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Abortion and Locke’s Theory of Property

October 31, 2010

According to John Locke, humans have the natural right to property; and by property he means the ownership of our own body.  Also, as children of God, Locke says, we must not do harm to our body, but use reason to make the most of our life.  However, this begs the question, “Does ownership of our body start at conception or birth, and who gets to decide?”  I, personally, am Pro-Choice based on the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but according to Locke we must be Pro-Life.  When a baby is forming inside the womb of its mother, that baby is a separate being.  Although that baby cannot speak, eat, or drink, he or she is alive and well.  So, if a mother were to decide to abort her baby, would that go against Locke’s theory of property?  Even though a baby cannot fend for itself, it still should have rights, shouldn’t it?  Since the Roe v. Wade decision, nearly 50 million abortions have taken place in the United States.  That’s 50 million people who never got the chance to use their reason to make the best of their life.  Rather, their parent(s) made a decision that they had no say in.  What’s more, according to Locke, it is the job of the parents to PROTECT their children because they are not of reason to protect themselves; and what’s less protective than aborting a baby?

…Adam and Eve, and after them all parents were, by the law of nature, under an obigation to preserve, nourish, and educate the children, they had begotten; not as their own workmanship, but by the workmanship of their own maker, the Almighty, to whom they were to be accountable for them.

So, based off Locke’s theory of property, we must be Pro-Life,  or should we?  At the beginning of Chapter 5 of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Locke says:

Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being ONCE BORN, have a right to their preservation…

So, now we are left to reexamine Locke’s theory of property in relation to abortion.  Although Locke argues that at once born people have a right to the preservation of their property, he also argues that parents must make the best decisions for their children since they are not of the age of  reason.  This now brings us back to square one.  “Does ownership of our body start at conception or birth, and who gets to decide?”  The question is a tough one, that even Locke doesn’t have a clear answer for.  So, for now we must accept the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and move onward from there.

8 Comments
  1. andrewjclark permalink
    October 31, 2010 12:36 PM

    I think the question is more complicated and perhaps, nuanced then you let on. I mean we would have to analyze Locke’s practical standing on religious toleration as well as his stand on government interference on the liberty of its citizens before we came to a simplistic “pro-life”/”pro-choice” label to stamp on Locke’s works.

  2. Benjamin Di Pietro permalink
    October 31, 2010 4:42 PM

    To me, it seems as though Locke would be Pro-Choice. Locke seems to view parents have having possession over their children over the span of their lifetime and his number one concern is protection. In many cases, an abortion will prevent someone from being able to not handle taking care of another human being, thus being unable to protect them. As the fetus is not a human being on their own, I would think that Locke would consider this to be apart of the mothers body, and up to the mother herself.

  3. gustavusarborus permalink
    October 31, 2010 6:10 PM

    Quite frankly, given the nature of modern abortion compared to what options were available in Locke’s time, let alone discussed, it seems somewhat futile to find a concrete position in his writing. Given his religious views, a pro-life stance seems the most likely. Indeed, a derived belief about what Locke’s views on such would be is quite possible given several passages in his Second Treatise on Government. Locke’s view of the state of nature obliges everyone that “no one ought to harm another his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” The absolute power of parents over children as spoken of in Chapter 6, part 71 state that such power is to the same extent as a state of nature. Thus, a parent should not harm a child. Even in part 60, he says “lunatics and idiots are never set free from the government of their parents” due to defects. So by existing in a state of nature, the law of nature provides no harm be done to them.

    However, all of the above is predicated on the argument of when a fetus becomes a person, a debate of embryology far beyond Locke’s conception and still disputed to this day. In short, if Locke were brought to the modern day, he would likely be pro-life, but I do not believe this factored into his writings in the least.

  4. Trevor Cookler permalink
    October 31, 2010 7:13 PM

    I guess Locke is Pro-Choice if we need to make a decision. The debate about abortions and when a child is considered a child will go on for quite some time, but when you think about it Locke is talking about protection. Not all abortions, but some result in the fact that the mother would not be able to protect their child. This decision should be up to the mother and the issue of the rights of the baby shouldn’t really even come into conversation. In addition, like the first comment, much of this sort of debate must consider religious views before we can put a “pro-choice” stamp on Locke’s forehead. This sort of debate is tough just because so much has changed in the nature of science since the time of Locke. If he were here this day I think it is safe to agree he is pro-choice, but he’s not so we cannot reason this.

  5. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    November 1, 2010 3:09 PM

    As already many have mentioned, Locke appears to be Pro-Choice. Accordingly, Locke believes that we posses or own body, therefore the mother can choose to do what she pleases for her benefit and self-protection. Although Locke’s religious background would lead us to believe that he would be Pro-life, this is the religious view and should definitely be taken in consideration. Additionally, we would have to consider the views of the time.

    • matteric9 permalink
      November 1, 2010 8:26 PM

      I agree with what you are trying to convey in this reply, but, would it not defy self-protection going through an abortion procedure?

  6. jptrue permalink
    November 1, 2010 5:51 PM

    I think that the interesting thing to consider about this issue is the debate about the property status of the child. From lecture and our reading, we learned that one of the ideas behind Locke’s interpretation of property is the idea of added value. With land, when labor is added to the land in order to increase its value, a right to stake a claim to property is created because the value of the labor can’t be separated from the land. Does this same thought process apply to the development of a child while in a women’s body. Many would argue that the women adds a lot of value to the initial egg of a child by carrying and nurturing the child for 9 months. Accordingly, when the child is born this labor can’t be separated from the child. Thus, shouldn’t the child be understood as property of the women? If so then it should also be true throughout a pregnancy since “value” is always being added to a developing human as the child is nurtured and developed. Therefore, aborting a child would seem illogical because it would violate reason. This is because one would be abandoning value added to their property. Thus, I think Locke actually might be Pro-Life. This is because Locke would favor the protection of property, and when view from some of Locke’s beliefs…a developing child is not a separate human being, but rather property of the mother. I know this sounds a little crazy but I think its an interesting perspective to offer to the discussion.

  7. reedmarcus permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:56 PM

    I believe that Locke is definitely Pro-Choice. Because Locke believes that a child is owned by his or her parents, the right to decide whether or not the baby fetus is aborted should be that of his parents. Therefore Locke is pro-choice because he believes that the mother should have the right to CHOOSE if she would like to abort her baby.

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