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A Libertarian Atheist Answers 'Pro-Choice Catholics'

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by Doris Gordon
copyright January 2003

Many who say they are personally opposed to abortion nonetheless support keeping abortion legal. Such a stance is often taken in the Catholic community, particularly by Catholics in politics. An example is Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Calling herself "pro-choice," she said that as a Catholic she believes "what Catholics believe on abortion," and asked, "[I]s it right for government to force Catholic beliefs on every other faith?" (The Detroit News, 9/10/02).

Interesting question. To ask it is to concede that the political arena is about forcing beliefs on others by law. Government is not a think tank that makes political-policy suggestions. Government is force. The power of the sword is implicit in all laws, just or unjust. How are politicians going to use that power?

Abortion isn't a victimless-crime debate; to abort a child isn't like smoking pot. The reason I and others object to abortion is that we find it to be homicide (the killing of one human being by another). The proper use of government force is to oppose killing the innocent, not to encourage it, as the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade, by legalizing and protecting its practice.

People show severe intellectual problems in saying both that they believe what the Church believes and that they would deny preborn children legal protection. The Church holds that such children are human persons with rights, yet the "personally opposed" hold that it should be a woman's choice to destroy them. If there is a credible reason for such a position, what is it?

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I'm not Catholic

Opposition to legal abortion cuts across the religious and political spectrum. I'm an atheist. I was born and raised Jewish. Catholicism had nothing to do with my coming to understand why abortion is a wrong, not a right, and why it should not be legal.

I'm a longtime libertarian and participant in abortion debates among libertarians. Libertarianism is pro-choice -- except when it's a choice to victimize others and violate their rights. I used to think abortion is permissible, thanks to Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. But ironically, I became pro-life and founded Libertarians for Life (LFL) because of Rand and her onetime closest associate, Nathaniel Branden, both atheists.

(See my articles, "How I Became Pro-Life: Remarks on Abortion, Parental Obligation, and the Draft" --; and "Introduction" --

What about the substance of the abortion debate?

Many libertarians are religious. However, in arguing politics, we normally appeal to ordinary reason, not religious faith. In abortion, what's central is: When do human beings -- human persons with rights -- begin? The marker event can't be derived from libertarian philosophy; it just takes the concepts of human being, person, and rights as a given. Its basic premise is that all of our rights are limited by the obligation not to violate the rights of others.

To arrive at the correct marker, we need the correct scientific facts of human embryology. That a new human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, begins at fertilization is well recognized. (See: Dianne N. Irving, "When Do Human Beings Begin?: `Scientific' Myths and Scientific Facts" --

One doesn't have to be pro-life to accept that this is correct science. Alan Guttmacher, M.D., was a president of Planned Parenthood. PP's research arm, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, was named after him. In his 1933 book Life in the Making, he wrote: "We of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm. This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of the common knowledge."

There are also philosophical questions to answer, such as: What's the marker for when a person with rights begins? LFL shows why it's fertilization, and why the right to control one's own body is a limited right. (See: Doris Gordon, "Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly" --; and the sections in the Library on, "On the Onset of Personhood and Rights" and "On Parental Obligation and Children's Rights".)

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In those articles, LFL shows why the support children receive from their parents is theirs by right. Both parents owe them protection from harm, whether they are living in a crib, the mother's body, or in a petri dish. (What about rape? See: John Walker, "Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape" --

Roe v. Wade and the ACLU

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court announced itself unable to answer "the difficult question of when life begins." It should have given the benefit of its uncertainty to life. Instead, it arbitrarily ruled that to be a person legally, we must be born.

In effect, Roe trashed the ethical principle of equal unalienable rights as set forth in The Declaration of Independence -- and imposed a two-tiered legal policy on human beings that defines a superior class as persons with rights and an inferior class that does not count. Such a double standard is not only unlibertarian, it puts all of us on a slippery slope. Yet to this day, the Court is unwilling to confront either philosophy or correct human embryology.

Our unalienable rights are pre-political. As Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said on C-Span: "We don't need the Ninth Amendment or the Constitution to have rights; we have rights by virtue of the fact we are human beings." I agree. The Declaration of Independence holds that everyone is created -- not born -- equal and "endowed by their Creator" -- not the government -- with certain unalienable rights, among which are life and liberty, and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights.

Strossen and the ACLU favor legal abortion, so on a later occasion I asked her, "If having rights is pre-legal, then why not also our personhood, from which our rights flow?" Usually a font of information, this time she only noted that we disagree. At another time, she admitted to me that the ACLU had no prepared response to the charge that abortion is homicide.

Why is Catholicism opposed to abortion?

Let's get back to what's Catholic. In order to judge the Catholic belief on abortion, one must first know what it is. I consider Fr. Frank Pavone, Founding Director of Priests for Life, to be a reliable source of information. I asked him some questions:

Q: Are there any statements in papal encyclicals against abortion that are inextricably religious? If so, what is their impact on the conclusion that abortion is wrong?

Fr. Pavone: "Yes. The key document, of course, is Pope John Paul II's encyclical The Gospel of Life. One of the specifically religious arguments against abortion found there is from the Incarnation. God, in other words, became human in Christ, and thereby united every human life -- including life in the womb -- to Himself. The Pope therefore concludes that to attack a single human life is, in some way, to attack God Himself.

"The impact this has on the conclusion that abortion is wrong is simply that for believers it gives another motive for the conclusion, and strengthens their awareness that they cannot be `pro-choice believers.' At the same time, as you know, the Catholic Church holds that one can come to the conclusion that abortion is wrong without having any faith at all."

Q: Do these encyclicals say anything against the legalization of abortion?

Fr. Pavone: "Yes, The Gospel of Life states that no civil authority has the right to legitimize abortion, and that if it tries, such laws lack all authentic juridic validity. Yet the Church does not reach that conclusion based on the religious arguments against abortion, but rather based on the fact that abortion violates fundamental human rights which any government is bound to protect. The Church sees her call for laws against abortion in the same way as for laws against stealing. Though stealing is against the teachings of Catholicism, the non-believer is not free to say, `Since I am not Catholic, I may steal.'"

Sounds sensible to me. When faith and reason arrive at the same position, that's a strong recommendation for it. But if others learned in Catholicism have counter arguments, I'd like to hear them.

A challenge

When people argue and agreement seems elusive, they often ask, "Who should decide?" Ayn Rand gave a great answer: "Whoever can prove it." Intellectually, both sides have the burden of proof. Read the encyclicals. Read Libertarians for Life's perspective. Read those who insist that abortion is a permissible choice. Then ask which side of the abortion debate best addresses the fundamental questions and which side makes the strongest case.

What if you're still in doubt? Give the benefit of the doubt to life.


Libertarians for Life's literature and speakers are available to explain and defend why we oppose abortion. Our reasoning is expressly philosophical and scientific -- rather than either religious or pragmatic.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

Doris Gordon
Libertarians for Life
Website -
email -


Libertarians for Life MD, US
Doris Gordon - Founder, 301 460-4141




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