Abortion Waiting Periods and Libertarianism

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Todd Zywicki points to a study that concludes that mandatory waiting periods for abortion reduce suicide rates after unplanned pregnancies. I haven't looked at the study itself, but some of the comments on Todd's post seem to me to be unjustifiably critical. In particular, they claim that a libertarian view of the purpose of law wouldn't allow the kind of paternalism that such laws are based on. I think this is completely wrong.

The libertarian argument fails for a number of reasons (including that libertarianism is wrong), but the most notable is that this isn't paternalism in the ordinary sense. Paternalism is usually thought of as government interference in people's decision-making process when someone has legitimately consented to a practice that the government is rejecting as legitimate consent for no reason other than that they consider such consent irrational. Requiring motorcycle helmets would be such a paternalistic law. We don't, however, consider it paternalistic to restrict a four-year-old from doing things that it takes an adult understanding to consent to. By the same reasoning, we don't consider someone to have consented to sex if under the influence of a mind-altering drug. Waiting period laws are a simple step further in the same direction. Someone who has just found out she is pregnant will not be thinking as rationally as someone forced to wait 24 hours before making an irrevocable decision. For the same reason that euthanasia advocates insist that some time be taken before considering someone to have consented rationally to being killed, those who favor waiting periods for abortion think rational consent requires taking some time before having an abortion. This seems not only eminently reasonable to me but perfectly consistent with a libertarian view of the purpose of law.

2 Comments

Is it even necessary to speculate as to why a waiting period reduces suicide rates? Couldn't a law be passed that is based purely on the study and the link between waiting periods and reduced suicide rates?

To put it another way, if my reason for wanting a waiting period is because I think it would be beneficial for women to "think it over," then I think that does sound a bit paternalistic. (I realize this isn't what you are saying, though.) But if my reason for wanting a waiting period is because the data indicates that it improves suicide rates, then it's a women's health issue.

The sense in which it's paternalistic is that it forces someone to do something for her own good regardless of whether she cares about her own good. That's the sense in which motorcycle and bicycle helmet laws and seat belt laws are paternalistic.

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