Battlepanda: On liberalism and reproductive rights


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

On liberalism and reproductive rights

Lawrence Krubner is astonished that John Stuart Mill thought it a right and proper exercise of state power to control the fertility of its population:
The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility - to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing - unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being. And in a country either over-peopled, or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labour by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labour. The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty.
I have to say that Mill's argument is sound, philosophically. Of course, we are culturally indoctorinated to see control over our fertility as one of our most basic rights. But if you think about it, isn't it nuts that an act with as much impact on society as bringing another member of it into being is exercised with complete, unqualified freedom? Think about it. You cannot operate a motor vehicle without first obtaining a government sanctioned license. You cannot open a restaurant without jumping through all sorts of official hoops. The act of taking a human being out of life is completely circumscribed, even if that human is in pain and desires death. Yet anybody with the right physical parts can get together to make a baby. Once another member of society is involved, an action is no longer a matter of individual freedom. It's true when it comes to violence and fraud, why should it not be equally true when it comes to creation?

The important thing to remember is that Mills is not blindly advocating the restriction of reproductive rights. He recognizes that such a restriction would be injurious because it would violate deeply held cultural mores. Those same cultural mores created a set of extra-legal mechanisms for encouraging births in circumstances in which children can thrive and discouraging births when they cannot. Of course, such social rigours brought about its own set of cruelties and inequities.

To control the population of a society is essential to its survival. We are lucky that we have advanced contraceptive methods and, yes, abortion to do this for us. Because if we did not, then external control of human sexuality would become necessary whether through cultural or governmental means. We would not be able to cast off the brutally oppressive morality that lead bastards to be shunned and women who exercised their sexuality outside of marriage to be despised.