Abortion and Individualist Anarchism

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2022-01-03


Ever since I first began my journey towards anarchism, my views on abortion have been in a constant state of flux — multiple conflicting intuitions and considerations all pulling my values in different directions, while the prevailing winds of my evolving moral system changed which were foremost in my mind. Usually, with things like this, it is important to open a dialogue about it with others, in order to gain new perspectives and refine one's understanding, but due to the understandably controversial nature of the topic, I've found it difficult to openly discuss it with people. I've even found it difficult to begin writing on the topic, so unlike most of my other ethical views, I don't have a significant corpus of essays on it documenting the development of my views. I think, however, that my ideas on the topic have finally become mature enough, and nuanced enough, that it is time to write them down.

The goal of this essay is primarily to do what I did in my essay on anarchistic relations: to explore all the nuances and complexities of a topic, letting my reasoning take me where it will, in order to clarify for myself, through solidification, my own thoughts. Please bear in mind, then, that this is an exploratory essay, and as such won't be as clearly structured as my moral formal ones.


The first consideration when we bring up the topic of abortions is our general moral foundations. After all, if we don't understand those clearly, then it is difficult to derive conclusions about what should or should not be done with any clarity. In my own case, my moral foundations are fundamentally individualistic, anti-authoritarian, and subjectivist — I am only beholden to my own individual desires regarding what I want to see in my own life and in the society around me, my primary concern is for individual autonomy, and my primary opposition is to authority. In light of that, this essay will not be an exploration of what others should or should not do regarding abortion — instead it will be an exploration of my own values and how they might require me to act towards others, as well as an attempt to reach reflective equilibrium regarding these two things.

As a moral subjectivist, you might assume that my response to abortion would be simple: I have no right to dictate the reproductive health choices of anyone besides myself." That's not really the case, however: a moral subjectivist does not believe in 'rights,' and does not commit themselves to moral relativism by giving up moral realism, since relativism insists on a commitment to a moral rule (non-interference with others) that is non-relative to subjective desires and therefore a phantom at best. Therefore, if, according to my values, something is of an abhorrent and undesirable nature — such as oppression, authority, hierarchy, coercion, etc — then it is perfectly acceptable for me to take steps to prevent it, and rally others in doing so as well. This is something no anarchist (except pacifists perhaps) has ever been against, no matter how subjectivist they are. Otherwise they'd cease to be anarchists.

However, although I am not inherently opposed to interfering with others for my moral values, I begin with a presumption of non-interference. This for several reasons. First, because by default interfering with the choices of others is a reduction of autonomy, unless you can prove that that exercise of autonomy was actually resulting in the subordination of someone else. Second, because interfering with the choices of others necessarily brings about conflict, and conflict is costly and dangerous, and so best avoided when possible, since enforcing one's values is not inherently right or just (as a moral realist would think) but instead just another good to be weighed and measured against one's other interests. Finally, encouraging a presumption in favor of non-interference produces a society that is less infested with moral busybodies, since people can't always be trusted to have minimalist moral values that would lead to a live and let live attitude even in the absence of such a presumption. For all these reasons, then, just as the defendant in a court of law is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proven, so in my own reasoning I prefer to assume a peaceful live-and-let-live attitude until the weight of axiological considerations forces me to overturn that. Therefore, the crucial question is whether my values would imply that abortion is of a terrible enough nature that it would become important enough to me to prevent a society that allows them to overcome my presumption in favor of peace and non-interference.


I think the most compelling reason that one could be against abortions is on the basis of a sort of restitution argument. If one values attempting to restore the victims of a coercive or harmful action to the state of happiness and peace that they were in before someone hurt them, then one automatically has to believe that, under some conditions, individual autonomy must take a back-seat to considerations of fairness. I happen to be of the opinion that, generally speaking, not only is restitution a very good way to solve conflicts and maintain peace and general individual autonomy in society, it is also something that I value inherently for its own sake, being an outgrowth of an attempt to deal fairly and empathetically with people. I value this in the same way I value compassion, charity, artistic skill, and other things that are not strictly implied by a purely game theoretic egoist framework.

Essentially, the argument would have to proceed like the following:

  1. Some activities have a risk of hurting others.
  2. If such an activity is voluntarily undertaken, knowing the risk, and someone does get hurt, then the person who did it has voluntarily harmed someone.
  3. Being put in a position of dependency without one's consent is a form of harm. (For instance, throwing someone who can't swim into a pool without their consent.)
  4. If someone voluntarily harms someone else, it is unfair to not at least attempt to restore them in some way.
  5. Sex has a risk of creating a fetus.
  6. When a fetus is created, it is dependent for its life on someone else maintaining it, and it could not have consented to this. Therefore a fetus is harmed by being created.
  7. If someone voluntarily engages in sex, and that results in pregnancy, then it would be unfair to the fetus to abort it.
  8. Since it is unfair, abortions should not be allowed.

I think this is by far the best argument against abortion that there is. All of the other one's I've seen are just various levels of hypocrisy, moral panic, or attempts to control the bodies of people with uteruses for the purpose of perpetuating the patriarchy. I think it is interesting to note, therefore, that this argument is actually rarely used by anyone — indicating that most of the discourse around abortion isn't really borne out of genuine moral concern on the basis of principles that value freedom and liberty, but instead is the authoritarian drivel of reactionaries. Nevertheless, even though the "pro-life" position is tainted badly by its proponents, this argument still deserves a serious response.

It should further be noted that this argument has far weaker conclusions than your average pro-life argument. For one thing, if carrying the fetus to term presents a serious risk to the mother's life, it seems completely disproportionate to require her to die to make restitution to the fetus, just like you shouldn't be required to give your life just to help someone you get into a car crash with (even if you might be seen as more heroic for doing so). For another, if the sex wasn't voluntary (such as in the case of rape), then this whole argument breaks down, because if someone else forces you to hurt a third person, then you're not responsible for that. Additionally, if the fetus won't be viable, there really isn't any point to not aborting it, since there's no way to give it restitution for the harm done to it in any case. There are probably many more exceptions like this that even the most mild "pro-life" advocate will generally have a hard time actually admitting to.

There are a number of assumptions in this argument. In order to break down why it doesn't work, those assumptions will need to be examined and refuted in detail, but first, let me list them out. Most importantly, the argument assumes that fairness towards people is a value that is worth abridging the autonomy of others with force to preserve. Additionally, the argument assumes that a fetus is a person in the same sense that a regular human being is. On top of that, it assumes that their are either no limits to what one should have to do to give restitution, or that forced pregnancy and birth falls under those limits. Next, it assumes that doing something to someone without their consent applies in a case where the "person" in question didn't exist prior to the action that took place. To cap it off, it assumes that creating something in a dependent state is equivalent to transitioning someone from an independent, autonomous state to a dependent one. Each of these assumptions will be examined in the following sections.


Is fairness a value that is worth abridging the autonomy of others to preserve? This might seem like a difficult question at first, until you remember that, to a certain degree, the concept of fairness, or at least the balancing of interests, is baked into the concept of autonomy and proper anarchistic relations. To prevent someone from unilaterally subordinating another to their will, taking away their ability to pursue their own interests and make their own choices, all interests in an interaction must be considered equally. This is the sense of fairness which obviously should be supported through force to a certain degree. Outside of that, other conceptions of fairness are much weaker, which is why disambiguating the strong form of autonomy-supporting fairness, and the rest of the applications of the term, is so important. These other meanings include asking for a too-high price for something, cheating at a game, being a hypocrite, not keeping a promise, etc. All of these things are unfair and might make you an asshole, but none of them seem important enough to me to warrant enforcement.

Thus the question becomes: is the kind of fairness spoke about in the anti-abortion argument the strong kind of fairness, or the weak kind? I believe that it is of the weak kind, for this reason: the interaction that involved the harm has already taken place, and is not being repeated. That interaction is the one in which the interests were imbalanced, and which should have been prevented if possible, but that's in the past now and there isn't anything anyone can do about it. You can show your remorse, empathy, and sense of compassion by doing something in the present to help, but since the actually strongly unfair interaction is not ongoing, force isn't proportionate. It's a lot like a contract in that sense: if you make a contract, if you break it then you should avoid perpetuating subordinatory relationships, such as holding on to the possessions the other person only gave you conditionally, but once those relations are over, there isn't any hold on you besides just social norms.

Therefore it seems pretty clear to me that abortion does not actually violate the kind of fairness that it is worth breaking the presumption of non-interference to enforce. This knocks out the conclusion of the argument directly, and should make the whole point moot. There are, however, many more flaws with this argument!


The next problem with this argument is that it assumes that a fetus is a full person with full personhood. This is perhaps a reasonable concession to make in order to respond to some "pro-life" arguments, as Judith Jarvis Thomson did in 'A Defense of Abortion,' but aside from that there is no reason to grant such a concession. What makes something a morally significant entity, a person, is the capacity to have desires, make choices motivated by reasoning processes (however faulty), have internal experiences and consciousness, handle abstract thinking and reasoning, and communicate these things. It does not have to be doing those things, but it has to be capable of doing them or learning to do so. Like gender identity and other things of a sociological or psychological nature, personhood is a spectrum and there are many factors that contribute to it, but I think the absurdity of according a fetus the status of personhood is pretty clear.

A fetus is a clump of human cells, with different DNA from its host, yes, but you can produce a clump of human cells, with different DNA from any other human, quite easily. It's been done to make a pong-playing AI, in fact, and no one seemed to have an issue with that. And that's a tiny brain that processes inputs and responds to them in a semi-intelligent manner, made of human cells! A fetus doesn't even have a brain like that until well into its development. A fetus doesn't even have the capacity to feel, let alone feel pain, until after twenty weeks:

A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after viability. Rigorous scientific studies have found that the connections necessary to transmit signals from peripheral sensory nerves to the brain, as well as the brain structures necessary to process those signals, do not develop until at least 24 weeks of gestation. Because it lacks these connections and structures, the fetus does not even have the physiological capacity to perceive pain until at least 24 weeks of gestation.

In fact, the perception of pain requires more than just the mechanical transmission and reception of signals. Pain is “an emotional and psychological experience that requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus.”ii This capacity does not develop until the third trimester at the earliest, well past the period between 20 weeks and viability. The evidence shows that the neural circuitry necessary to distinguish touch from painful touch does not, in fact, develop until late in the third trimester. The occurrence of intrauterine fetal movement is not an indication that a fetus can feel pain.1

Fetuses are vaguely human-shaped clumps of cells, nothing more. Just as we could theoretically sequence a new human genome and grow an entire, fully grown human body without a brain, and we wouldn't call that a human person worthy of moral consideration, and just as we couldn't consider a brain dead person as a person either, neither should we consider a fetus a human person until it's brain has developed sufficiently to allow for self-awareness, which usually only occurs at 15 to 24 months after the fetus has been born. In fact, until they are viable on their own apart from the mother, it's not even clear to me that they should be categorized as a separate organism, and they certainly don't have any autonomy worthy of consideration, since they are essentially completely dependent on the host for sustained life in a physical, biological manner — i.e. they are parasites.

One counterargument might be that a fetus is a potential person, and that if you just "leave it alone" it would become a person, so by preventing its development, you are in effect killing it. This is absurd, of course. Preventing the existence of something is not destroying it, just as preventing me from building a model kit is not destroying my model after it is built. Moreover, fetuses aren't plants. They don't just "grow" on their own. Instead they require constant use of the mother's body, because they are parasites. Thus it isn't really the case that you are preventing something from happening that would happen without your interference; when you get an abortion you are stopping a process that is actively and already using your body to get something done.

Worse than that, by putting forward this argument, or in fact any argument against abortion that has to do with the 'rights' of the fetus, the person putting forward the argument is raising the questionable rights of something that is only arguably a person, and in fact probably isn't, over the rights of a real, live, adult human being who we know for a fact is a person. This is absolutely epistemically irresponsible, especially considering the stakes of the case: on the basis of flimsy definitions of humanity, we are taking away the very real bodily autonomy of people, controlling their bodies and their lives, and perpetuating a system of power and control.


The next assumption that this argument makes is that there is either no limit to what someone can be expected to give in restitution to attempt to make their 'victim' whole, or that requiring forced pregnancy and birth falls below that limit. Neither of those assumptions makes any sense whatsoever, and since the second one depends on the failure of the first, I'll cover them one at a time, in order.

To begin with — is there a limit to the restitution required by fairness? To this, I answer a resounding yes. Besides not requiring someone to give restitution in a way that causes their death — because no one can be expected to give up their lives under any circumstances — I think it seems pretty clear that if the cost of giving restitution is a severe loss of autonomy, a severe detriment to someone's interests, or a severe setback in their lives, then they should not be required to do it. It's just too onerous for a value like that. It would be absurd, for instance, to require someone who cheated at a poker game and spent all the money he got on food that he ate, or something else perishable, to work for the next twenty years or however long for another person as an indentured servant just to be "fair." The upper limit of what can be "required" in fair restitution is proportional to, not the severity of the unfairness, but the severity of the action that was taken to cause the unfairness, after all.

Applying this framework to pregnancy and abortion, what the people who produced the fetus actually did "to" the fetus itself wasn't that terrible (although it's hard to get an exact measurement), whereas having to hold something growing inside you, like some kind of body horror monster, for nine months, at risk to your health and your life, while enduring all kinds of sickness and cramps, and setting back whatever else you wanted to do with your life, and then requiring that person to give birth, which is extremely painful and difficult, is absolutely awful in comparison. The two are simply completely out of balance.

Let me bring up an example. Let's talk about contracts again. Should someone be held to the performance of a contract, or the repayment of a debt by force? It depends on what it costs them to repay it. If it's just a simple matter of transferring property? Sure. If it involves control over someone's body and time, forcing them to perform actions or bear things that they don't want to do? No, that's horrible! If I contract with someone to, say, take a kidney, I should have the right to rescind my consent to the operation at any time. Same if I make a contract to have sex with someone. Need is only a slightly greater pull here.


Finally, there is the question of whether creating something can be said to be something that is done without that thing's consent at all. This is a point that a number of people have brought up to me regarding the anti-abortion argument given above. In essence, the counter argument is that if something didn't exist at all, then there was not even a conceivable possibility or capacity for consent, and if you take an ought-implies-can Kantian approach, that means you weren't obligated to try to get consent anyway.

Personally, I'm not particularly convinced by this argument. I'm actually pretty convinced that bringing something into existence is, actually, a non-consensual act. I mean, it actually kind of makes sense when someone says, for instance, "I didn't ask to be born," and I think that's telling. Nevertheless, the fact that this is ambiguous further undermines the strength of this argument.


Another objection to the anti-abortion argument is that it rests on a fundamental, hidden equivocation. In the first half of the argument, it is established that doing something to someone, without their consent, that takes away their autonomy, making them dependent on you for help, is a form of harm. In the second part of the argument, I treat this as equivalent to creating something that never had autonomy or independence, in the position of being dependent. These two things seem pretty clearly different to me, however, and I think the second version borrows its strength from conflation with the first.

The strength of the intuition in favor of restitution and fairness stems in response to this harm comes from the transition from independent, autonomous agent to dependent one: that is where the harm occurs, since that is where one person's autonomy was disrespected and their independence lost. An existing person's interests were ignored, something was unilaterally done to them, and it removed the one thing that is universally and always valuable to an egoist from them. This is specifically where the harm occurs, and because of that, it brings the autonomy- and agency-related strong fairness into the mix, which is what allows it to possibly override considerations of autonomy overall.

However, in the case of the fetus, there was nothing that existed and was autonomous before it was created or at the moment of creation. Nothing's autonomy was disrespected, nothings independence was robbed from it. It had no autonomy because it was dead (did not exist), and then it did exist and still had no autonomy. Therefore, at best, the only conception of fairness in play is the weak one. If anything, in a sense, by giving birth to the fetus you gave it something it did not have before. You cannot be held responsible for taking something away from someone when they never had it to begin with, no matter what state changes you do inflict on them. By aborting a fetus you may be preventing it from gaining something, but you are not keeping something back that you took from it.


In conclusion, ultimately, it comes down to this: bodily autonomy, and individual autonomy in general, is the most important thing to me. That is what I care about the most. I also think that choosing to put other things other than autonomy on the top of one's value hierarchy is a very quick way to produce negative and undesirable outcomes for almost any value hierarchy, if followed through consistently. Therefore, as an anarchist with a commitment to autonomy first, I am in favor of abortion. I recently found a quote that I like on this topic, so let me wrap up with it:

The "unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone... — Methodist Pastor David Barnhart