New research provides evidence that libertarians in the United States tend to prioritize men’s reproductive autonomy at the expense of women’s. The study, published in Political Psychology, found that libertarianism was associated with both opposition to women’s right to an abortion and support for men’s right to withdraw financial support for a child when women refuse to terminate the pregnancy.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that centers around the concept that each individual should be free to live their life in whatever way they choose, as long as other people’s rights are respected. Libertarians view the government as nothing more than a tool for protecting people’s fundamental rights; anything beyond this should arguably be done locally and voluntarily by individuals. The authors of the new study sought to investigate how libertarianism translates into attitudes to abortion policy.
“Both abortion and libertarianism are concepts that illustrate the divide between abstract, philosophical ideas (e.g., freedom; morality; personhood) and the complexities that arise when you try to translate these abstractions into people’s real, complicated lives,” said study author Jocelyn Chalmers, a PhD student and associate lecturer at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
“Since no society in our world today follows a strictly ‘libertarian’ governing model, it’s easy for libertarianism’s subscribers to suggest that prioritizing freedom (or their concept of it) above all else would lead to easy solutions for all of our problems – research like this allows us to interrogate that idea by highlighting that freedom is far from a simple concept in practice.”
To examine the link between libertarianism and attitudes about women’s reproductive autonomy, Chalmers and her colleagues conducted a series of two studies that presented a variety of different questionnaires to participants in a randomized order. The first study included 296 U.S. adults recruited through the online research platform Prolific. The second study sought to replicate the findings in a larger sample of participants recruited from social media. To this end, the researchers recruited an additional sample of 580 U.S. adults.
The researchers found that those who described themselves politically as “libertarian” were less likely to support a woman’s right to have an abortion. To assess support for abortion rights, the researchers asked the participants whether they believed “it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion” under seven different circumstances, such as “if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children.”
Libertarians were also more supportive of men’s right to deny their partner’s abortions and to remove their financial support for unwanted children. In other words, they were more likely to agree with statements such as “A woman should not be allowed to have an abortion if the man involved really wants to keep his unborn child” and “If a child is born against the father’s will, he should not be obligated to support the child financially.”
“I think the average person should take away that the idea of ‘freedom’ that libertarians subscribe to, which sounds attractive and is often wielded by politicians as though it has a single objective definition, does not actually translate into straightforward policy prescriptions,” Chalmers told PsyPost. “This is particularly true in a world in which we are so interdependent on one another and in which those who tend to be in charge of both philosophising about these concepts and creating policies around them may be at least partially shielded from the messy realities of this interdependence due to a lack of experience with pregnancy, childbirth, and even interpersonal care work in general.”
“This lack of straightforward application is illustrated by our findings, in that libertarian identification was associated with opposition to women’s abortion rights, and support for men’s right both to prevent women from having abortions (male veto), and to withdraw financial support for a child when women refuse to terminate the pregnancy (financial abortion). Notably, our analyses suggested that hostile sexism – i.e., sexist antipathy – may account for this effect,” Chalmers added.
People who score high on measures of hostile sexism endorse statements such as “When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against.”
“While I wasn’t surprised to learn that libertarianism was positively associated with hostile sexism – the resentful, distrustful, openly adversarial component of Glick and Fiske’s (1996) Ambivalent Sexism Theory – I was surprised that libertarianism also shared a positive association with the superficially positive component of this theory, benevolent sexism,” Chalmers explained.
“Benevolent sexism portrays women as more moral and refined than men, and entitled (if they properly adhere to their gendered role) to men’s protection. Given that benevolent sexism imposes this duty upon men to protect and provide for women, I was surprised that libertarians – who value freedom and autonomy above all else – would be willing to endorse this.”
“However, as we discussed in the article, libertarians in the United States are much more likely to be Christian than those in other countries, and this link between libertarianism and religiosity may have something to do with libertarians’ unexpected endorsement of benevolent sexism,” Chalmers said.
Chalmers and her colleagues observed a similar pattern of results when examining support for libertarian ideology. To assess support for libertarian ideology, the researchers asked the participants the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit” and “People should be free to decide what group norms or traditions they themselves want to follow.”
“In sum, libertarians supported men’s autonomy and tended to oppose women’s, particularly when it conflicted with men’s, and there was evidence that this may have been because they tended to have hostile attitudes towards women,” Chalmers said.
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. For one, it is unclear how well the results generalize to other political contexts.
“One major caveat is that this research was conducted in the United States – a country that has quite a unique relationship with libertarianism,” Chalmers explained. “In much of Europe, libertarians are more likely to be on the left side of the political spectrum, while in the United States, libertarians are more likely to side with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party (Smant, 2002). While more left-wing versions of libertarianism do still exist to some extent in the United States, it has been argued that the American libertarian movement formed a kind of alliance with paleoconservatism (a populist, isolationist alternative to the more cosmopolitan neoconservatism; Ashbee, 2000).”
“This alliance allowed American libertarians to mend the contradiction between economic freedom and property rights (which can impinge upon freedom for those who are not property owners) by letting them pair freedom from the state with a lack of freedom in the private sphere (Cooper, 2021). This American brand of libertarianism may thus be uniquely suited to reinforcing existing hierarchies, as long as they don’t involve the state – e.g., a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.”
Chalmers noted there are still some other questions that need to be addressed.
“Abortion is far from the only issue where the interests of women and the concept of individual freedom may be perceived as conflicting, so questions about how libertarians approach other issues related to pregnancy, childbirth and even child-rearing still need to be addressed,” she explained. “Susan Okin argued in her book ‘Justice, Gender and the Family’ (1989) that libertarian principles have been developed based on the needs and experiences of men, and the reality of motherhood brings to light an issue largely ignored by libertarian theorists whereby ‘the potential lives of some are radically dependent upon  the bodies of others’ (p. 75).”
“In fact, following the reversal of Roe v. Wade, challenges to women’s bodily autonomy appear to have become more common,” Chalmers told PsyPost. “In one particularly egregious circumstance, a woman in Alabama was jailed for allegedly using drugs during pregnancy despite not actually being pregnant (Yurkanin, 2022). While far from the only state to criminalize drug use during pregnancy, the law in Alabama is particularly harsh: if a woman has a miscarriage or stillbirth and is found to have used drugs during her pregnancy, the law states she can be sent to prison for 99 years (Kilander, 2022). Future explorations into the role of libertarian ideology in disentangling competing claims of autonomy such as these have much fertile ground to cover, particularly in a post-Roe v. Wade world.”
The new findings also highlight the complexities of reproductive issues.
“When viewed through an abortion framework that presents ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ as the only two camps one could belong to, it should come as a surprise that endorsing a man’s right to veto his partner’s abortion is positively associated with endorsing a man’s right to financially coerce his partner into getting an abortion, given that the former prevents an abortion and the latter facilitates one,” Chalmers explained.
“It’s important to be reminded that there are not just two opposing stances within the abortion debate, and that belief in fetal personhood (or lack thereof) is not the only factor shaping attitudes to abortion. Perceptions of who does and does not deserve to make choices around reproduction play an important role, and these can be (and are) influenced by entrenched societal forces such as sexism.
The study, “The Rights of Man: Libertarian Concern for Men’s, But Not Women’s, Reproductive Autonomy“, was authored by Jocelyn Chalmers, Aino Petterson, Leif Woodford, and Robbie M. Sutton.