The Right to Abortion as an Application of Individual Rights

by | Jun 7, 2022

Both sides in the abortion debate invoke the principle of "rights." Anti-abortionists claim to uphold a "right to life"; Pro-choice advocates a woman's "right to abortion." Neither side holds a rigorously defined theory of rights.

News reports indicate that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) which legalized abortion nationwide, according to a recent leak of a draft majority opinion written in February 2022 by Justice Samuel Alito. As this leaves abortion rights vulnerable to legal attack, it is time, therefore, to reprise the argument in support of a woman’s right to abortion.

Observe that both sides in the abortion debate invoke the principle of “rights.” Anti-abortionists claim to uphold a “right to life.” Pro-choice advocates speak of a woman’s “right to abortion.” But neither side holds a rigorously defined theory of rights; in consequence, each side’s arguments are woefully weak.

 

Abortion arguments: faith vs. emotionalism

Most anti-abortionists are religious conservatives, whose view of human nature and rights is grounded in faith-based beliefs, bereft of rational arguments. Simultaneously, most pro-choice advocates are leftists who argue that a woman’s “right” to choose is based on her subjective experience, in her feelings, not on an objective analysis of human nature and the nature of rights. Even the term leftists employ—pro-choice—shows support for a woman’s “choice,” regardless of whether a fetus has or has not objectively attained the status of human personhood.

Put simply: conservatives argue on the basis of faith; leftists from the standpoint of emotionalism. Both eschew reason—in general, and regarding this issue specifically. But regarding any problem, and, above all, one so controversial, reason is the sole method by which to solve it. In fact, a woman does have a right to choose between motherhood and abortion, although not for the irrational reasons advanced by leftists. The validation of a right to abortion requires a rational understanding of the concept “rights,” a definition grounded in the facts of nature, neither in religious faith nor in subjective feeling.

We need to know the nature and the source of rights.

 

The nature and the source of rights

Let’s start with an illustration. For example, suppose we try to apply the principle of individual rights to animals on the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania. We explain to the lions that each individual antelope has an inalienable right to its own life that the lions must respect. Aside from the lion’s inability to understand the moral principle, there is a deeper problem: Lions can’t live that way. They are carnivores. They survive only by killing and eating their prey. Given a lion’s nature, an antelope’s hope of survival lies in footspeed. In brief, animals survive by physicalistic means—via claws and fangs, by speed of foot, by wings to swoop down on prey, and so forth. Moral principles are irrelevant to their survival.

But human beings have no claws and fangs, no great size, strength, or speed of foot. We must think in order to survive. We must learn to grow crops, to cure diseases, to build homes and cities—and to do this, we must be free to act on our best rational judgment. Who or what can prevent us from doing so? Other human beings. By what means? By initiating force against us—by robbing, conquering, or enslaving us, and so forth. A terrible storm or other natural disaster cannot prevent a man from acting on his thinking. But evil men, by enchaining and enslaving him, can.

Ayn Rand shows brilliantly in Atlas Shrugged that the mind is mankind’s means of survival—just as footspeed is for an antelope; and each individual, as long as he does not initiate force or fraud against an innocent victim(s), must be free to act on the conscientious conclusions of his own thinking. The principle that a person’s life belongs to him enables him to deploy his survival instrument in support of his own life. This is the reality basis of the principle of individual rights. A government is necessary and morally legitimized as a means to protect an honest individual from the initiation of force or fraud against him.

Therefore, “rights” are moral principles necessary to uphold and protect the life of a distinctively human being—i.e., an individual of a rational nature. These two factors form the logical foundation of the concept “rights”: individuality and a rational nature.

 

The Platonic-Christian argument against abortion

If the anti-abortion argument is critically examined, it becomes apparent that its supporters have no logical basis for the use of the phrase “right to life.” In this, lies one of its fundamental errors. An analysis of the conservatives’ errors can be employed to show that their appeal to the principle of a fetus” “rights” is logically groundless.

The conclusion of the anti-abortion argument is that abortion, at any point in the pregnancy, is murder; therefore, it must be outlawed. The fetus, they argue, is a human being from the moment of conception and therefore in possession of all moral and legal rights. The legal system, the anti-abortionists conclude, must protect the rights of the unborn.

The conventional argument against abortion is grounded in the belief in the supernatural; in the history of the Platonic-Christian school of philosophy. Because the roots of the anti-abortion position lie in traditional Christianity, its continued appeal rests on this affinity to religion. The modern anti-abortionist view of human nature comes directly out of religious faith.

The philosophic father of this view was Plato. In his dialogue, “The Phaedo,” Plato defined a human being as “a soul imprisoned within a body” and argued that “a true philosopher yearns for death.” Plato’s theory emphasized a spiritual, supernatural component to human nature: a human being is essentially an immortal soul temporarily conjoined with the flesh, yearning for death as means to attain wisdom in a higher world.

Saint Augustine, the first great philosopher of the Catholic Church, and philosophically a neo-Platonist, stressed this view when he defined man as “a soul using a body.” In the religious tradition, a human being is a temporary mixture of body and immortal soul.

Given such a religious approach, a logical question is: When is the immortal soul combined with the flesh? The anti-abortionist’s answer is: at the moment of conception. The religionist holds that God delivers the immortal soul into its tiny embryonic body at the instant that conception occurs. Therefore, since the fetus possesses the defining characteristic of human personhood from its first moment, it must be considered a human being throughout the pregnancy, and consequently, in full possession of all legal rights. As a result, the deliberate termination of its life is murder and must be prohibited by the government of any civilized society. If human nature is defined in religious terms, then abortion at any moment of the pregnancy is murder.

Philosophically, the problems of this viewpoint are manifest. First, it is a purely subjective position, based on faith, without a shred of objective fact to substantiate it. There is no rational evidence for the existence of an immortal soul or a God, much less that God breathes such a soul into the fetus at conception. These are matters of blind acceptance. On the basis of faith, one could accept anything: that burning bushes speak, men live inside whales, and virgins give birth—that the Pope is infallible—that God told Ayatollah Khomeini or Osama bin Laden to murder infidels—and that consuming meat on Friday or meat with dairy is sinful. Faith is a cognitive approach that lacks the ability to prove the truth of any of its claims.

But even aside from the arrant nonsense of such beliefs, there is a second, related point. This concerns the relationship of the legal system to cognition. The laws of a free society must be grounded in demonstrable fact. Where human beings are free to independently deploy their minds, the most rigorous thinkers will call for factual evidence and rational arguments grounded in it; the most logical arguments will win. This is the reason all dictators, religious or secular, always suppress freedom of intellectual expression—and incarcerate or execute independent thinkers; because they know that on a free market of ideas their arbitrary dictates will be found without logical basis.

The American Founders understood this point; children of the Enlightenment, such thinkers as Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, et al., comprehended that man is a reasoning being holding an inalienable right to speak his mind, no matter the unpopularity of his sentiments. “I swear eternal hostility to all forms of tyranny over the mind of man,” Jefferson stated, providing eloquent expression of the deep truth that rational beings must be free to speak and act in accordance with the judgment of their minds. If individuals are to be left free to think, then all arbitrary dogmas must be ruthlessly extirpated from the legal system.

But faith is a cognitive approach inimical to such freedom of thought; ultimately, if permitted into the legal system, it leads to authoritarianism, be it in medieval Europe, Calvin’s Geneva, or the Ayatollah’s Iran. This is because the purpose of religion is to subordinate human beings to God’s law. If man’s law—the law of the land—is to put into effect God’s law, it must be directed by those most expert in interpreting God’s will: the clergy and theologians. Religion is authoritarian in its essence: God stipulates and human beings obey. If such a method is allowed into a nation’s legal system, its logical impetus toward theocracy constitutes an immense danger to liberty.

The unprovable in reason is and will always be the coercively commanded in politics. If you do not deal with men by reason, then you deal with them by force. There is no third alternative. This is the deepest reason the country was founded on a legal separation of state and church, and why this attempted separation must be upheld. The right to hold and express faith-based beliefs is guaranteed by the First Amendment—and properly so. But these are matters of personal conscience. They must not be legislated and forced on people by the government of a free society.

In brief: the faith of the believer is irrelevant to the claim that an unformed chunk of tissue feeding off the life-support systems of a woman’s body is a human being with all the rights thereof. In logic, the religious argument has no case: no evidence, no facts, no proof. Its premises are grounded in the arbitrary claims of faith, and, as such, are rationally untenable and to be dismissed. Above all, such beliefs must not serve as the basis of legislation by either federal or state authorities.

 

The modern argument against abortion

But in recent decades, anti-abortionists have presented a modern, scientific argument to supplement their traditional religious one. The evidence they point to consists of two biological facts: (1) The fetus is a living being: (2) The fetus has the genetic structure—the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—characterizing human life. In short, biologically, a fetus is a living being that possesses the genetic makeup, not of a horse or a dog or a cat but of a human being.

John Noonan, an influential anti-abortion writer, makes the point this way in his widely reprinted essay, “An Almost Absolute Value in History”:

“The positive argument for conception as the decisive moment of humanization is that at conception the new being receives the genetic code. It is this genetic information that determines his characteristics, which is the biological carrier of the possibility of human wisdom, which makes him a self-evolving being. A being with a human genetic code is a man.”

Or as Noonan makes the point in simple eloquence elsewhere in his essay: “Anyone conceived by a man and a woman is human.”

These claims about genetics are undeniable facts of science to which any rational person must accede. The question is not: Is the fetus alive? It is. Nor is the question: Does the fetus have the genetic code of a human being? It does. The question is: Are these qualities sufficient in themselves to certify the fetus as a human being? Granted that possession of such characteristics represents a necessary condition of being human, does it also represent a sufficient condition?

The answer, in logic, is an emphatic: No. Early in the pregnancy—throughout, the entire first trimester—the fetus is a tiny chunk of protoplasm, biologically unformed and dependent on the mother’s life-support systems for the ongoing sustenance of its life. Early in the pregnancy, a fetus does not bear the remotest resemblance to the form of a human being; nor can it sustain its own biological functions: it is not the fetus’ heart that pumps blood through its body—but the mother’s; it is not the fetus’ stomach which digests its food—but the mother’s; it is not the fetus’ brain which controls such life-support functions—but the mother’s, etc.

In essence, a fetus in its early stages is not a biologically formed or individuated entity; it is a biological growth within the body of a host organism. It survives only as a biological dependency. It is an undeniable truth that a fetus is a potential human being. But it is equally undeniable—rationally undeniable—that to be a human being requires an organically formed individuation. Part of a human being’s fundamental nature is to be an individual; human beings are not biological dependencies feeding off the life-support systems of other living beings. Put simply, a human being is an entity, not a component. A state of full biological development is central to the attainment of individuation and to the achievement of human personhood.

This is an observational, not a theoretical point, that can be established ostensively, by pointing. There is an obvious, visually apparent difference between a fully formed, biologically developed individual, including an infant—and a tiny chunk of tissue living dependently within the body of another. One is recognizably human—and the other is recognizably a mass of protoplasm. The obvious perceptual difference between these two life forms is one that even a child can see and understand. The anti-abortion thinker must come to grips with this argument. He must refute it if he is to make his case that human personhood begins at conception.

The anti-abortion literature on this point is very weak. For instance, John Lippis, in his pamphlet, “The Challenge To Be Pro-Life,” a piece of writing widely disseminated by the anti-abortion movement, counters it this way:

“This decision [Roe vs. Wade] holds the child worthy of protection only if capable of existing by itself, ignoring the more fundamental need of this child—by the very nature of its youth—to be nurtured and cared for until he or she is truly viable. This independence, by any reasonable terms, does not come until late adolescence.”

Noonan makes the exact argument:

“The most important objection to this approach is that dependence is not ended by viability. The fetus is still absolutely dependent on someone’s care in order to continue existence; indeed, a child of one or three or even five years of age is absolutely dependent on another’s care for existence; uncared for the older fetus or the younger child will die as surely as the early fetus detached from the mother. The insubstantial lessening in dependence at viability does not seem to signify any special acquisition of humanity.”

Both arguments rest on the logical fallacy of equivocation. Both cases rely upon a switch in the meaning of the key terms “independent” and “dependent.” The right-to-abortion side means by the term “independent”—to be biologically independent or self-sufficient, i.e., to be individuated, fully formed or developed, a single autonomous biological entity. But the anti-abortion side speaks of “independence” or “viability”—”true viability,” as Lippis puts it—as full intellectual-emotional-financial independence, as being able to support and care for oneself as a mature, responsible adult. Based on this, the anti-abortionists conclude that “true viability” does not occur until late adolescence and therefore cannot serve as the criterion of human personhood.

But the truth is that to attain full intellectual-emotional-financial independence is irrelevant to the issue. Millions of human beings never achieve this. That is not the point. Independence in this context means one thing and only one: that human personhood requires a full organic development, to be a bodily individual, not a biological growth or dependency. A human being is not an aspect of anything or anybody else; he is an individual. Biological independence (or viability) means that the fetus’ heart pumps blood for the fetus, not the mother’s heart; that the fetus’ lungs respirate for the fetus, not the mother’s lungs; that the fetus’ brain controls his life-support functions, not the mother’ brain; and so forth. Independence in this context means the ability to support oneself biologically—not intellectually, emotionally, and/or financially.

This and nothing else is the issue, and the anti-abortion side needs to directly address it, not obscure it under piles of equivocations. To emphasize: a biological growth living inside the body of another organism, whose life is biologically supported by that organism, is not yet a human being.

 

Aristotle and the Potential vs. the Actual

Some of the anti-abortion literature even identifies facts that emphasize exactly this point. For example, the pamphlet “A Christian Response to Abortion,” circulated by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, specifies that at eight weeks the fetus is merely three centimeters (one-and-one-eighth inches) long and weighs merely one gram (one-thirtieth of an ounce). To be blunt, no being weighing one-thirtieth of an ounce is yet a human being, regardless that under certain circumstances it will develop into one. One, though by no means the only, important error in the anti-abortion argument is this failure to distinguish between a potential human being and an actual one.

It is important in this context to bear in mind Aristotle’s distinction between the potential and the actual. A thing is in a state of actuality when it has reached its full development; it is still in a state of potentiality when it has the capacity to reach that development but has not yet done so. So although an acorn can and will grow into an oak tree under the right circumstances, it is ludicrous to consider the acorn identical to the tree. A tree and an acorn differ in numerous respects that are observationally apparent. They differ in size, shape, weight, and so forth; they differ, in effect, as a seed does from a plant. While it is accurate to describe the acorn as a potential oak, it is obviously mistaken to characterize it as an actual one.

The actuality of a living being requires, as a minimal condition, full possession of all of that organism’s distinctive and developed characteristics, even if in a youthful state. So a sapling, a baby tree, may be considered an oak; just as an infant must be considered human; even though both exist in a youthful stage of development. But an unformed, nonindividuated fetus lacks even the minimal condition of an actualized human nature—a developed heart, lungs, brain, etc. It fails to possess biological individuality, a fundamental attribute of being human. Like an acorn, it lacks the remotest resemblance to a state of actuality.

Being potentially a thing does not make something actually that thing. If it did, we could live in a heap of bricks and cinder blocks, drive a pile of scrap iron and rubber, eat apple seeds or peach pits for a nutritious snack, and keep as a pet the clump of tissue living inside a female cat’s womb. But we cannot. The growth inside a woman’s body is no more a human being than that inside the feline’s body is a cat. The fetus is certainly a potential human being, but, by that very fact, by existing merely in a state of potentiality, it is excluded from yet being an actual human being.

Given these facts, the deficiency of the genetic argument should be clear. It is true that the fetus has a human genetic code. But so does every cell in the body. When a person rubs his arm, he brushes off living cells that will then die. Does this make him a murderer? Are those cells human beings because they possess the human genetic code? Obviously, it is mistaken to think so.

Having a certain genetic code gives such cells the potential to be cloned into a human being. But the fetus, during the first trimester, is merely a clump of these cells, and ascription to it of human personhood is equally mistaken.

Ayn Rand pointed out:

“If any among you are confused or taken in by the argument that the cells of an embryo are living human cells, remember that so are all the cells of your body, including the cells of your skin, your tonsils, or your ruptured appendix—and that cutting them is murder according to [this theory]… A proper definition of man would not permit anyone to ascribe the status of ‘person’ to a few human cells.”

The rational conclusion is that human personhood requires individuation. Philosophers can argue regarding the exact moment human life begins. Is it during the last stages of pregnancy, when the fetus has achieved full biological development and has a capacity for individual life? Is it only at the moment of birth when the umbilical cord is snipped and the infant is actually individualized? This is a fascinating question but is not relevant to the abortion question.

It is an egregious error in the abortion debate to switch the discussion away from the early stages of pregnancy and to its last moments. For, in fact, the third trimester is a nonissue. First, very few abortions are performed during this period. Second, for a woman suffering from health problems, it is as dangerous to abort at this stage as it is to give birth; so there are no medical reasons necessitating third-trimester abortions. Third, and central, a fetus does not achieve organic development until sometime between the twenty-eighth and thirty-fourth weeks, at the earliest; so that even the minimal requirements of human personhood are absent through the first six months.

What is clear is that events of the third trimester—when the fetus’ lungs reach full development, when the fetus gains weight, and increases in strength preparatory to birth—are irrelevant to the abortion issue. What is relevant, and essential, is the first trimester, a period during which it is unambiguously clear that the fetus is a biological dependency, and unquestionably not a human being.

Anti-abortionists raise a fascinating philosophic question regarding this point. They ask: how—by what process—does a fetus develop from merely “a clump of protoplasm” into a human being? How does such a momentous transformation occur? How can it? Observe the premise contained in the question. The belief is that unless a thing is X to begin with, it could not develop into X. The fetus must be human at the beginning, this argument goes, otherwise, it could not be human at the end. Human cannot come from nonhuman, a thing cannot derive from what it is not. Therefore, this argument concludes, it is at conception—at the beginning—when the fetus receives the genetic code, that it becomes human.

Notice that the argument denies the reality of change itself. Is it the case that a hodge-podge heap of steel and rubber is an automobile? That a bucket filled with carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and other chemical elements is a living being? Clearly not. Yet the car is constructed out of steel and rubber. A living being is composed of carbon and other chemical constituents. In reality, in terms of material makeup, living comes from nonliving, car comes from noncar, and human from nonhuman. Any view of human gestation must recognize this fact, including the anti-abortionists’. For if the fetus becomes human only at conception, then sperm and egg cells, prior to conception, are not human—and the human embryo comes from what is nonhuman. Change is a real part of the world, and the change undergone by the fetus, from a tiny clump of cells to a human being, is undeniable.

Because of such considerations, it is impossible for a fetus to possess rights. It was shown above that both morally and legally the concept of “rights” applies only to human beings—to individuals of a rational nature; that such a being must be free to act on the judgment of his mind, his survival instrument; that in the absence of such freedom, he is left no means to survive; and that the moral principle of individual rights, legally upheld by a proper government, is the indispensable means of protecting such freedom.

 

Individual rights arise in a social context

The concept of “rights” arises from, and is rationally necessary, only in a social context where other human beings could conceivably interfere with an individual’s freedom to act on his own grasp of reality. The concept could have no conceivable relevance to a man alone on a desert island. Rights are, as Ayn Rand defined them: “moral principles defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”

Observe that a right involves an individual’s freedom to act in his own best interest, not a guarantee of support at someone else’s expense; certainly not a clump of protoplasm’s guaranteed access to someone else’s bodily and life-support systems.

Morally, the concept of individual rights refers to the fact that an individual’s survival is based on his freedom to act on his own thinking; politically and legally it empowers the government to act as the protector of that freedom.

Put bluntly, the concept of “rights”—of an individual’s rights and of the “right to life”—is based on and applies solely to individual human beings in a social context. The concept is rationally inapplicable to plants, to animals, and to biological dependencies within a woman’s body. The concept arises only from consideration of a rational individual’s survival requirements and is therefore applicable only to such a being. Biological growths, even though potentially human, stand outside the rational meaning of the concept “rights.”

 

The philosophic basis of a woman’s right to abortion

In summary: an undeveloped fetus is a nonindividuated growth within a woman’s body. It is not an individual human being, and, consequently, stands outside the facts which give rise and rational meaning to the concept of “rights.”

A woman is an individualized human being with all the rights thereof; an unformed fetus is not. The facts here are perceptually self-evident. Further, the mother’s fulfillment rests upon her freedom to act on her own thinking. If she judges that carrying the pregnancy to term is in her best interest, then so be it; if she judges that terminating the pregnancy is in her interest, then likewise. An individual’s right to life, the freedom to guide one’s actions by one’s own mind, must be safeguarded within the legal system of a free society.

This is the philosophic basis of a woman’s right to abortion.

This is why the anti-abortion side is not merely mistaken, but misnamed. Its proponents have no logical entitlement to the phrase “right to life”; this is the logical property of the right to abortion side. Many centuries ago, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, uttered the trenchant statement: “See to it that things are called by their right names.” This is of more than semantic significance. The logic of each side’s stand must not be confused. The pro-abortion side protects a woman’s right to her own body and her own life. The anti-abortion side forces her into involuntary servitude to the biological needs of a hunk of protoplasm. Which side defends the right to life of an individual human being?

A woman’s right to abortion must be seen as one fundamental application of the broader principle of individual rights. A woman has a moral right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy only because all individuals, in general, have the right to pursue their own fulfillment and happiness, i.e., they have the right to live. Without the principle of individual rights consistently upheld, no rational case in support of abortion can be made.

 

Anti-abortion relies on the ethical doctrine of altruism

This raises a deeper moral issue that must be understood in order to philosophically defend a woman’s right to abortion. Does morality require that an individual sacrifice himself in order to serve the needs of others or does he have the right to pursue his own personal goals in quest of his own happiness? Do others necessarily come before self—or can personal happiness come first before satisfying the needs of others? In terms of moral philosophy, the question is: must an individual live altruistically, sacrificing himself for other people—or has he the right to live egoistically, pursuing his own goals even in the teeth of opposition from significant others? The answer to this moral question holds profound consequences for the abortion issue.

If one holds that other persons come first, that it is an individual’s duty to serve the needy, to sacrifice one’s self to the weak and the helpless, then, based on such a premise, one will be led logically to the anti-abortion conclusion. Nothing on Earth is more weak or helpless than an embryo; for it lacks not only a capacity to support itself financially, but, more fundamentally, it does not even possess an independent capacity to support itself biologically.

It is not an accident that most of those who oppose a woman’s right to abortion in the United States are devout Christians who accept Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that moral virtue is measured by the degree of one’s willingness to serve the meek, the weak, the sick, and the helpless. The religionist’s “family values” program, with its attendant anti-abortion component, is of one piece, flowing logically from the basic message of Jesus: a woman’s role in life is to conceive, bear, give birth to, and nurture babies. It is her duty to serve the needs of these helpless little ones, even when—perhaps especially when—that little one is a biologically unformed embryo unable to survive without her body as its incubator. When sacrificial service to the needy is the criterion of moral value, then a fetus’ claims are unbeatable. To its abundant and unending biological needs a woman’s right to her own career, her own happiness, even her own body is to be sacrificed.

On the altruistic view, because the mother is formed, individuated, biologically independent—because she is healthy and strong—because of such virtues, not despite them—she incurs an unchosen and unending moral duty to the helpless growth in her uterus. No socialist variant of selfless toil “for the people” can ever be more consistently altruistic and self-sacrificial than this. This religious call to sacrifice a gender is the voice of the Dark Ages, with its contempt for science, its animus toward medicine, its abysmally low life expectancy, and, above all, its duty-bound, self-sacrificial ethics, re-born in twenty-first-century America.

If one is to uphold a woman’s right to her own body, in principle, one must begin by upholding an individual’s right to his/her own life. It is only the moral theory of egoism, proclaiming that an individual is not a sacrificial animal, that he has an “inalienable right” to seek his own happiness; that his moral purpose is to pursue his own fulfillment—not to serve the needs of the people, the race, the tribe, the state, or the biologically dependent; it is only this code of ethics that is capable of liberating a woman from the enforced shackles of family servitude and empower her to live her own life of achievement, success, and joy.

Observe how the exponents of sacrifice are united against the individual self: whether they uphold service to Society, which is held to be greater than the self; or to the fetus, which clearly is less; in either case, they subordinate man—an individual, personal, living human being—-to something else, making it impossible to live his own life. The religionists want to save the fetuses, and the leftists want to save the polar bears and the “rain forests,” but both agree: humans must sacrifice for the nonhuman, human beings must be compelled to live in servitude to lesser life forms.

 

The right to abortion is founded on the morality of egoism

It is only an ethics of egoism that liberates an individual from involuntary servitude and urges him to pursue his own self-actualization. Because of this, it is only the ethics of egoism that can provide the basis for a woman’s right to her own life, her own happiness, and her own body—a right that includes the right to bear, nurture, and rear children if she so chooses.

Without an egoistic moral basis, it is impossible to defend the rights of an individual. Only when achievement, success, self-fulfillment, and personal happiness are held to be the proper ends of an individual’s life, and when duty, sacrifice, unchosen obligations, and servitude, are rejected, only then is it possible to uphold an individual’s inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The failure to understand and support the principle of individual rights, and the egoistic theory that serves as its underlying moral foundation, are the main causes of this country’s gradually eroding political freedom. From both ends of the political spectrum, from conservatives and leftists alike, the rights of an individual are under persistent attack.

 

Individual rights are attacked by both leftists and conservatives

Typically, leftists, under the influence of Marxism, work to enslave human beings in the economic sphere, seeking massive regulation of business, imposition on working people of every imaginable social welfare scheme—and coercive redistribution of income to finance such schemes. Typically, conservatives, under the influence of Christianity, work to enslave individuals in the sphere of personal morality, seeking to ban abortion, outlaw gay marriage, and enforce mandatory prayer.

Whatever noise conservatives make about upholding individual rights in the economic realm—however much they claim to support free markets and capitalism—their determination to enforce government control over a woman’s body reveals their essence as anti-individualists and statists.

Is such criticism of religious conservatives mere exaggerated alarmism? In answer, examine the following example. It is an illustration of contemporary culture, drawn from a textbook popular in the field of nursing ethics in relatively recent years. As an example of a serious ethical problem, the authors present the following case: “Let us consider the question, ‘Should a person with two healthy kidneys be forced to donate one of them to an otherwise healthy person who is in irreversible kidney failure?…Any person seriously approaching the problem of whether a healthy person should be forced to donate a kidney will be puzzled. To save a life is a ‘good’ thing to do. To force surgery on an unwilling and healthy individual is a ‘bad’ thing to do. The person who is ill has a right to life. The person who is healthy has a right to bodily integrity.” What is the morally proper course of action?

To any rational human being—and above all, to Americans who respect the principle of individual rights—the only “puzzling” issue is: how could such a question ever arise in a civilized society? Manifestly, it is a monstrous violation of individual rights to force a person into organ donation, regardless of the innocence or worthiness of the intended recipient.

 

Abortion rights are philosophically an individual rights issue

Observe the pronounced resemblance to the abortion issue. If a woman does not possess the legally protected right to control the biological processes in her own uterus, then, in principle, what right has any individual to his own bodily organs? If the state can prevent a pregnant woman from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, then what moral principle restrains it from turning anyone into a coerced organ donor? Many males mistakenly think of abortion as “a woman’s issue.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that it is an issue for anyone concerned with his own inalienable rights—and that it is the most fundamental issue of all—for if a woman does not have the right even to her own body, then, in principle, what rights do any Americans have?

In the absence of a right to his own body, can it plausibly be argued that an individual has the right to his own mind? What if his mind tells him that the coerced “redistribution” of his kidney is hideously evil? [Or, that he must insert a vaccine into his bloodstream because state bureaucrats have commanded it?] He surely has no right to act on his thinking in the presence of the state’s coercive violation of his body. And if he has no right to act on his own thinking, what happens to his freedom of speech? Or to freedom of religion? What of a right to his own business or savings or private property?

The right to property is the right to keep the product of one’s own effort—the effort of one’s mind and body. But if one has no right to one’s own body, then nothing prevents the state from expropriating the product of its effort. And if one has no right to any of these things, what has then become of a human being’s “right to life?”

Given a proper validation of a woman’s right to abortion, the futility of the leftists’ “pro-choice” view is apparent. No human being may be granted the right to choose murder. Only when the anti-abortionist’s argument that a fetus is human from the moment of conception is refuted, does it become clear that a woman has the right to choose between abortion and motherhood. The logic of the case requires to first establish biological individuation as the criterion of personhood, then to ground a woman’s right of choice in this foundation. To be pro-choice in the absence of such a base is to tear away the foundation of the right-to-abortion argument. To turn the anti-abortionist’s point against them: the fundamental issue here is not the right to choose but the right to life. A woman has the right to life because she is an individual human being. An unformed fetus has no such right because it is not. A consistent application of the principle of individual rights entails a vigorous defense of the right to abortion. This is especially true during the first trimester, when many abortions are performed, and when no rational case in support of the fetus’ human personhood can be made.

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Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written numerous books, including his novel, A Dearth of Eagles, recently published and available from Amazon.

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