Murray Rothbard and I disagreed on Abortion and child abandonment

Murray Rothbard was one of the 20th century’s greatest scholars and the world’s most important libertarian political philosopher and libertarian activist. I have read much of his vast output and agree with Rothbard on most of the positions he took but he did make mistakes and today I want to give my side of the abortion issue which is in direct contradiction to that of Murray Rothbard.


Murray Rothbard was crystal clear on his position on abortion in Chapter 14, “Children and Rights”, of The Ethics of Liberty.

In part Rothbard  wrote:

The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body.  Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.

Rothbard likens the situation to a guest in your house who overstays his welcome and you have every legal right to tell him to leave your house. You even have the legal right to have him removed by force if he refuses to voluntarily leave. Rothbard at least agrees that the baby is a human being from the time that the sperm meets the egg unlike many other pro-abortionists. I like that Murray did not try to wiggle around the life cycle of animals by claiming that life does not begin at conception.

What we have then is a situation much like the man who invites a guest on to his boat for a trip out to sea. I have myself been a guest on a friend’s boat. We left out of Coco Beach, Florida and went out a couple of miles into the ocean. It was my first trip to sea and I enjoyed every minute of it. Now suppose after we got 2 miles out this man decided to withdraw his invitation and ask me to get off of his boat. Since I can not swim this amounts to murder by this man. He did not have to invite me for a boat ride on the ocean and he does not ever have to invite me again; but if he tosses me overboard then no court in the world would find him within his rights to do so. Murder would be the charge.

By the same token, if a woman and a man decide to create a new human being they have invited that new life into this world and to withdraw consent and have the innocent baby killed is not only reprehensible but is murder in my view. Should a woman control her own body? Why yes, just as my friend controlled his boat — but she invites a new life into the world by having sex without using contraceptives. Once the life is created we have the situation that she has given an invitation for a nine month ride to the baby until it can survive on its own.

But Murray Rothbard went even further than just supporting abortion. He told us that the mother could abandon the child anytime she wanted even after she gave birth to it. Infanticide was OK by Murray as long as no force was inflicted. Just walk away from a two week old baby and let it try to survive on its own — no fault of yours if it dies.

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.

I must disagree here also. The parent having invited the soul into this world has an obligation to that being to see that it reaches a stage where it can care for itself. My reasoning is the same as before. Once you invite me to your property you can not cause my certain death by suddenly withdrawing consent knowing that I would perish.

If you knowingly cause my death by enticing me to use your property and then suddenly withdraw consent then you have committed an aggression against me. The Non-Aggression Axiom is against Rothbard on this issue. Murray Rothbard was a systems builder and an extraordinary man, but on the issue of babies and children he went astray in my opinion. He did write that he was talking about libertarian law and not morals on the issue; but there can be no law that is not rooted in the morals and ethics of the people so that is hardly an out for Rothbard on this issue.

Those libertarians who support abortion and/or think that the mother owes nothing to the newly born baby may well have many good arguments to support their views, but the property rights use of eviction of an unwanted guest is not one of them. Sorry Murray.

9 thoughts on “Murray Rothbard and I disagreed on Abortion and child abandonment

  1. Great article. But I think you extend a conciliatory gesture where none is justified in your final paragraph. There are no good arguments to justify the killing of a unborn child. I don’t care how well crafted, well reasoned, or justified the argument, nobody has the right to kill an unborn child.

    • We agree, but I did not take on all possible arguments and I know that many of our liberty minded allies do support abortion. So I acknowledged that they might have what they consider a “good argument” that I did not address in this post. If one links to a “good argument” I’ll address it. (if I have time of course)

  2. Hi Mark,

    Do you believe that a mother can justly have an abortion if she was raped or if she used contraception in an attempt to not get pregnant? The reason you gave for opposing abortion does not seem to work in these cases because the mother never voluntarily decided to get pregnant. In your analogy it would be like the boat owner telling someone “No, you can’t come on my boat.”

    If that person sneaked onto the boat anyway and then got caught, would the boat owner have the right to remove the person from the boat? Well actually, in this analogy I think death by drowning would not be a proportional punishment. At the same time, I don’t see how the boat owner could have an obligation to continue transporting the forever-unwanted person to shore, even if the person also had an obligation to pay the boat-owner restitution for his or her lost time and space and effort to transport the person to shore (what if it took many days to get to shore… would the boat-owner also have an obligation to share some of his food with the person? If yes, why? I don’t like death by drowning either (and would call it immoral), but I don’t see how these obligations for the boat-owner could arise).

    The analogy of the boat scenario may not work as a comparison to the fetus scenario. The way that boat owners contractually agree with passengers to always take them to shore and provide them with food and not dump them in the ocean is different than the way that you claim that mothers form agreements with their pre-zygote children.

    When does the mother agree to take care of the child? Before conception, at the point of conception, or after conception? Surely not before because then the claim would be that the mother is forming a contractual agreement with a non-existent person, which is self-defeating. Person A cannot form a contractual agreement with Person B if Person B does not exist. But, if the agreement occurs at the point of conception or sometime afterwards then it’s not clear why the mother can’t just decide not to agree to the zygote-fetus’ offer. When the sperm meets the egg, the mother can just say “No, I do not agree to let you be in my body and I do not agree to take care of you” and now the zygote is an intruder (assuming the zygote is a self-owner, which I actually disagree with, but am ignoring for now).

    The possible counter-argument to this that you gave in the article is that the mother can’t say “No, I do not agree” to the zygote because she already agreed to take care of it *before* conception. But how can you form a contractual agreement with something that is not yet a person? As I already said, this seems to be self-defeating.

    • It’s not proportional death is not equal to sneaking in a boat, or rape. also, the infant is not the rapist, but the effect of the rape, and in this case an entirely different individual.

  3. As I wrote, the mother (and dad) makes an agreement with the new and innocent life by the act of creating the baby. In my state Florida (and most others I believe) it has always been true that if an adult and a child enter into a contract then the child is not bound by it since he is a child and hence not capable of making contractual decisions; but the adult does have to honor the contract. So, it is simple — if you create life you have brought into the womb, a life that is defenseless and innocent, then you have protect it until it can do so for himself. The Rothbard version of approving killing babies and small children is bogus. You will need to justify killing an innocent life that you created and now find inconvenient in some other fashion.

    Rape and health issues are the “life boat” types of issues that would be looked at differently perhaps, but Rothbard was only writing about the normal pregnancy (and beyond of course) and I did the same. No rape or a mother who might die in childbirth considered in this post.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  4. Hi Mark, I have some thoughts about your position I was hoping you could clarify. This is such a fascinating area of libertarian thought but I’ve never been able to settle on a position.

    Firstly, where do rights come from? Why does an embryo/foetus have rights that animals of greater sentience not? Is a chimp or a pig not more deserving of the right to life than something that may only be a ball of cells? If self ownership is to be truly universal must it not also apply to all beings of certain sentience? If the reply is to be along the lines of ‘an embryo has potential to be a fully sentient human’ then I would ask what of the severely mentally handicapped, do they have the same rights or not?

    The old Rothbard quip about ‘animals can have rights when they petition for them’ would apply for children, foetuses and the mentally disabled, as well as animals, or it must not apply to any, surely?

    But at the same time you say that the child must be reared by the parents until is can survive on it’s own. If children have property in their being regardless of their mental faculties then surely the majority of parenthood is going to be a violation of property, well meaning and loving yet ultimately still a constant barrage of violations against the rights the child has? So we have a situation in which the child has property in it’s being yet also doesn’t. The child has a right to be reared until it is able to live it’s self yet inherent in that rearing is a constant attack on the being of that child. This is a failing of your position is it not, or perhaps a greater failing of natural rights?

    So if I’ve missed something or my arguments seem muddled!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I do appreciate them and I knew when I posted that there would be many who disagreed with me on my position. Rather than answer all your questions here in comments; I am going to do a post on just your letter tomorrow or the next day.

      Fascinating questions. Thanks for the comment.

      Warmest Regards, Mark

  5. Pingback: A reader asks about human rights and animal rights | On the Mark

  6. Pingback: WeebulTree Blog » Who Owns Your Children?

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