching the GOP.
For many, it’s a simple matter of principle. The details of how a government ban on abortion would be enforced in practice can quickly become far more ethically repulsive than abortion itself.
The prospect of prosecuting doctors for murder, and chaining women to jail beds in order to coerce them into giving birth, is hidden behind misleading labels like “pro-life.”
For some, a matter of religious faith or conscience
To be sure, many people find abortion morally repugnant, and the issue becomes one of religious faith or of conscience.
And a substantial minority of Libertarians consider themselves pro-life, but do not actually advocate prohibition or forcing women to carry pregnancies to term. This can make the terminology confusing sometimes, since not all ostensibly pro-life Libertarians advocate criminal prohibition.
But with decades of Republican propaganda on the topic, many believe that a vote for a pro-life politician is a vote against baby-killing. And hence being a pro-choice candidate can be toxic in many parts of the country.
The bedrock foundation of libertarianism is personal autonomy and the inalienable right to control your own body. By keeping the party pro-choice on the abortion issue, Libertarians are choosing to keep their party principled and on the right side of history.