With the abortion controversy raging, I’ve written a series of articles on abortion that apply Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism to that debate. But some fans of Rand, who seem to assume she was a “conservative,” have expressed incredulity that she was a vocal supporter of abortion rights.
I’d like to gather together some otherwise scattered passages from Rand’s work, to indicate just how radical her position on abortion is and how it flows out of her moral and political principles.
Taking rights seriously
Some of Rand’s first and most important remarks on abortion are found in a lecture she delivered in December 1968 at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, entitled “Of Living Death.” In this lecture, she draws a stark contrast between her secular, individualist philosophy and the religious philosophy of the Catholic Church, and on this basis critiques the Catholic opposition to birth control and abortion.
In Rand’s view, human beings have a fundamental moral right to pursue their own individual lives and happiness. For this reason, they do not have an obligation to serve some alleged higher goal or plan. To suggest that a woman has a “duty” to undergo childbirth amounts to treating her not as an individual human being with personal values, but as a “brood-mare,” and — especially when she is forced to undergo risky childbirth — as “a screaming huddle of infected flesh who must not be permitted to imagine that she has the right to live.”
The fact of birth is an absolute — that is, up to that moment, the child is not an independent, living organism. It’s part of the body of the mother. But at birth, a child is an individual, and has the rights inherent in the nature of a human individual.1
For this reason, Rand had contempt for opposition to abortion in the name of the “sanctity of life.” Here again in “Of Living Death,” she explains why only the individual woman (and not the embryo or fetus) has a right to life:
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not yet living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body? The Catholic church is responsible for this country’s disgracefully barbarian anti-abortion laws, which should be repealed and abolished.2
Later in the same essay, Rand emphasizes her contempt for anyone who equates the condition of an embryo to life “in the human sense”:
Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a “right to life.” A piece of protoplasm has no rights — and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable.4
Many conservatives oppose abortion in the name of “personal responsibility,” but this is a sham. To prevent a woman from ending an unwanted pregnancy is to deprive her from taking control of her own life. “The task of raising a child,” Rand observes, “is a tremendous, lifelong responsibility, which no one should undertake unwittingly or unwillingly.”5
For Rand, abortion rights protect women who decide not to undertake the responsibility of raising a child. In “The Age of Mediocrity,” her 1981 critique of the Reagan administration’s appeasement of (in her words) “militant mystics,” she explains how this right protects women who want to lead real human lives, rather than endure a state of “living death”:
As I have said before, parenthood is an enormous responsibility; it is an impossible responsibility for young people who are ambitious and struggling, but poor — particularly if they are intelligent and conscientious enough not to abandon their child on a doorstep nor to surrender it to adoption. For such young people, pregnancy is literally a death sentence: parenthood would force them to give up their future and condemn them to a life of hopeless drudgery, of slavery to a child’s physical and financial needs. The situation of an unwed mother, abandoned by her lover, is even worse.6
Rand suggests that those who would condemn a person to the “horror” of this life of drudgery are motivated “not [by] love for the embryos, which is a piece of nonsense no one could experience, but [by] hatred, a virulent hatred for an unnamed object.”
Abortion rights until birth
In the passage I quoted above from “A Last Survey,” Rand notes that one “may argue about the later stages of pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months.” Some fans of Rand quote this line to suggest that she would have opposed abortion rights during the late stages of pregnancy. This is a mistaken interpretation.
Earlier in the article, Rand has indicated her view that opposition to abortion is a confession of a “fundamental philosophical evil in a person’s convictions.” Her chief evidence for this is that “no one has anything to gain from [the anti-abortion stand] and, therefore, its motive is pure ill will toward mankind.” In noting that one can argue about the later stages of pregnancy, she is qualifying her judgment about people who oppose abortion. In the later stages, it is not as obvious that the fetus has “no life in the human sense of the term,” and their opposition is not necessarily out of ill will. Even still, this does not mean that she thinks their opposition to late-stage abortion is correct.
Consider also a brief note Rand wrote for The Objectivist shortly after “Of Living Death.” Commenting on proposed abortion liberalization in New York — some four years before Roe v. Wade — she writes the following:
A consistently proper stand on this issue would require the total repeal of the law forbidding abortion. [My emphasis.] This is not likely to pass at present, but the kind of amended laws that have been proposed would represent a great step forward, would save many lives and alleviate an incalculable amount of human suffering — provided they include a clause which permits legal abortion when the pregnancy endangers a woman’s physical or mental health. Such a clause would protect a woman from lifelong despair and would give her a chance to assert her rights.
. . . A clause including the protection of a woman’s mental health, is essential to a meaningful abortion-law reform. Without it, any reform passed would be worse than none: it would be a pretense that might delay actual reform for another 86 years.”8
The bill in question, a version of which eventually passed in 1970, permitted abortions up to 24 weeks.9 This law was in place until very recently in New York. It is significant that Rand regarded this 1970 bill as a half-measure on the road to total repeal of laws forbidding abortion. Arguably, the law that only recently passed in New York legalizing all abortion after 24 weeks is the bill Rand would have supported.10
“Probably the most important issue”
Because Rand thought that most opposition to abortion rights was motivated by hatred, not by any genuine concern for human life or individual rights, she did see the abortion issue as a kind of “litmus test” for judging political candidates.
Anyone who . . . denies the right to abortion cannot be a defender of rights. Period. . . . What they have in mind is to enslave every human being who is alive enough to have some kind of sexual life — to enslave him to procreation like the lowest kind of farm animal, lower than that because when farm animals are bred, the breeders at least take care of them. . . . But here you make young people, people in love, slaves to involuntary procreation, and you don’t tell them what to do about it. . . .
Religionist conservatives are out to destroy the two-party system in this country, they are out to destroy the Republican Party. Now the Republican Party, like any “defenders” of free enterprise all over the world . . . is very busy trying to commit suicide. . . . [T]he religious conservative[s] . . . are pure fascists. They are not even for free enterprise; they are for controls, and what’s worse, they are always for spiritual, moral, intellectual controls. Oh yes, they might leave you some freedom to work for a while; it’s intellectual freedom that they want to cut. . . .
An “ally” . . . who comes close to you, but starts from opposite premises is much more dangerous than a mild enemy. I would vote for a liberal over Buckley any time.12
She maintained this position during the 1980 presidential election as well. She said that even though she would often vote Republican, she would not vote for Ronald Reagan because of his deference to religious conservatives and opposition to abortion:
I regard abortion as probably the most important issue, because the anti-abortionists have such evil motives. Because they have no interest in human beings, only in embryos; and because they want to tie down a human family to the reproduction of . . . an animal farm. . . . That’s what a creature like Reagan [wants]: . . . he comes out . . . for . . . his right to dictate to young people what they’re going to do with their life; are they going to have a chance at a career or are they going to be breeding animals? I cannot communicate how despicable that is.13
If you think this issue over, you might still not agree with Rand’s views on abortion or with her assessment of the people and politicians who oppose it. (For the most part, I do agree with her.) Whatever you think, it’s important to acknowledge her view for what it is: a principled, moral defense of abortion rights that is not only fundamentally at odds with religious conservatives, but also radically different from what most Democrats and sundry “liberals” offer to this day.
Image: Owner Leonard Peikoff / Credit: Ayn Rand Archives
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- Ayn Rand, Q&A after “The Wreckage of the Consensus” (Ford Hall Forum, 1967, edited transcript in Robert Mayhew (ed.), Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A (New York: New American Library, 2005), 126).
- Ayn Rand, “Of Living Death,” part 2, The Objectivist, October 1968 (published December 1968), 534. Republished in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1990), 58–59.
- I elaborate on Rand’s reasons for this view and how it depends on her general view of rights in my essay “Science without Philosophy Can’t Resolve Abortion Debate,” New Ideal (August 27, 2018).
- Ayn Rand, “A Last Survey – Part I,” The Ayn Rand Letter (December 1975): 383.
- Rand, “Last Survey.”
- Ayn Rand, “The Age of Mediocrity,” (Ford Hall Forum, 1981, edited transcript in Harry Binswanger (ed.), The Objectivist Forum (June 1981): 3). There is a good amount of evidence that Rand is right about this. See Olga Khazan, “Why So Many Women Choose Abortion Over Adoption,” The Atlantic, May 20, 2019.
- She repeats the claim in her Q&A after “The Wreckage of the Consensus” (Ford Hall Forum, 1967; Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 126–27). Also, in the printed version of her lecture “The Age of Mediocrity,” she writes: “Remember also that a potentiality is not the equivalent of an actuality — and that a human being’s life begins at birth.” (Objectivist Forum 2 (June 1981): 3). Some readers may notice a discrepancy between this statement and her formulation in the original talk, where she says this instead: “Remember also that a potentiality is not the equivalent of an actuality, and that a fetus may be regarded as a human being only when it is capable of surviving outside of and independent of the mother’s body.” The editor of the Objectivist Forum, Harry Binswanger, recounts the story of how Rand made the change:
I asked her, “Don’t you think that there is a right to abort in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy?” because the way one sentence was worded, it sounded like there might not be a right to abort in the eighth or ninth month when the fetus could live outside the womb. She said, “It’s fully formed then,” which is true; it can live outside. I said, “Yes, but isn’t your point here that there’s a crucial difference between the potential and the actual? It hasn’t lived yet.” And she said, “Yes, but it would be wrong to kill it.” I argued, ‘Well, are you saying it’s morally wrong but within the woman’s rights?’ So we discussed these kind of issues for a minute or two. Then she reached for the pen and decisively and dramatically scratched out the previous phrase, and wrote, in one stroke, this unambiguous statement: “a human being’s life begins at birth.’” (Scott McConnell, 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 2010), 597.)
- Ayn Rand, “A Suggestion,” The Objectivist (February 1969): 595.
- In her note, Rand comments on this article about the bill: Sydney H. Schanberg, “Albany Action on Abortion Reform Seen as Likely,” New York Times, January 30, 1969. The eventual passage of the law is discussed in Richard Perez-Pena, “’70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation,” New York Times, April 9, 2000.
- The Reproductive Health Act, New York Senate Bill S240 (2019-2020 legislative session).
- Q&A session after “The Moral Factor” (Ford Hall Forum, 1976, edited transcript in Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 17).
- Q&A session after Leonard Peikoff, “The Philosophy of Objectivism,” Lecture 5 (1976, edited transcript in Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 66–68).
- Q&A session after Leonard Peikoff, “Objective Communication,” Lecture 1 (1980, edited transcript in Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 54).