TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Anti-Abortion Crusade is Anti-Life, Anti-Rights, Anti-Reason

Today hundreds of thousands of people are rallying in Washington, D.C., to protest Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, reports USA Today.

In the midst of this crusade, it is crucial for Americans to understand and emphasize that abortion bans are not “pro-life” but anti-life. The genuine pro-life position holds that a woman has the right to choose an abortion.

Outlawing abortion would violate the rights of—and thus damage the lives of—women and their partners and doctors. Among other rights violations, abortion bans would force pregnant women to carry the fetus to term, even in cases of rape and incest, and even at risk to the woman’s life or health; outlaw common types of birth control that might prevent implantation of an embryo; outlaw common fertility treatments that result in the destruction of unused embryos; and preposterously treat women who get abortions as murderers.

On the basis of religious dogma (or other mystical “insights”), those who advocate abortion bans seek to sacrifice the actual person—a pregnant woman who wishes to get an abortion—to the potential person—an embryo or fetus.

The ralliers and most anti-abortion advocates explicitly ground their protest on religious beliefs. For example, the “March for Life” organization behind the rally invokes “the law of God” for its cause. Only religious dogma or the like, not reality-based morality, can declare a clump of largely undifferentiated cells living within the body of a woman to be a person with full legal rights, on par with a born infant.

That abortion bans threaten and sometimes end the lives of women became obvious to Savita Halappanavar and her loved ones, when Halappanavar died after being denied a life-saving abortion in Ireland because of the anti-abortion laws there.

“March for Life” is quite explicit that the abortion ban it favors would kill some women in cases of medical emergencies. However, the organization holds, “no value distinction shall be made between the value of the life of one individual and of another”—here referring to an embryo and a woman. “March for Life” openly recognizes that, under its favored policy, women’s lives “may be lost.” Although regrettable, they maintain, this is the way it must be. In their words:

[T]he guiding principles are that no innocent human may be intentionally killed in an effort to save another human, and that it shall not be predetermined by law that one human life may be sacrificed to save the life of another human. Any decision about who may be saved must be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the total circumstances, and trying to save as many humans as possible. . . . Although a pregnant mother and/or her preborn child may die, there is no justification in the law of God or man for the intentional killing of even one innocent born or preborn human in existence at fertilization. NO EXCEPTION! NO COMPROMISE!

In other words, according to the abortion ban favored by “March for Life,” a woman may not get an abortion even if she is certain to die if she does not, unless perhaps the authorities make a “case-by-case” exception on grounds such as that the fetus would die anyway. If carrying a pregnancy to term would “merely” permanently maim or disable the woman, then, according to the asininely named “March for Life,” she must be legally forbidden from getting an abortion.

For a clear explanation of the moral basis for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, see “The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties,” by Diana Hsieh and me. Here are a few key passages:

Rights are not implanted by God in zygotes at conception, nor are they innate possessions or properties of human beings. Rights are factual requirements of human survival and flourishing in society. They apply only to human beings living and acting as individuals in a social context—not to embryos or fetuses in the womb. . . .

A “right,” as Ayn Rand observed, is “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” The purpose of this principle is to identify the fundamental actions that an individual must be free to take to live as a human being—actions such as living one’s life as one sees fit (the right to life), acting on one’s judgment (the right to liberty), keeping and using the products of one’s effort (the right to property), and expressing one’s ideas (freedom of speech). A person’s rights, when recognized and protected, enable that individual to act free of forcible interference from other people.

A woman is morally entitled to the protection of rights because she is an individual, a person in her own right, who must think and act freely in order to live. An embryo or fetus in the womb, in contrast, is not an individual. It is a wholly dependent being, contained within and supported by the body of the pregnant woman. The fetus does not act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant. It does not breathe independently, eat independently, move independently, or even defecate independently. The fetus cannot know or interact with the world outside the womb in any meaningful way. It is not an individual member of society, but rather a part of the pregnant woman. None of this changes until the fetus departs from the woman’s body at birth and thereby becomes an individual human person.

(The entire article can be read with a subscription to The Objective Standard or by purchasing a PDF of the essay.)

March for Life and others advocating abortion bans are anti-life, anti-rights, anti-reason—their puffed-up pretense notwithstanding. In the abortion debate, the only side logically deserving of the “pro-life” mantle is the side that recognizes and upholds a woman’s right to life, which includes her right to choose abortion.

Like this post? Join our mailing list to receive our weekly digest. And for in-depth commentary from an Objectivist perspective, subscribe to our quarterly journal, The Objective Standard.


Creative Commons Image: John Stephen Dwyer

Posted in: Abortion and Reproduction

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Jeffrey Schwicht

    You’re arguing against a straw man belief which is only held by a tiny minority of people. To argue against abortion in cases like rape, incest, terminal birth defects, or danger to the life of the mother is wrong, and I can fight that in good conscience.
    However, to imagine that you’re living by any standard by saying that abortion in any case is legitimate is insane. Slippery slope, my friend, slippery slope.

  • Anonymous

    Jeffrey, You are simply wrong that only a “tiny minority of people” want to totally ban all abortion. That is the explicit goal of the group that organized today’s huge rally; it is the explicit goal of the federal “personhood” measure endorsed by Paul Ryan; and it is the explicit goal of the “personhood” measures twice on Colorado’s ballot. The most consistent, most active anti-abortion advocates believe this.

    You are also wrong in claiming that legal abortion upholds no standard. It upholds the standard of individual rights.

    Regarding the arguments presented in the paper by Diana Hsieh and me, you are welcome to attempt to make an actual argument against them.

    Thanks, -Ari

  • Anonymous

    First, I saw the results of a poll the other day which indicated that abortion rights have more support than ever. One thing we’ll get from an Obama win is (I hope and expect) some Supreme Court judges that support abortion rights. He won’t have to suck up to the religious right.

    The Objectivist position is that we each have the right to hold our own life as our highest value; therefore, a woman has the right to give herself priority over anything or anyone growing inside her. Even as a man, I view with horror any idea that it should be otherwise. And especially for non-terminal birth defects, such as Down syndrome — check it out at Wikipedia; Down syndrome is extremely serious and quite shocking.

    As for the specifics you mention, they represent the position of the Catholic misery cult. In case of the mother’s health, a fetus may die only if the death is the unintended consequence of medical treatment of the mother. It is not allowed to save the mother by aborting the fetus. One part of Catholic doctrine is the bizarre notion (there are many such) that the mother and the fetus have equal rights. They don’t say how that is supposed to work; they just go ahead and take away all rights of the mother. I’ve read the Catholic encyclopedia of drivel very carefully on this matter and believe I have understood it accurately.

  • Rebecca Leigh Randolph

    you are defending a scenario that happens in less than 1% of abortions…..the younger generation is more pro-life than any other age group so roe will be overturned, just a matter of time!! ginsberg has even spoken against it….not to mention that the entire case was based on a lie and norma mccorvey didn’t want to go through with the abortion

  • Rebecca Leigh Randolph

    and please stop peddling that false story about the woman in Ireland….it’s been debunked by every reputable news source that originally reported it

  • P Edward Murray

    Look up St Gianna, she was Cannonized just a few years ago. In the 1960’s she was a Catholic laywoman, a Doctor and Mother. She found out that she was pregnant and developed cancer. Her OBGYN said that she should have an abortion but she did not want to lose the baby. She perservered and delivered the child and a week later she died. She is the very first Anti Abortion Roman Catholic Saint.

  • P Edward Murray

    You are very young Jeffrey, you really haven’t lived enough to realize ….

  • P Edward Murray

    Mel, IF you say that you are in fact saying that your own life means nothing because you too…as we all were..were at that stage of your life. Your parents CHOSE not to abort you!

  • P Edward Murray

    Ari, we all have individual rights. But what about the child that you give life to? In Abortion the child has no say:( Think back, your parents chose to not abort you!

  • Anonymous

    Edward, If you read the above post—or the longer paper on the matter—you will discover that equating an embryo or fetus with a born “child” is illegitimate. You can’t just assume the conclusion you wish to embrace; you have to establish it through observation-based argument. Thanks, -Ari

  • Anonymous

    The value I place on my life now (or even then, if that were possible) doesn’t change a thing about what my mother’s rights were. BTW, it’s the woman who has the abortion right and the ultimate decision: not the “parents.”

  • Anonymous

    Realize what?

  • Anonymous

    Excellent case for abortion rights and against religious faith (a vice).

  • Larry

    One of the best things about being an Objectivist is that you get to reject the arbitrary. This idea that somehow moving a few inches down a birth canal installs individual rights is about as arbitrary as it gets. If someone attacked a pregnant woman and caused an unwanted miscarriage – would you feel the same way? Is the “individual person” label assigned just because the fetus is wanted instead of unwanted? Sorry Ari I can’t buy that one – the only non-arbitrary point is at conception.

  • Anonymous

    Rebecca, If you have an actual citation to a “reputable” source “debunking” the Ireland story reported by the LA Times last month (and by many other newspapers), please provide it. The lives of women “in less than 1 percent of abortions” are important. The current views of Norma McCorvey are utterly irrelevant as to whether a woman has a right to abortion. So far you have not made any actual arguments defending your view or attempting to refute mine; you are welcome to do so. Thanks, -Ari

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a link to the recent Pew poll titled Roe v. Wade at 40: Most Oppose Overturning Abortion Decision. It also reports that 63% of white Catholics say no to overturning Roe v. Wade. In the religiously unaffiliated category, 82% don’t want it overturned. This just confirms what, I think, most have already figured out: the main enemy of abortion rights is religion — which accepts misery on Earth for the sake of some fantasy of salvation it sees in death.

    Another recent poll on abortion is an NBC/WSJ poll, reported here. The report contains this line:

    What’s more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989.

    This isn’t the same as “abortion rights have more support than ever” as I said in a comment below, so I have to retract that. (But still, it’s good news.)

    An interesting stat in the poll (pdf) is the response in the “Illegal without any execeptions” category. This year, it’s at 9%, down from 14% in 2003.

  • Martin Lundqvist

    Unlike your “God”, Savita Halappanavar actually did exist before she died.
    May I suggest sticking to reality instead of fantasies?

  • David Blankenau

    “Moving a few inches down a birth canal” does not install individual rights; becoming an individual does that. Until you are completely separated from the woman’s body, you are NOT an individual, but a totally dependent PART of the woman — nothing arbitrary about it!

    As for conception, that is the most ridiculously arbitrary point of all. Would you call a freshly laid hen’s egg a chicken? Do you call an acorn an oak tree? No? Then why would anyone call a small clump of undifferentiated cells a person, let alone one with rights?

    Only the mysticism of religion can wreak this much havoc on one’s ability to understand individual rights. Having grown up a Catholic,it took me many years to realize this…

  • Mac Wonk

    I take issue with this article, Ari, on several levels.

    You say “A woman is morally entitled to the protection of rights because she is an individual, a person in her own right, who must think and act freely in order to live.”

    With this I agree. I don’t think anyone disagrees with this.

    You go to say, “An embryo or fetus in the womb, in contrast, is not an individual.”

    You use the word ‘individual’ to identify someone with rights, but you define it with circular reasoning. In your world, the person whose rights should prevail is the mother. So you label a fetus as not being an individual which allows you to justify the killing of the fetus.

    Let’s take a look at the parameters you set up to define a fetus as not being an individual: “It is a wholly dependent being, contained within and supported by the body of the pregnant woman.”

    I agree.

    You also say, “The fetus does not act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant.” While there is some truth to that, it is not completely correct. Every function is working in the fetus, at least by the time the earliest preemie is viable: (1) respiration – the fetus’s blood gets its oxygen from the mother’s blood, true, but all the physiological processes requiring oxygen are handled independently by the fetus; (2) energy production – the fetus’s cells require the energy that glucose provides. While the fetus gets its glucose from the mother, the cellular processes are totally independent; (3) waste removal – again, this process is essential to viability and the mother makes this possible in the womb; however, the fetus’s body is doing its own processing; (4) cellular reproduction – the fetus’s cells grow on their own, despite the fact the mother provides the fuel and oxygen. The mother does not generate cells and then pass them on to the fetus; (5) thought and feeling – fetuses respond to stimuli, much like a baby out of the womb. With new methods of photography and 3D ultrasound, we can see the fetus’s reactions to stimuli. If you doubt this, check out the numerous videos of fetuses’ reaction to being aborted. It is truly a horror to watch.

    It is dependence that seems to condemn fetuses to your inferior ‘rights’ status. If this is our standard, then euthanasia is justified. There are many people in hospitals who are totally dependent on machines or people. Does your value system allow this?

    Let me walk you through a thought exercise to make my point that a fetus, at least by 21 weeks, is a ‘person’ who has rights. Say we have four women who conceived on the same day. Skip ahead to 21 weeks, the record for surviving preemies. They all go into the abortion clinic on the same day to get an abortion. Number one gets the abortion. Number two goes into labor and delivers before the doctor can see her. She decides to keep the baby. Number three is confronted by her angry husband in the lobby. He shoots her and kills her and the baby does not survive. He goes to jail and is charged with a double homicide. The fourth decides not to have an abortion and goes home.

    All four babies are basically similar, except that two die and two live. One of these lives on in the womb and one lives outside the womb, probably in an incubator (with full rights, I might say). One that dies is deemed by the state to have sufficient rights such that the angry husband is charged with murder, even before being born!

    To me, your value system is analogous to the one used by slave owners. While murdering an errant slave was (and continues to be, I might add) frowned upon, many slave owners never suffered the consequences of killing their slave. They justified it by saying that slaves had inferior rights and the rights of the owner trumped those of the slave.

    Personally, I think abortion in some instances is a better choice such as when the mother’s life is in danger. Regardless, I think we should all admit that abortion is simply murder and that sometimes, murder of the fetus is the least of all evils. But to normalize abortion, as it is today, is to allow a mother who doesn’t want to be bothered with a baby to murder. And with your blessing.

  • Katerina Gasset

    This is the only place I do not agree on TOS principles because they are contradictory. If you believe in the rights of the individual which I as a libertarian minded person do, what rights does 1. the father of the unborn baby have and 2. the unborn baby? The baby is a human being. When Roe vs Wade came into effect the doctors and scientists did not know when human life begins. The fetus is a a baby and can live outside of the womb at 21 weeks. That is only four months of pregnancy. I know women who have their bright children alive today because of science advances to allow that baby to live when born before 9 months. At what point then does this baby’s right begin? At what point do scientists say that now an unborn fetus is a human being with rights? So does this mean that it is ok for the mother to have the doctor perform late term abortions where the mother actually gives birth to a dead baby? Where do you draw the line? There are scientists who believe that any child under the age of 2 is not a human because they are not a part of society so they can also be killed. What is the difference between the woman who goes to prison for dumping her newborn baby in a garbage can and the woman who kills a baby human being when it can fully survive outside the womb?

    Also, a clarification in your post- the lady in Ireland was NOT denied an abortion that killed her. She died from a blood infection which she would have died from whether she was pregnant or not. The media went wild with this erroneous story after the woman died and the journalist was totally irresponsible for spreading the rumor that was not substantiated.

  • Katerina Gasset

    So if 63% of all Catholics say they want a socialist country and don’t believe that government extends rights, then you would also be quoting them when our liberties are attacked right? So if 82% of the people don’t want the rest of us to be able to vote, or have guns, or choose to run our own businesses, you would then go along with them? You are quoting an NBC poll trusting that poll when in respect to our freedom, NBC is so far left it is not even funny, but you would support their polls?

  • Katerina Gasset

    That is so much better than how I said this in my comment. Your story of illustration is exactly what I take issue with – the contradictions in when a baby has rights. Thank you.

  • Anonymous


    A poll is a poll; I quote it because the data it contains is relevant to the country’s current status: not because I’m forming my own views according to the polls. If the polls indicated that 63% of Catholics wanted socialism, you can bet I’d be quoting them. BTW, it was an NBC/WSJ poll: not an NBC poll. I wasn’t aware that WSJ is far left.

    Your comment is one of the most ludicrous I’ve ever seen.

  • Anonymous

    Coppes, who has never met Halappanavar, said that when a woman’s water, or amniotic sac, breaks during early pregnancy, she is at risk for infection because the barrier between the baby and the outside world is broken. The fetus’s environment is also no longer sterile, putting it at risk for “horrible malformations.”

    Coppes said the fact that Halappanavar’s husband reported she was ill and vomiting suggested a serious infection had set in, and it’s possible that it spread to her blood, resulting the septicemia that killed her. When asked how long it takes for an infection in the uterus to spread to the blood, Coppes said it can vary.

    “Let’s put it this way, the clock starts ticking when the membrane ruptures,” he said. “It can be pretty fast. That’s why you don’t sit and watch.”

    When an infection occurs in a pregnant woman’s uterus, Dr. Kimberly Gecsi, an obstetrician at University Hospitals in Cleveland, said the only way to treat it is to terminate the pregnancy.

    “Antibiotics are part of the process, but once an infection develops inside the uterus, antibiotics alone aren’t going to treat the infection,” Gecsi said. “The infection will continue until the products of pregnancy are removed, either by natural procedure or with surgical procedure.”

    Are you saying that the septicemia was not the result of the miscarriage in progress? Would you care to point us to a source that indicates that?

  • Larry

    Did I say something religious? You can’t be a little bit pregnant – either you are or you are not – it’s not arbitrary.

    What is your answer to the dilemma I posed above? Does the fetus get rights only if the mother wanted the child?

  • Mac Wonk

    Thanks, Katerina. I’m anxious to hear Ari’s thoughts on this. He seems very open-minded which is why I like his work.

  • Valarie Murphy

    No doubt, abortion does stop a beating human heart.

    “… the first step in the abortion procedure … is an injection of medication into the fetus that will stop the fetal heart instantly.” ~Boulder Abortion Clinic

  • Valarie Murphy

    Well, a fetus and a “born” child both have human beating hearts. No?

  • David Blankenau

    No, it doesn’t matter if the woman wants the child or not; rights do not apply to a fetus. Ayn Rand was clear on this whole issue, and Ari and Diana’s article (referenced above) elaborates further. They explain this much better than I can, so I recommend it highly.

  • Anonymous

    Ok! By seeking to understand the medical context, you’re on track to find out whether or not her life would have been saved by an abortion. I’m not qualified to make such a judgement myself, so I’ll have to await the results of an investigation. The stuff I’ve read doesn’t explicitly give a medical conclusion to this question.

  • Katerina Gasset

    so here is a poll:Gallop 2011- 1. ”52 percent of pro-choicers and 90 percent of pro-lifers favor making abortion illegal in the second trimester.”

    2. ”Making abortion illegal in the third trimester (79 percent pro-choicers, 94 percent pro-lifers)”

    3. ”Banning partial-birth abortions (63 percent pro-choicers, 68 percent pro-lifers).”

  • Jennie Finley

    Calling a fetus a “child” at conception is just as arbitrary, unfortunately. Until that fetus is fully developed and has arrived from the birth canal ALIVE, it is in no way considered lawfully a person at all. Ask any woman who has miscarried. Or, even better, ask the parent whose “child” was born stillborn. Conception is nothing but the beginning of a POTENTIAL for life – simple medical knowledge proves that very often, that potential can go awry at any point in the ensuing nine months.

  • Anonymous

    Good goin’; I welcome the data point.

  • Larry

    Hi Jenny I don’t see how the idea that something “might” go awry makes any difference. Something might go awry with me right now and I could keel over dead but how does that possibility warrant the denial of my rights?

  • Larry

    Yes I read the article carefully. I still find his position arbitrary. Rand would tell me never to surrender my mind to anyone including her if I was not convinced.

  • Jennie Finley

    All I was stating was that calling a fertilized egg a “child” is just as arbitrary as any other measure. You can not convey “rights” on a collection of cells that may just as easily miscarry, or have defects that cause it to be stillborn. In neither of those cases is a woman said to have given birth to a child.

    Thanks for taking my original statement to a whole new level of absurdity,though. :)

  • Benny Sanders

    So, if you are conjoined, then you can choose to eliminate the life of the other part of you if the other person is not in a position to protest? Watch where you step.

  • Benny Sanders

    Have you ever been ‘affected’ by a miscarriage? Even at a few weeks, it is devastating. What you are supporting in your statement can be carried through to those abortions that are performed at 41 weeks by forcing the baby’s feet to come first, then injecting a lethal poison into it’s spine to kill it before it manages to take a breath. Gee, love your reasoning.

  • Benny Sanders

    Better said than ANYTHING else I’ve read. Only a person that is focused on ‘getting their own way’ can consider arguing with it. Thank you Mac.

  • Benny Sanders

    Do you realize that even though a ‘majority’ of people believe that abortion should be available in some cases, that the majority of them think the present ‘time limit’ for having an abortion is too long, and believe it should be more restricted, not less so.

  • Anonymous

    Gasset pointed out that stat via a poll above — and I welcomed the poll data. Be aware that, in no way, do I ever try to defend a position by the grossly irrational fallacy of pointing to a poll. Polls can provide a barometer of where things stand in a culture; they don’t define truth.

  • Larry

    Thanks Jennie for the conversation. My tone is friendly on the below and I’m
    honestly trying to work through this.

    Point we both agree on:
    You are either pregnant or not pregnant (can’t be both). So we have something objective here.

    I think we would also both agree that from day one the fetus
    is alive (it grows, feeds, defecates, survives, etc). Ari is saying that because it is highly
    dependent (“dependent being” is the term he’s using) it doesn’t qualify as an
    individual. So it’s not whether or not
    the dependent being is alive (because we aren’t arguing that point), but rather
    the level of dependency and level of interaction with the world that qualifies
    one as an individual. Once it is born,
    it certainly becomes less dependent on the mother but is still a highly
    dependent being. I find this just an arbitrary
    standard – basing individuality on a scale of dependency, interaction and
    physical location.

    Quoting Rand (VS, chap 9, page1): Before anyone can identify anything as
    “gray,” one has to know what is black and what is white. In the
    field of morality, this means that one must first identify what is good and
    what is evil. And when a man has ascertained that one alternative is good
    and the other is evil, he has no justification for choosing a mixture.
    There can be no justification for choosing any part of that which one knows to
    be evil.

    We know what is good (upholding individual rights) and we
    know what is evil (not upholding individual rights). It appears gray to me to choose a
    non-objective standard on this issue.

  • David Blankenau

    I don’t understand what conjoined twins have to do with the (non)rights of a fetus. Would you explain what you mean, please?

  • Mac Wonk

    Thanks, Bennie. Notice Ari doesn’t respond? Hmmmmm.

  • John Holmes

    What really gores me about the right wing is their hypocritical “concern” for the right to life before birth, but their utter and callous disregard for the maintenance of that life after birth. To me, it implies that what is really desired is the breeding of low-wage serfs, who hopefully will die before they become a “burden” on society, aided by the withholding of health care. It is simply part of the polarizing propaganda which seeks to mislead people. I for one am willing to support reasonable anti-abortion measures when healthcare is provided as a right.