Life as Property
There are many ways of looking at human life; some emphasize the benevolence of the Creator; others our inheritance from and similarity to other primates. One approach favored by some liberals/libertarians is to treat life as property. But if the life of a child, born or unborn, is a property or possession, then to whom does it belong? Several answers can be given.
For the classical liberal, the answer seems obvious: we belong to ourselves, we own our own person, and from this they can derive several of their imaginary rights, e.g., the right to enjoy whatever pleasures they like, so long as they are not violating the principle of non-aggression; the right to commit suicide or sell one’s self into slavery. Pro-life libertarians argue that this is the reason why no one else can decide to abort a human life. There are several obvious difficulties with this argument, the least of which is that it is patently false, certainly in the case of children. What child, a month before or after birth, can really be said to own himself? If this were true, he would be able, presumably, to pay his mother rent for space in the womb and purchase her milk. We meet the same problem we always do with liberals, their naïve faith in the non-existent autonomous/independent individual. Children, born and unborn, are completely dependent upon their parent for their very lives, and it is the rare human being who, by the age of 50, has acquired sufficient knowledge and experience to make up his own mind on any important question. If individuals really existed, then the followers of Ayn Rand would not all have to parrot her platitudes. We come into this world entirely dependent upon our parents, and as we mature we do not so much liberate ourselves from our families as we learn to depend on a wider variety of people, whether friends or teachers, employers or entertainers. This is especially true today, when people who fancy themselves individualists are utterly dependent on the international consumer economy and mass entertainment. There may be something these people regard as their personal core, somewhere deep below all their browsing and listening, twittering and texting, but even there we find a set of attitudes and prejudices haphazardly picked up from family, friends, teachers, and whatever books or films they have stumbled upon.
But, let us for the sake of argument imagine the libertarians are correct, that children are autonomous individuals possessed of universal human right including the right to life. Obviously neither fetus nor infant nor even adolescent can defend his rights in a court of law, who will undertake this task? If I, at my advanced age, can say that I own myself, it is partly because I have the wit and resources to defend my property rights to my person in court. But who speaks for the child? Why, the law of course, which means the government with its army of teachers, social workers, counselors, and prosecutors. This is always the same outcome to any libertarian argument, because in trying to liberate individuals from oppressive institutions (marriage, family, community, church), they inevitably deliver them up naked to the state.
Leftists are more honest: Since the French Revolution, they have argued that children belong not to their families but to the Patrie, whether that is a nationalist regicidal regime or a communist workers’ paradise. When pro-life Christians call for a restoration of anti-abortion laws, they join hands with Jacobins and Marxists in elevating the state above people. I know that is not what they intend, but can anyone today be so naïve as to trust the US government or even state governments with the power of life and death? The end of that road is already in sight: mandatory abortions, sterilizations, euthanasia for the “unfit” who will be a burden on Obamacare.
The most common answer in our tradition is that the child belongs to his parents. In the pre-Christian world, this meant that until the father accepted the infant as both viable and his own, the baby could be exposed. Roman law went furthest in assigning to the father a potentially life-long ius vitae necisque, which, however, could only be exercised within very strict limits. To kill a son, a father had to demonstrate that the son has committed a terrible crime—had attacked his father or slept with his step-mother—and even then he was supposed to convoke a family council composed of the family’s senior males. But even in Medieval Europe, parents retained rights over children, for example, over marriage.
The Christian answer must be that at least in a metaphysical sense we belong to the Creator who loves us and wants us to be perfect. It is therefore inconceivable that anyone at all touched by the Christian faith, no matter how weak-kneed or liberal, would advocate a woman’s right to choose. But since our Maker is not, generally, going to exercise His rights, who speaks for God. In the Catholic and Orthodox—and to some extent the Anglican and Lutheran world—it was the Church, though secular rulers could be expected to cooperate, for example, in criminalizing infanticide. But today, who can “fill in”? Certainly not the anti-Christian governments of North America and Europe.
The obvious solution is to fall back on the ancient view. Children are the gift and property of God, but the stewardship belongs to the parents and not to social workers. The implication would be that instead of trying to beef up abortion laws in general, Christians should focus on some specific targets. If one parent has the right to terminate a pregnancy, why should not the other parents have at least a veto power. Court rulings and laws that legalize abortions for minor daughters or at least facilitate them are unpopular and could be overturned. Re-empowering parents, then, is a more important objective than any attempt to strengthen the state’s control over life and over families.