The XX Factor

Paul Ryan: Libertarian on the Market, the Opposite on Abortion

Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan speaks during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images.

Amanda and Michelle Goldberg and Robert Pear have detailed Paul Ryan’s position on reproductive rights, and the upshot is that he has checked every box on the anti-abortion list. That includes support for “personhood” amendments that protect life from conception—in other words, completely banning abortion, as well as supporting the defunding of Planned Parenthood, two of the latest and more zealous ways to prove your movement bona fides. Ryan also called President Obama “paternalistic” and “arrogant” in the fight last winter over whether religious organizations should be required to provide health insurance coverage for contraception. Check, check, check, with bonus points for shoring up Mitt Romney’s all-over-the-place record on reproductive rights.

I’m interested in an essay that Michelle flags that was published by Ryan in 2010. In it, he explains how he reconciles being pro-choice in the realm of the market and anti-choice in the realm of reproduction. That’s not how he frames it, of course: He says that it is a “false dilemma” to separate “free market choice and the natural right to life.” Let’s see how he gets there.

Ryan begins with his capitalist stance: “I strongly support every person’s right to make these economic choices and to fight against government efforts to limit them.” Pro-choice advocates, of course, like to point out that if you are libertarian about government intrusion into the market, you might also worry about government intrusion into women’s bodies. Ryan has to go in a different direction. He argues that government’s “very limited” role is to “guarantee the universal human rights of its citizens.” Then he defines citizens as “any entity that qualifies as ‘human.’ ” The Supreme Court blew it, he argues (unassailably), by failing to include black people as human in its 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Ryan then says the court “made virtually the identical mistake” in Roe v. Wade by refusing to treat fetuses as “living persons.” This is the anti-abortion talking point that leads directly to the personhood amendments, which, it’s worth noting, don’t have universal support in anti-abortion circles. The group that pushes hardest for these amendments at the state level, Personhood USA, is not a well-funded powerhouse within the anti-abortion movement. Other pro-life groups tend to keep their distance, or even oppose the amendments, as the National Right to Life did in Mississippi last year. That’s because these laws appear to ban standard in vitro procedures by granting legal rights to fertilized embryos, and even if you oppose abortion, you might think that’s a loser at the Supreme Court or that it risks alienating mainstream voters.

This is a perfectly respectable pragmatist view in the pro-life world. But Ryan doesn’t hold it. On abortion as well as budget cutting and supply-side taxes, he has positioned himself as every inch a true believer.