Women’s Rights? A Libertarian Evaluation

Women’s rights movements have centered on the fact that in some societies women have been perceived as property or a sub-class of human. Historically, women’s rights movements have been about rectifying violations of basic human rights perpetrated against women.

However, campaigns for women’s rights have evolved, particularly in America and other developed western countries where women’s rights are recognized to the same extent as (if not to a greater extent than) men’s by existing governments. These campaigns frequently suggest that a significant level of rights violation still exists in these western countries. As a result, “women’s rights” are a centerpiece issue in campaigns for political office.

One ill-fated presidential candidate (remember her?) campaigned with rhetoric she used 20 years prior in Beijing at the 4th World Conference for Women where she declared, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” In a New York times interview in 2015, Hillary Clinton remarked about the progress in women’s rights made in the two decades since her speech, that “it’s a glass-half-filled kind of scenario.” In other words, that even in America today, women don’t enjoy half of the rights Clinton believes they are entitled to.

What exactly is supposed to be entailed in women’s rights, and why are women being presented with the idea that their rights are a special concern apart from men’s rights?

Wikipedia lists the issues commonly associated with women’s rights movements around the world. Let’s break these down, and evaluate them according to a libertarian view of rights.

  • Employment rights (eg. Equal pay and benefits to men; Maternity Leave and discrimination against motherhood).
  • Right to vote
  • Property rights
  • Freedom of movement (eg. Foot binding; Leaving the house only with consent of a male from the family)
  • Informed consent
  • Discrimination
  • Violence, coercion, manipulation
  • Right to education (eg. affirmative action)
  • Reproductive rights (ie. Legal rights, birth control, abortion, abuse during childbirth, child marriage, forced pregnancy)

This seems like a pretty comprehensive list. Considering women’s rights in terms of what we understand about human rights (life, liberty, and property) will help us evaluate the validity of this list.

The right to Life includes:

The right to self-ownership; the right to control one’s reproductive functions, freedom from genital mutilation, and forced abortion and forced sterilization; freedom from child marriage, forced pregnancy, and abuse during childbirth.

The right to Liberty includes:

The right to educate oneself generally, and particularly about personal healthcare, STDs, and contraception; the right to seek/contract/leave employment, participation in the marketplace, and freedom of movement.

The right to Property includes:

The right to own property; the right to exchange property; and the right to create new things from one’s own property.

Based on this, let’s reconsider the Wikipedia list and categorize the supposed women’s rights in terms of whether they are legitimate human rights, non-rights, or (our questionable category of) “women-only” rights.

Legitimate rights (for both men and women):

  • Property rights
  • Consent
  • Freedom from …
  • … Violence, coercion, and manipulation
  • … Abuse
  • … Child marriage
  • … Forced pregnancy
  • … Sexual violence & rape
  • … Genital mutilation
  • Freedom of movement
  • Educate oneself
  • Legal rights
  • Exchange (to obtain products and services necessary for living, including health services).

Non-Rights (For men or women)

  • Right to vote
  • Employment rights
  • Freedom from discrimination
  • Financed education
  • Financed healthcare

“Women-only” rights?

  • Reproductive rights

The list of legitimate rights are rights that all individuals are entitled to regardless of age, gender, or any other demographic marker. This means that they aren’t exclusive to women but apply to men as well. And here we can agree that when violations of these things occur, justice needs to be served.

Let’s look at the list of non-rights.

Immediately, it needs to be made clear that legal “rights” are not necessarily rights. Voting is a legal “right” made possible by legislation. But writing legislation doesn’t create actual rights where there were none. Frederic Bastiat reminds us that our rights precede the creation of laws. So if we cannot derive rights from life, liberty, and property, then these things are actually rights-violations.

Voting is not a right because it involves choosing rulers for others. Employment (and pay and benefits) is not a right because business owners can’t legitimately be forced to hire anyone. Discrimination is a natural consequence of choice, and so part of our right to liberty, and no one can be legitimately required to pay for services (like education and healthcare) for other people.  None of these are genuine rights, and they wouldn’t be exclusive to women even if they were.

The remaining category exclusive to women’s rights is concerning the legitimacy of “reproductive rights.”

“Reproductive rights” are defined as:

  • the right to legal or safe abortion,
  • the right to control one’s reproductive functions,
  • the right to access quality reproductive healthcare,
  • and the right to education and access in order to make reproductive choices free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.

Reproductive rights may also be understood to include education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, and are often defined to include freedom from female genital mutilation (FGM), and forced abortion and forced sterilization.

Our previous categorizing helps us recognize which of these are legitimate rights and which are not rights at all.

Self-ownership entails control over reproductive functions, free exchange entails liberty to provide or obtain healthcare, freedom from aggression entails the right to seek education and to freely make choices.

The only right remaining in the list, if exclusive of men’s rights, concerns abortion. (The irony in Clinton’s statement, that women’s rights are human rights, is that abortion cannot be exclusive of men’s rights, since men are also human beings. If this were the case, one must ask what a man’s right to abortion looks like.)

So is there a legitimate right to abortion or not? The debate within libertarian circles about the legitimacy of the right to abort rests in a nuanced difference between what is called legal-moral consideration and philosophical-moral consideration. You can see this brief discussion here.

While I won’t do so here, I have already argued that the only coherent position (libertarian and Christian) is that every fetus is a rights-bearing human being. Abortion necessarily violates the rights of another human being, and so there can be no basic human right to abortion.

In the fight for “women’s rights,” women have legitimately demanded moral consideration. But in doing so, feminists and abortion advocates are refusing moral consideration to unwanted fetuses and to their fathers. In the final analysis, the only way to argue for abortion as a right, is to embrace the very same dehumanizing ideology that has been used against women themselves.

While we can rightly conclude that women’s rights do legitimately involve roughly half of those concerns listed by Wikipedia, it’s not because women have special rights, different from those of men. Instead, women hold all their rights in common with men (this is real equality). The difficulty in using the term “women’s rights” is its being identified with those issues which are not rights at all, especially abortion.

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