Abortion and the Slavery Analogy: Dangerous and Wrong

A few months ago in Georgia, dozens of anti-abortion billboards were placed in low-income neighborhoods with messages suggesting abortion is a racist conspiracy to kill or enslave women of color. The billboards, with slogans like “black children are an endangered species,” were paid for by Georgia Right to Life and the Radiance Foundation, a organization dedicated to promoting this conspiracy myth.

These racial arguments may seem like a recent phenomenon, but, from the beginning, the anti-choice movement has drawn on the American legacy of racism and slavery to frame its position.

The modern anti-abortion movement in the U.S. began in the wake of the civil rights movement and its purposeful remembrance of the nation’s odious history of slavery. The 1960s and 70s then witnessed the birth of African American studies as an academic discipline, the inclusion of African American literature in school curricula, and the success of Alex Haley’s Roots. Anti-abortion activists jumped on the zeitgeist bandwagon, comparing abortion to slavery in order to sell their crusade as a moral absolute on which there could be no compromise.

For example, in 1976, journalist William F. Buckley wrote, “One hundred years from now Americans will look back in horror at our abortion clinics, even as we look back now in horror at the slave markets.” That same year, Dr. Jack Willke, founder of the National Right to Life Committee, compared Roe v. Wade to the 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford in his book Slavery and Abortion: History Repeats. This argument continues to resurface even as recently as January of this year, when Rick Santorum argued on Fox News that Roe denies fetuses “personhood” the same way Dred Scott denied African Americans “personhood.”

The slavery analogy is as dangerous as it is wrong. By equating abortion with slavery, anti-abortionists can argue that the pro-choice rationale (that those who want abortions should be able to get them, and those opposed can abstain) is just as bad as Stephen Douglas’ 1854 doctrine of popular sovereignty, which would allow each new American territory to “choose” its own slavery policy. Christian civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin put it this way: “It’s a cop-out to say that abortion is a sin but not a crime. That’s like saying slavery is a sin but not a crime, that I personally wouldn’t own slaves but I defend the right of others to choose differently.”

The problem here is that the slavery analogy only makes sense if you believe having an abortion is somehow equivalent to owning a human being. (It isn’t.)

Anti-abortion activists continue to use the slavery analogy, though, because they know that in the 21st century almost everyone will agree, in no uncertain terms, that enslaving another is morally wrong. And they believe that fetuses or embryos are “people” deserving legal rights and protections.

The anti-abortion movement uses carefully chosen words like “the unborn” to encourage this way of thinking. It also cites scientific evidence to demonstrate “personhood” in utero. Of course much of it is pseudo-science, or outright lies. For example, a recent wave of anti-abortion legislation was based on claims that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, despite consensus within the medical community that this just isn’t true.

Does life begin at conception? Birth? The first heartbeat? When a fetus is capable of survival outside the womb? Even if we answer the question of when life begins, we still wouldn’t be able to answer the metaphysical question of when a fetus or embryo becomes a “person” whose rights equal those of the woman carrying it.

The slavery analogy makes much more sense as an argument for choice, not against it. Slavery is about losing one’s freedom and personal autonomy over one’s body and life. As Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, so eloquently put it: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

In addition, laws prohibiting or restricting access to abortion treat women as chattel, enslaving them physically by controlling their bodies and ideologically by subjecting them to the tyranny of an imposed morality.

Currently, pregnant women confront increasing threats to their freedom to control their own bodies–especially those in the low-income communities targeted by racialized anti-abortion propaganda. Women in these communities already face countless barriers to accessing regular health care, health education and contraception–barriers that will only multiply as a result of the recent barrage of bills to cut Medicaid and further restrict abortion access throughout the country.

We must turn the anti-abortion movement’s use of the slavery analogy on its head. Let’s remind the world that even though we may never agree about the personhood or rights of the “unborn,” the personhood and rights of living women are indisputable.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. I had no idea that the abortion and slavery analogy went back so far.

  2. These ‘danger’ arguments downplay the cuts to social services which would be much more successful at reducing abortion than defunding/picketing clinics.

    They ignore that legislatures controlled by anti-choice elected officials are the ones behind the funding cuts.

  3. Dan The Man says:

    Extremely well written. I hear Leah is going places in the published world.

  4. Leah wrote: “The problem here is that the slavery analogy only makes sense if you believe having an abortion is somehow equivalent to owning a human being. (It isn’t.)”

    Wow…This article clearly confirms that some people are still in denial about the devastation caused by slavery. The real danger is that you had to minimize the gravity slavery in order to promote your pro choice position.

    Leah, the slavery/abortion analogy makes sense if you understand that slavery is NOT just about owning a human being. Slavery is about stealing, killing and destroying another person’s destiny in order to satisfy ones personal agenda.

    The high price of tampering with destiny is living with an abiding guilt and a deep-seated sense of unworthiness. The descendents of slave owners and the post abortive woman share this burden — neither of them are truly free.

    They may feel relieved. They may be able to justify their choices,

    but they are not free!

    • Enslaved black women practiced abortion using herbs.
      Their owners kept them to “breed” more slaves to sell or raise. They aborted those pregnancies because a) in silent revolt b) they were raped by their owner c) they just didn’t want to bring a kid into that goddawful life.
      Some women became so efficient at terminating pregnancies that other slaves came to them instead.
      Source: Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration and Equality by Althea T. Davis
      (Just a shot in the dark, but you’re not black, are you?)

  5. A few replies from an abolitionist:

    –”The problem here is that the slavery analogy only makes sense if you believe having an abortion is somehow equivalent to owning a human being. (It isn’t.)”

    Nobody is claiming that it’s equivalent to owning a human being.

    Rather, the problem is that both involve dehumanising someone who is a human, refusing to recognise/acknowledge that the person in question (whether Negro [skin too black] or baby [too young and undeveloped, lives where we don't want him to live]) is in fact created in the image of God.

    That’s the premise of the article, and it is fatally flawed.

    I do appreciate you posting it though. It’s always good to be exposed to wider influence and test what we think against others’ arguments.

    –”It also cites scientific evidence to demonstrate “personhood” in utero. Of course much of it is pseudo-science, or outright lies.”

    This demonstrates a naive view of what science can tell us. Science can not define personhood. It can merely take what has been a priori identified as “person” and tell us which measurable traits are present.

    Unfortunately, this lack of recognition of the power of philosophical presuppositions is also deadly to the article’s credibility.

    –”Slavery is about losing one’s freedom and personal autonomy over one’s body and life. ”

    Yes, because someone in power took it away from you.

    What does the author think abortion involves? The baby has the right to his own body and life, and someone more powerful comes along and causes a greater offense and reduction in life and autonomy than slavery involves – slaves often survived many years, and aborted babies die over 99% of the time.

    –”subjecting them to the tyranny of an imposed morality.”

    This is very biased and morally blind.

    The author herself is “subjecting (us) to the tyranny of an imposed morality” – her own. Everyone thinks they are right. What matters is the argument, the reasons for believing one is right, not the fact that we think we are right.

    Besides, is not the baby himself subjecting them to the tyranny of an imposed morality? He ends up dead!

    • Wow, sounds like you all have been busy on your nice abolition website. I wonder you even find time for telling us women-folk what we should be doing with our bodies. And now you win an award for being the only male to read Ms Magazine.

  6. Your flaw comes down to this… That is BS trying to claim a woman is not free because of restrictions. If a woman really wanted to have control of having a child or not all she needs to do is have surgery to solve that. That is freedom. Many cases in court have proven that freedoms may be limited when it affects another’s freedoms. Abortion violates a child’s freedom. Check the records before presenting another points article such as this.

  7. Frustrated says:

    Demeaning across the board — and bad tactic used to split allies.

  8. “Even if we answer the question of when life begins, we still wouldn’t be able to answer the metaphysical question of when a fetus or embryo becomes a “person” whose rights equal those of the woman carrying it.”

    Why not? We’ve certainly answered it once the baby is out of the womb. A child born is a person – how did we decide that we could answer that metaphysical question, but not the one you pose here? Science has made it abundantly clear that conception presents a creation entirely different than what existed pre-conception. It is a very clear moment when all the necessary material for the human being becomes present. Why do you assume that once a baby comes out of the mother’s body, the baby is inviolable, and should have human rights? There are many societies in history that decided after birth that personhood wasn’t supportable for everyone (Spartans and Romans killed children deemed to be disabled; Nazis killed disabled humans even after they were long past infancy). It’s absurd to suggest that you can’t make a decision on when personhood begins. You certainly can make this decision, and I would assume that you would be opposed to the Roman/Spartan/Nazi policy (as most people are). Ask yourself why you’re opposed and maybe you’ll be able to work through the flaw in your own reasoning.

    • “Science has made it abundantly clear that conception presents a creation entirely different than what existed pre-conception.”

      and science also tells us that there are other significant “milestones” throughout a pregnancy, such as the forming of a blastocyst, prior to that point every single cell is the same, yet only some will become the embryo while others become the placenta .. is the placenta also a “person”?
      What about chimera twins, two sets of individual DNA contain within a single body, is this single body now two “persons”?

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