The abortion/slavery analogy beloved by anti-abortion activists, Ta-Nehisi Coates says, "is not just wrong, it is a lie."
He backs that up, dismantling the delusions, distortions and fabrications employed by people like former Sen. Rick Santorum who love to posture as the heirs of Frederick Douglass. Coates describes this as "The Unbearable Whiteness of Pro-Lifers and Pundits."
Confession: Growing up and going to work in evangelicaldom, I used to enjoy that posturing too, sharing in — and promoting — those same delusions, distortions and fabrications. So I'm not just bashing Santorum here for his foolish vanity and self-serving dishonesty, I'm trying to atone for my own history of those same vices and sins.
Coates' essay should be read in its entirety, so follow the link and read it, but here's a small sample:
Nor are the pro-lifers analogous to abolitionists, because the first abolitionists, the ones who repeatedly staked their lives on the matter, were slaves themselves:
Abortion is a debate between two groups over the ultimate fate of embryos. The Anti-Slavery fight was a violent struggle between two groups over the fate of the enslaved, but with the enslaved as indispensable actors. Unlike embryos, black people were very capable of expressing their thoughts about their own personhood, and never held it in much doubt. Whereas the fight against abortion begins with pro-lifers asserting the rights of embryos, the fight against slavery doesn't begin with the abolitionists, but with the Africans themselves who resisted.
In that difference lies the racism implicit in the abortion/slavery analogy Santorum employs and [Joe] Klein defends. The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos — helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves. And it is equally impossible to say the same about the end of abortion, if only because fetuses are generally incapable of egressing from the womb and setting up maroon societies, publishing newspapers or returning to the womb to "liberate" other presumably endangered fetuses.
That bogus abortion/slavery analogy is one that I used to find compelling and reassuring. It was a frequently invoked analogy in the evangelical community. We found it inspiring, but not because we knew much of anything about the actual abolitionists, slave or free. And not because we knew anything much at all, for that matter, about abortion. The inspiration didn't come from any perceived historical accuracy or from the logic of an argument from analogy.
What was inspiring was being told that we were on the right side of the great moral struggle of our time. That claim didn't have to be accurate or true or logical. It wasn't meant to appeal to accuracy or truth or logic. It's an emotional appeal. It's the thrill that comes from being told that you are part of a great epic struggle — that even without ever really doing much of anything you will be looked back upon by future generations as a hero.
Just assent to the proposition, cast your reliably partisan votes, attend the occasional photo-op vigil and learn to frown disapprovingly at the designated people. Do these things and you can regard yourself as being Harriet Tubman's equal in virtue, courage and commitment.
The function of the abortion/slavery analogy, in other words, is fantasy role-playing. It's a game of make-believe, of dress-up and pretend.
Let's pretend that we're heroic. Let's pretend that we are good and brave and principled just like the abolitionists were. Let's pretend that we are even more good and brave and principled, because we'll pretend that if we had been around in the 19th Century that we would have been even more active, determined and effective in the struggle than Douglass or Tubman or Garrison.
Let's pretend that our unremarkable lives of quiet desperation are actually epic quests in the service of something meaningful. Let's pretend our lives are driven by some purpose. Let's pretend we are engaged in the great moral struggle of our time — that we are opposing some massive and twisted evil. Let's pretend that this struggle requires courage and commitment and let's pretend that we possess those things. Let's pretend that we are all that stands between this country and brutal chaos — that we and we alone are the ones keeping it all together.
Let's pretend we are not who we actually are. Let's pretend that our lives are not what they actually are. Let's pretend.