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An Objectivist condemnation of abortion

By G. Stolyarov II
web posted September 2, 2002

Objectivists think in terms of fundamentals. A rational, coherent view of philosophy must be derived from basic premises in metaphysics and epistemology to be applied to the fields of ethics and politics. There are four key truths which are hierarchical in those fields, each subsequent one founded upon the earlier. I quote from Introducing Objectivism by Ayn Rand (p.3): "1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality. 2. Epistemology: Reason. 3. Ethics: Self-Interest. 4. Politics: [Laissez-Faire] Capitalism."

An Objectivist conclusion is any which embraces principle one at least and carries it to its logical extrapolation. The philosophical innovations of Ayn Rand have furnished a radically new approach in regard to the human mind and a system which furthers reason, rights, and progress as the irrefutable values necessitated by man's pursuit of survival and prosperity. I wholly advocate this system at its root, as Ayn Rand's works are the most lucid and consistent I have ever encountered, and to the greatest extent agreeable with my own logical deliberations.

There are, however, two minor points of deviation in the fields of ethics and politics on concrete issues which I view to be glitches not in the Objectivist system per se, but rather a misapplication of fundamentals the clarification of which will result in a more potent utility of Rand's doctrines in the achievement of proper political reforms. The former of these is her negative stance on the Vietnam War (the war itself, not the draft which I concur is an absolute violation of individual liberties), which will require a second essay to discuss. The latter is the subject I would like to address presently, her approval of the practice of abortion. It is unfortunate that here I will be forced to engage in refutations of statements by Rand herself and numerous current Objectivist thinkers whom I hold in enormous esteem. Nevertheless, loyal as I am to the fundamentals of Objectivism, I seek to derive from them a rational position for genuine pro-life advocates.

Prior to the advent of Rand neither the pro nor the anti-abortionist camps possessed an individualistic ethical basis for the political question of whether to permit or to abolish the practice. The "pro-lifers", mainly adherents of the Christian religion, had declared that man's life and his body belong to God and he must not intervene with God's will that he bear a child. But then, what of still births, which are a frequent phenomenon in a "divine" wilderness "untainted" by modern medical technology? Is God so capricious and inconsistent that he would implant a child into a woman and then, all of a sudden, declare that the child must not be? How is that compatible with God's assumed omniscience and foreknowledge of the "proper scheme of things"? This is an evident intra-religious contradiction.

I am myself an atheist, but my foremost opposition to this view stems from my recognition that a free society must possess religious freedoms and men must be free from initiation of physical force upon them by ideological groups which happen to disagree with them. Therefore, this "traditional" position, in order to avoid becoming an edict of a totalitarian theocracy, amounts to the simple, "Don't like abortion, don't have one" or, more specifically, "If your religion forbids it, do not undertake it". Any religious basis for abolition is no objective philosophical ground and cannot justify legal measures. Thus we can pinpoint the enormous loophole in the pro-life position to date and its inability to withstand allegedly infallible counterclaims by opponents.

The "pro-choice" demagogues had declared that man's life and his body belong to society and the state, and the state must be spared the expense of feeding another mouth through its omnipotent aid bureaucracy in a world of "rampant overpopulation", "resource shortage", and tautological bromides. This is the extreme position presently applied to reality by communists in China coercing women into aborting their children as part of the despotic one-child policy. A more moderate stance espoused by the New Left and pseudo-Feminist advocates of a matriarchal society simply states that the whim of the mother is absolute justification for the termination of life at will, and that no considerations, including the objections of the father as well as the possibility of adopting out the child, should take precedence over the mother's "comfort".

The latter of these had been to an immense extent upheld by Ayn Rand, who, to her credit, had granted it a supposed metaphysical/epistemological grounding rather than retaining it an arbitrary pronouncement of gender-crats. Don Watkins III, a modern Objectivist thinker and abortion advocate quotes Rand in his essay, "Abortion is a Moral Right": "Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives. The task of raising a child is a tremendous, lifelong responsibility, which no one should undertake unwittingly or unwillingly. Procreation is not a duty: human beings are not stock-farm animals. For conscientious persons, an unwanted pregnancy is a disaster; to oppose its termination is to advocate sacrifice, not for the sake of anyone's benefit, but for the sake of misery qua misery, for the sake of forbidding happiness and fulfillment to living human beings" (Rand 1).

It is Rand's position that I intend to address here, and therefore it is time to delve into the premises involved. The anti-abortionists frequently assume that the fetus is yet not a living entity, hence the dilemma they implant of the immorality of sacrificing the finances, comfort, and time of fully developed persons to the service of a "potential" human being (as only the most blatant of socialists will uphold the right to kill one person for the sake of another, this is an interpretation required to furnish a moral basis for abortion). Dr. Leonard Peikoff, professor of philosophy, writes, "A potential is not an actuality, and a fertilized ovum, an embryo, or a fetus is not a human being. Rights belong only to man - and men are entities, organisms that are biologically formed and physically separate from one another. That which lives within the body of another can claim no prerogatives against its host" (Peikoff 357).

Let us ask the question, "What defines a human being?" Rand had pinpointed man's identity as that of a "being of volitional consciousness", i.e. someone who is capable, at will, of interacting with reality through his rational faculties and of recognizing aspects of reality by such a means. The ability to use his independent mind is therefore the admitting criterion. Rand and Peikoff are correct to state that a potential per se is not an actuality, but merely an alternative among many. Also they reasonably argue that it is within man's rights not to procreate and not to bear children. If the contrary premise were embraced, then, because "potential" would be the standard of value, and a different genetic code would result during every act of fertilization between every "potential" couple, moralists would be able to claim that it is every person's duty to undergo infinite reproductive activity with every other earthling of the opposite gender so as not to kill the "potential" DNA configurations to emerge from every such act. The result, granted, is absurd.

The question then becomes, "When does a potential cease being a mere alternative among many?" Prior to the conception of a child, there is absolutely no guarantee that a particular genetic code will be furnished to serve as the basis for the uniquely adjusted rational faculty of a child-to-be. Therefore it is moral to prevent conception by means of abstinence or contraceptives, and the couple will therefore possess a genuine choice of whether or not to expend a substantial portion of their lives and finances on the upbringing of offspring. However, once conception has occurred, the peculiar genome is already in place, which will result in the inevitable development of a rational creature absent intervention. Granted, the fetus does not yet possess volitional consciousness, but neither does a man who is asleep. Does that grant a serial murderer the right to enter his home, loot his property and kill one whom he mistakenly judges to be "potentially awake"? The fact that that particular man (or child) will, if unhindered, be able to exercise his volitional consciousness, classifies him as a human being.

The consequences of the contrary interpretation are frightening. Objectivists have long stated that children, for example, are in a stage of "apprenticeship" and are not yet fully mature in both their physical and cognitive aspects. They must undergo guidance within reality, from, for example, their parents or from literature or rational teachers, and thus they do not even in our society possess the rights to engage in those activities (such as driving or voting) for which they are not yet capable. Their consciousness is not, in other words, fully trained to warrant an independent exercise of their will. But that, under Peikoff's interpretation at least, would classify them as "potential" beings of volitional consciousness and justify, for example, infanticide or the arbitrary abandonment of young ones by parents to the perils of the elements. No "mainstream" Objectivist would dare agree with something this preposterous, and therefore it is time to clarify our terms. We have already defined what a "potential" is, and a sleeping man, a child, and a fetus are not potential human beings. Let us grant their condition the label, "futuristic certainty" which means the particular entity's ascent to the pertinent condition absent outside intervention.

But even with the distinction made between potential and futuristic certainty, there remain abortionist arguments which must be addressed from an Objectivist perspective. Watkins writes, "Man is nothing more than an undead corpse. There is no ignoring it - each one of you is going to die. Thus, I believe that I have the right to treat you as if you were dead. I believe I have the right to bury you now, or use your body for medical experiments, or - if I'm hungry - to eat you. This is absurd, you say? Just because you will be dead doesn't mean you're dead now? That there's an essential difference between a potentially dead human being and one who is actually dead? That one has rights and one does not? Well, the argument I gave you for treating living individuals as 'undead corpses' is the same argument anti-abortionists give for treating the unborn the same as the born. Their argument is just as absurd and the consequences just as horrifying." While the condition of futuristic certainty does indeed apply here, and the argument may seem intimidating at first, it helps to pinpoint another Objectivist truth. Man's life is the standard of value, and it is improper to deprive any entity of life or to artificially hasten his demise.

While we have not yet reached immortality, people continue to live for a certain period of time, and the only context in which morality can be used by an individual is within that span. To shorten that span is to curtail the influence of morality and henceforth is a nihilistic and evil act. Also, just because futuristic certainty exists does not imply that it is desirable, and as death is the diametrical antithesis of life, its infliction is improper. The anti-abortionist, however, defends the fetus on the grounds of futuristic certainty of its life, of its existence as a rights-bearing entity and a being of volitional consciousness. While Mr. Watkins is a profound and eloquent thinker, he has in this case committed a grossly inapplicable moral equivocation as well as the logical fallacy of false analogy.

Because I consider myself an Objectivist, I like to think of all proper actions in terms of trade, or the consensual exchange of value for value. What is parenthood, you ask? Is it a selfless sacrifice of time, money, and psychological calm to an "unintelligent growth" or an "ungrateful little ruffian"? No. It is an investment like all others. A child can be a pillar of support during one's retirement years and can be morally conditioned to offer aid to his elderly ancestors not as a duty but simply as back payment for the sustenance provided to him during his youth. But more significant is the direct spiritual value that a child brings to a sound home as a complex, inquisitive entity on its path to full mental competence. The relationship between parent and child is undertaken for the same reason and with the same value-value symbiosis as a business contract between a producer and a consumer. The violation of a contract after a single party has paid its dues is called fraud and is a variety of the initiation of force, rightly prohibited by law. Is it then not fraud to deprive a futuristically certain human being of its life after it had already been created? Within conception is implicit a particular expectation from the child-to-be. While it may not always be fulfilled, just like a product one purchases may not necessarily turn out to be as practical and ameliorating of one's life as one might have envisioned, that does not nullify the exchange itself. There is also a "full refund" option, commonly known as adopting out the child, which should even be encouraged in cases where his remaining in his original homestead will subject him to the misery of parents who do not love him and his parents to the misery of living with a child they do not love.

What, you might say, should occur if the contract were undertaken without express knowledge by all parties of the consequences involved or of the benefits they should expect from it? In a similar manner, a customer may purchase an unnecessary product out of sheer unthinking whim, but that does not nullify the consensual nature of the exchange already undertaken. If anything, such a mistake will serve to persuade the erring party to be more prudent in its further analyses. Reality punishes the man who misuses his rational faculty, and that particular truth was embraced by Rand as a further reinforcement for man's need to discover and apply reason. If a couple decides to engage in physical intercourse but does not wish to give birth to offspring, then artificial preventive measures are its reality-applicable solution. Thus, in any situation of unwanted conception, the parents are to blame for negligence and are not liable for compensation as a result of their capricious defiance of the laws of reality and of the metaphysical properties of physical intercourse which, when unamended by technology, result in the development of a futuristically certain being of volitional consciousness. The only genuine victim is the innocent little human who is to be sacrificed to the irrational.

Objectivist writer Glenn Woiceshyn brings a historical argument into the "pro-choicers'" intellectual arsenal which it is necessary to analyze for the sake of judging its applicability to the consistent moral framework that was Rand's. He is quoted by Watkins, "When abortion was illegal in America," writes Glenn Woiceshyn, senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, "many women died or suffered serious medical problems from either self-induced or illegal, 'back-alley' abortions. Women streamed into emergency rooms with punctured wombs, massive bleeding, and rampant infections" (Woiceshyn 1). Now, how can we respond to this? Firstly, the vigilante actions of the mothers-to-be against futuristically certain human beings were an initiation of physical force, an inherent violation of man's right to life which is derived from his metaphysical identity. Force is an attempt to conform reality to whims, and because of its nature, it is inevitably punished by reality. The coercer cannot survive and prosper, and so were these immoral women punished by reality. Additionally, it is the proper function of law to prevent and penalize the initiation of physical force, and henceforth it is not compassion that we must exhibit toward these child killers but imprisonment. It is also fitting to note that because man is a being of volitional consciousness, "social pressures" are not a defining factor in his (or, in this case, her) decisions. No matter how displeased a woman may have been with her pregnancy, and no matter how rigid anti-abortion laws have been in the past, she possessed the choice not to take the matter into her own hands. The fact that she had willfully abandoned that course of action classifies her as a criminal.

I have elucidated here a rational, secular, Objectivist position to be employed by the anti-abortionist movement. I view abortion as a horrendous evil, a circumstantial Holocaust in many ways because it involves the murder of individuals due to characteristics beyond their control, such as age. What will this give the Objectivist thinkers who are willing to take their splendid premises to their logical conclusions? It will allow them to join ad hoc movements in collaboration with religious conservatives and miscellaneous pro-lifers for the express purpose of abolishing abortion, no matter what their philosophical justification. While we may disagree with their reasoning, we should not disagree with their policy standpoints in this regard because, objectively speaking, abortion is immoral. What the support of Objectivists might grant the anti-abortion movement is the momentum and popular backing necessary to exercise a major influence on our representatives and our courts so that soon we may overturn the abomination that is Roe v. Wade.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and an independent philosophical essayist. He can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

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