Migrating From the Womb and Across Borders to Security and Personal Agency

Note: The views expressed in this piece may not reflect the views of the managers of this site or of the other writers who contribute to this site. Supporters of open borders hold a diversity of views on topics that intersect with open borders advocacy.

The long conflict over whether abortion should be legal in the U.S. will climax in the next few weeks when the Supreme Court issues a ruling on a case from Mississippi, one that is likely to overturn the Roe v Wade decision from 1973 which granted abortion rights. If the ruling leads to prohibitions on abortion in many states, it would increase the salience of the ability of women seeking abortions to cross both state and international borders. The open borders cause has more in common with opposition to the right to abortion, however. Both pro-life and open borders advocates seek the survival of and personal agency for the helpless and vulnerable, by, respectively, allowing nearly all fetuses to exit their mother’s body and allowing nearly all would-be immigrants to exit one society and join another.

Both fetuses and many would-be immigrants are in undeservedly helpless and vulnerable situations. The fetus did not choose to exist inside the body of the mother and has no control over their fate, which may be their termination, either intentionally or naturally. Many would-be immigrants are likewise undeservedly endangered, impoverished, and/or persecuted by the political, social, environmental, and economic conditions into which they happen to be born and grow up, and, aside from emigrating, they have few, if any, opportunities to improve their extremely constrained and imperiled situations. The conditions are characterized by violent conflict, widespread corruption and crime, government dysfunction, illiberal governance, discrimination, natural disasters, and/or unsafe climates. For example, a combination of drought, conflict, and economic collapse has resulted in most Afghans not having enough food to eat, and the lives of Afghan women are constrained by the Taliban who rule the country. The situations in Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, Haiti, Central America and Venezuela are similarly perilous and difficult. There are numerous other countries whose residents’ lives are circumscribed and threatened to various degrees by adverse conditions in those countries.

Open borders and anti-abortion policies would end the dependence of fetuses and would-be immigrants on the decisions of others as to whether they will escape their helplessness and vulnerability and gain security and personal agency. In the case of the fetus, personal agency is realized if they are allowed to be born and to develop into an adult. With abortion currently available as a legal option, healthcare workers, based on the wishes of their patients, may “… deliver babies safely and nurse premature infants back to health…” or they may use their skills to conduct abortions. In the case of would-be immigrants, Ilya Somin, the author of Free to Move, notes that the opportunity to cross international borders can constitute “a life-transforming event, often also a life-saving one.” However, currently the opportunity for Haitian, Afghan, Syrian, Venezuelan, and other would-be immigrants to gain control over their future and often to survive is limited by restrictive immigration policies formulated by the countries to which they desire to migrate.

It is acknowledged that illegal migration is an option for would-be immigrants that does not exist for fetuses. However, this option is unrealistic for those without the resources to finance often expensive attempts to cross a border illegally. Even those who attempt to cross a border without permission face terrible, often deadly consequences.

It also is recognized that the agency of women with unwanted pregnancies must be considered. These women deserve sympathy, especially when contraception has been used but failed to prevent pregnancy. Poor single women with unwanted pregnancies are in especially challenging circumstances. Yet even in these situations, the woman’s life is rarely threatened by the pregnancy, and she still retains some agency, albeit limited by a pregnancy. 

In addition to attempting to provide protection and agency to the helpless and vulnerable, there are other similarities between the open borders and anti-abortion causes. First, the groups that are championed by open borders and anti-abortion advocates are both viewed as threats by some. Nativists sometimes describe immigrants as invaders. Similarly, some supporters of the right to abortion characterize fetuses as intruders. While the pro-choice movement does not appear to promote an association between access to legal abortion and reductions in crime, some academics have provided evidence of a connection. Meanwhile, nativists have long associated immigrants with crime.  

Second, there is overlap in the available arguments for pro-life and open borders proponents with respect to the impacts on society if their desired policies are realized. Both open borders and pro-life advocates can emphasize the concrete macroeconomic benefits of their policy positions, in addition to moral arguments. Both fewer abortions and more immigration, by increasing the population of younger people, would mitigate the impact of low fertility rates in the United Stated and other wealthy, industrialized countries, as well as some less wealthy ones. While some have discounted the negative impacts of low fertility rates, others predict that “the strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old… There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.” The material benefits of open borders in particular could be dramatic, as reflected in the academic literature that suggests massive increases in world GDP from free migration. as well as providing economic benefits at the national and local levels.

Third, there are keyhole solutions available to help address challenges associated with both prohibitions on abortions and open borders policies. In the case of abortion, Christine Emba of The Washington Post notes that “expanding access to contraception is an easy compromise that could lessen the need for abortion. Free, high-quality pre- and postnatal care, combined with expansive economic and social support for parents and children, would make choosing parenthood a less daunting prospect.” Others have highlighted universal paid family leave and the provision of child care for working mothers as part of an effort to create “a culture where women, children and families can flourish.” Facilitating adoptions would be another way to address unwanted pregnancies.

For open borders, surtaxes on the earnings of immigrants could be used to ameliorate any negative impact on American workers due to competition from an increase in immigrant labor. While some economists assert the existence of such impacts, others challenge those assertions.  

There is a significant incongruence in the role of government between open borders and anti-abortion policies. Open borders rests on dramatically scaling back government interference in the lives of individuals, whereas abortion prohibition constitutes an expansion of government interference. Yet both policies would protect the helpless from actions that rob them of the opportunity to survive and gain personal agency, and both could benefit the larger society.