[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an article which was originally published in one piece. None of the content has been changed, except to facilitate the split. See here to view Part 1.
Section II: Trespassing
A Legal View of Trespass[i]
Murray Rothbard[ii], a major contributor to modern libertarian thought, stresses the “legality” of abortion in the quote shown below. He appeals to law to validate his claim that a woman has an absolute right to have an abortion.
“What we are trying to establish here is not the morality of abortion (which may or may not be moral on other grounds), but its legality, i.e., the absolute right of the mother to have an abortion”[iii]
Well, all right, then. Let’s look at this from a legal perspective. As you will see below, I argue that a fetus is not a trespasser based on the legal aspect of what it means to be a trespasser. I state firmly and unequivocally that a fetus CANNOT be a trespasser because there is no legal justification for the attribute. Trespassing is a criminal act, punishable by law! A fetus cannot be tried and convicted, by law, for the crime of trespass, therefore, a fetus is not a trespasser.
I will go further. Saddling a fetus with the pejorative label of “trespasser” or “parasite” is nothing more than an attempt to justify the pro-abortion position. It is in the same class as calling the fetus “a clump of cells”, “fetal tissue”, “product of conception”, “blob of protoplasm”, or “uterine content” and seeks to obfuscate the real meaning of what an abortion is–the deliberate killing of an innocent, unborn human being.
Dictionary definitions of ‘trespasser’ can be seen here.[iv]
“One who has committed trespass; one who unlawfully enters or intrudes upon another’s land, or unlawfully and forcibly takes another’s personal property.”
“In the law of tort, property, and criminal law a trespasser is a person who commits the act of trespassing on a property, that is, without the permission of the owner. Being present on land as a trespasser thereto creates liability in the trespasser, so long as the trespass is intentional.”
In these descriptions, the emphasis is on unlawful entry, forceful taking, and intentional action. This is about as far from a newly conceived zygote or a four-month old fetus as anything could get.
Let’s break this down. Trespassing is a criminal act, prohibited by law and punishable under law. It is embedded into the legal code. Trespassing may be done willfully, ignorantly, or mistakenly, but it always involves the crossing of a previously established boundary. The trespasser always intrudes on someone else’s space (property) from some other location or position. If there is no transgression of boundaries, there is no trespass.
To intrude on someone’s property by mistake or out of ignorance should not be (and usually is not) considered criminal unless damage is done to the property. More likely than not, trespassers who are confronted will remove themselves promptly, with the knowledge that behavior of that sort will not be tolerated. Trespassers who offer a sincere apology will probably be allowed to vacate the property without any further trouble and that will be the end of it. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) An honest, contrite confession of a mistake or lack of knowledge will go a long way in defusing a potentially violent situation.
An example of this might be that a young woman from the city visits her uncle, who lives in a heavily forested part of the country. While there, she decides to venture out and explore the wilderness. Since there are no fences or signs, she has no idea that she has left her uncle’s property and is now walking through his neighbor’s forest. The neighbor sees her, confronts her, and warns her that she is trespassing and must remove herself from the property. In response to this, she confesses her mistake, asks for direction back to her uncle’s place, and leaves without further ado.
Under this scenario, the neighbor whose property boundary was violated would likely do nothing more, unless he called the uncle and asked him to inform the niece of the property lines. Legally, he probably would not be able to make a case for the arrest and trial of a young woman who had simply made a mistake.
Intentional trespass, on the other hand, requires deliberate action and knowledge. It is done with the understanding that a boundary has been placed around the property by the rightful owner. The trespasser would have to consciously violate that boundary without regard for the will of the owner. Such a violation could and might result in a penalty being assessed against the trespasser, if the property owner was inclined to push the issue.
Suppose that this same young woman, while walking through the forest, came to a place where there was a four strand, barbed wire fence, arrow-straight and fiddle-string tight. In addition, there was a “No Trespassing” sign fastened to a fence post at fifty-foot intervals. There could be no mistaking of the intent. This would be a clear indication that she was not allowed to go any further, under penalty of law. The choice then would be hers–to obey the injunction and turn back or to willfully climb over the fence in a deliberate act of trespass, which would be considered criminal if discovered and prosecuted.
Criminal trespass cannot happen in the case of pregnancy, because the (supposed, alleged) violator, the fetus, was conceived and has always existed in the womb[vi]. It originated from within the womb. It has never been anywhere else. It has never crossed any boundary. How can something, anything, be charged with trespassing if it began inside the boundaries and never crossed them? The fetus may be unwanted, but it is not a trespasser. Call it a noxious weed if you wish, but don’t call it a trespasser. Assert your right to remove weeds from your “lawn”, but don’t base your claim on trespass law.
Criminal prosecution usually takes the form of arrest, charge, hearing/trial, verdict, and penalty/release, or some variation of this process. Every person who is arrested for a crime should be advised of the charge(s) against him. Not only that, but he should be expected to understand why he has been charged and what the penalty might be if he is found guilty. Moreover, he should have a right to counsel and the opportunity to defend himself. In addition, he should be able to appeal his case to a higher authority. Or at least this is the way it’s supposed to work.
Trespass is a legal concept. It must be handled in a legal manner. In order to prove a case of trespass, these steps (at a minimum) must be followed:
1. Charge or accusation
2. Hearing or trial
3. Evidence presented
4. Verdict pronounced
5. Penalty imposed or case dismissed.
In a case of (supposed) fetal trespass against a woman, this will not be the course of action. Consider:
1. No charges or accusations have ever been (nor will ever be) brought against the “offender”.[vii] If they were, it would not be able to hear nor understand them.
2. There is no trial or hearing in which the fetus is given the opportunity to defend itself nor is anyone else appointed to act on its behalf. In fact, if someone else did make an attempt to speak for it, he could be charged[viii] with a crime himself.
3. The only evidence presented at all is that the woman is known to be pregnant. There is no evidence presented to prove that the fetus committed any “crime” of trespass.
4. The verdict is not based on objective proof beyond a shadow of doubt, but solely on the subjective decision of the woman and anyone around her who might benefit from the abortion, either financially or emotionally.
5. The penalty is carried out–execution–without any possibility of appeal.
This sort of proceeding reminds me of the poem, A Mouse’s Tale[ix] in Lewis Carroll’s tale, Alice in Wonderland[x].
“…I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, said cunning old Fury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.”
Fetal trespass is a misnomer. There is no law directly forbidding a fetus to reside in a womb or compelling it to vacate the premises. There is no law which orders a fetus to act in a certain manner regarding the violation of property boundaries. None. Nada. Nyet. Nein. There never will be. It would be the absolute height of foolishness to forbid a fetus from trespassing, at least as much as it would be to forbid a dog from pooping on a neighbor’s front lawn.
Identifying a fetus as a trespasser is dissembling. It is incorrect terminology. In today’s social and political environment, it would be equivalent to “fake news.” Calling something what it is not in order to justify a viewpoint is not only false and misleading, it is morally reprehensible. It is irresponsible at best, deadly at worst.
The counter-argument might be presented that, since the fetus is not a person[xi], legally correct criminal proceedings really don’t apply. Even in cases of non-persons becoming trespassers, however, the law still operates in the same way. Trespassing is a criminal act and must be treated that way.
Domestic animals, dogs, for instance, can and do leave their owner’s property and trespass on someone else’s. Sometimes they poop on front lawns, which is a nuisance. Sometimes they are more aggressive, e.g., killing a neighbor’s sheep. A tree can (and sometimes does) fall across a property boundary and cause damage, for example, if it crashes through a neighbor’s garage roof.
In the case of the tree falling, someone would cut it up, clean it up, and remove it from the site. If you wanted to imagine it this way, the tree would be “punished” for its trespass.
In the case of the sheep-killing dog, the dog might be shot by the shepherd, thus “paying” for its crime. It might be imprisoned (kenneled, chained) by its owner to keep it from running wild and causing more damage. Pre-crime[xii], so to speak.
However, no matter how much cases like these can be twisted and contorted, the owner of the dog or the tree is, legally speaking, ultimately the one who is “charged” with trespass and is forced (restitution, insurance, etc.) to make things right. Dogs and trees, while able to “trespass” and cause damage, are not held legally liable. Their owners are.
Dogs and trees can trespass on a person’s property, but they do not understand that they do so. To them, it is a completely natural act. They know nothing else. It is futile to legally charge them with trespass, so we take the more rational step of charging their owner, requiring that he make the situation right and compensating the victim for damages caused.
Some might claim that I have blown my case. If dogs and trees can trespass unknowingly, then so too can a fetus. This assertion collapses, however, under the same point that I made earlier–trespass cannot occur without the violation of a boundary. While dogs and trees can and do violate property boundaries, the fetus never has. Dogs and trees came across the line from some other place. The fetus arrived from nowhere and, from the very beginning, has always existed on the property.
The whole process from sexual intercourse to the realization that a woman is pregnant can be roughly compared to the appearance of alien spaceships from (seemingly) nowhere into Earth’s space without warning.
- We broadcast and blast radio waves into the universe non-stop, sometimes with the express purpose of catching the attention of other-worldly entities—sexual intercourse.
- We know that “intercourse” of this nature might result in the appearance of a spaceship into Earth’s space and time–possibility of conception and pregnancy.
- We understand that this appearance might have repercussions and possibly even prove fatal—pregnancy which adversely affects the health and well-being of the woman.
- We also understand that the appearance might produce future benefits which we can only imagine at the time—interaction with the new-born baby.
- In the event that an alien spaceship does appear, we have to make a decision either to live with it, cooperate with it, and benefit from its presence, or to use violence to blast it out of the sky and justify that violence in an attempt to maintain the life we prefer and have become accustomed to, regardless of the death and damage that might ensue–to abort or not to abort.
The one discrepancy in this comparison is that alien spaceships, regardless of where they originate, come from another place within the universe, or for those who are really into it, from some other parallel universe. Consequently, they can, according to our code of justice, legally be charged with criminal trespass, found guilty, and “punished”. After all, it is our space! How well that might work out remains to be seen.
Unborn fetuses (and this is the pivot of my argument) do not and never have come from another location. They appear out of nowhere. They do not exist before they arrive. They spring from nothing. They are “created” within the womb by the simple joining of an egg cell and a sperm cell. Before this union, there is nothing but two individual cells. After that, there is a new human being, who has committed no crime and is completely innocent of any charge or accusation against it.
If the unborn fetus is not a parasite nor a trespasser, then what is it? There is only one answer left–a unique, personal, human being which has been placed, through no action, will, or desire of its own, in a vulnerable, dangerous position. It deserves all the protection that we can give it, if we are so inclined. Unfortunately, quite often, we are so NOT inclined, consequently, it ends up dead.
Greg Koukl has written what I consider to be the perfect sentiment to end this article. I couldn’t have said it any better.
“A child is not an invader, though, a parasite living
off his mother. A mother’s womb is the baby’s natural environment…One
trespasses when he’s not in his rightful place, but a baby developing in the
womb belongs there.” [xiii]
[i] I am not a legal scholar, judge, nor lawyer. I could be entirely wrong about this whole train of thought, however, I am willing to stick my neck out and stand according to what I do know and believe to be true. In this sense, I am relying on common sense and moral justice as my guides.
[iii] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, ©1998), 98.
[vi] I use the term “womb” to include the entire reproductive system of the female body.
[vii] Martin Armstrong writes this which closely parallels what I have outlined above. “In law school, they teach you that the Due Process of Law comes from the Bible. God already knew what happened between Cain and Able. He still granted him the Due Process of Law to (1) summon him providing notice and (2) the right to be heard. We no longer allow Due Process of Law. We presume guilt and condemn people without trial.”
[ix] I hadn’t read this poem in close to fifty years until I started researching this article, but I still remembered most of it. “Fury said to a mouse that he met in the house…” I wish I could have met Lewis Carroll.
[xi] For my view on this, see here and here.