Libertarian patriarchalism: Nudges, procedural roadblocks, and reproductive choice

Women’s Rights L. Rep 35:273--466 (2014)
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Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's proposal that social and legal institutions should steer individuals toward some options and away from others-a stance they dub "libertarian paternalism"-has provoked much high-level discussion in both academic and policy settings. Sunstein and Thaler believe that steering, or "nudging," individuals is easier to justify than the bans or mandates that traditional paternalism involves. This Article considers the connection between libertarian paternalism and the regulation of reproductive choice. I first discuss the use of nudges to discourage women from exercising their right to choose an abortion, or from becoming or remaining pregnant. I then argue that reproductive choice cases illustrate the limitations of libertarian paternalism. Where choices are politicized or intimate, as reproductive choices often are, nudges become not much easier to justify than traditional mandates or prohibitions. Even beyond the context of reproductive choice, it is not obvious how much easier nudges are to justify than bans or mandates. Part I of this Article briefly introduces Sunstein and Thaler's libertarian paternalism. Part II then turns to the context of reproductive choice. Part II.A reviews restrictions on the right to choose an abortion-particularly post-Casey regulations such as waiting periods, requirements that women receive certain types of information, and requirements that women undergo ultrasound-that pitch themselves as steering choice without entirely closing off the right to choose an abortion. This distinction between nudges and prohibitions echoes Sunstein and Thaler's proposals, but works to subordinate women's choices to the judgment of (often male) experts and administrators-hence my term "libertarian patriarchalism." Part II.B reviews efforts to nudge women-particularly teenagers, HIV-positive women, and others thought to be unsuitable mothers-to avoid pregnancy. Part III considers the normative implications of nudging reproductive decisions. In Part III.A, I argue that the political nature of reproductive choices presents a problem for nudges. I do so by considering a parallel with voting rights. Empirical research shows that voters are more likely to choose the candidate listed first on the ballot. Yet we do not empower the administrator in charge of ballot design to choose a default rule that nudges individuals toward the candidate he sincerely believes would promote choosers' welfare. Given the political nature of reproductive choices, a policymaker's attempting to nudge reproductive decisionmaking in the direction he prefers-or indeed in any direction-fails to show adequate respect for the chooser's agency. In Part III.B, I offer an argument that targets the use of nudges in the context of pregnancy. Finally, in Part III.C, I argue that nudges do not merely add choices to an existing menu, but change the substantive choices available to individuals and thereby impose more-than-trivial costs on them. I conclude by exploring the implications of my arguments for nudges more generally.



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Govind Persad
University of Denver

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