Recently, in a speech to students from Colorado Christian University, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, noted that opposition to abortion reminded her of the ending of slavery during President Lincoln’s administration. She said, “[Lincoln] too contended with the pro-choice arguments of his day. They suggested that a state’s choice to be slave or to be free had no moral question in it…Well, President Lincoln reminded those pro-choicers that there is a vast portion of the American people that do not look upon that matter as being this very little thing. They look upon it as a vast moral evil. Lincoln was right about the slavery ‘choice’ then, and he would be right about the life ‘choice’ today…”
Shortly after Secretary DeVos made these remarks, she was taken to task by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who clearly had a problem the view that abortion had anything in common with slavery. Accordingly, she tweeted, “Dear Betsy, as a Black woman & the Chair of the abortion access task force, I invite you to come by the Hill and say this to my face. Would welcome the opportunity to educate you…”
Well, as a Black man who wants to see the end of abortion in this nation—a practice that has ended the lives of over 61 million babies, including an estimated 20 million who were black — I am delighted that Secretary DeVos highlighted the similarities between slavery and abortion advocacy. Ironically, it seems to me that if there is anyone in need of education this Black History month, it is Representative Pressley. Here’s why…
First, supporters of abortion and slavery both subscribe to the notion that how one came into “being” determines whether one should be considered a human being, in a legal sense. In other words, the circumstances of one’s birth determine one’s worth. In the case of slavery, just the fact that one was Black meant that one could be considered “less than” and as such, could be denied all constitutional rights and protections. With abortion, the issue is not skin color but rather “wantedness.” If a baby is not wanted by the mother, the baby is of less worth. Moreover, especially if a baby is conceived as a result of rape, the baby is considered of less worth of life than one that is not.
Interestingly, we rejected this notion as a society long ago. For example, there was a time when a child conceived out of wedlock was called “illegitimate” and even a “bastard.” And there was nothing that this child could do to erase this curse. Alas, this child’s birth determined his or her worth. No doubt, pro-choice people would agree that this type of thinking is immoral. and yet they embrace this perspective in their support of abortion.
Second, with slavery and abortion, there is a pernicious power dynamic at play. The frequently quoted pro-choice mantra “My body, my choice!” is extended to the vulnerable with the additional mantra, “Your body, my choice!” For example, “Slave Codes,” which regulated how slaves could be treated and punished, usually allowed for the killing of slaves, with no legal consequences for the slave owner. Even after slavery was ended, this “code” continued in the form of unwritten “lynch laws.” With abortion, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton operate under essentially the same principle. The unborn child is treated, not as a separate and distinct human life, but rather as the “property” of the mother that can be killed with no legal consequences. In fact, supporters of abortion are so wedded to this perspective they even reject common-sense legislation like the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act”, which would amend the federal criminal code to institute penalties and jail time for health care practitioners who don’t provide certain medical care in the case of an abortion or attempted abortion that results in a child born alive.
Third, with slavery and abortion, there is dehumanization and commercialization of vulnerable people. In other words, the notion that slaves and the unborn have intrinsic worth is rejected, and they have instead been ascribed a commercial value or an economic cost. For example, in former slave Frederick Douglass’s book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he describes the dehumanization and commercialization of slaves when he tells what happened to him after his plot to escape was foiled. Douglass writes: “We had been in jail scarcely twenty minutes, when a swarm of slave traders, and agents for slave traders, flocked into jail to look at us, and to ascertain if we were for sale… And after taunting us in various ways, they one by one went into an examination of us, with intent to ascertain our value.”
A similar dynamic is evident today in the case of the unborn. For example, in a recent news report, Iceland heralded the fact that there are virtually no babies born with Down’s Syndrome in the country. Here’s what one woman who counsels those carrying babies that may have Down’s Syndrome said she tells women: “This is your life. You have the right to choose how your life will look like…We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication… And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white. Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.”
Indeed, despite the compassionate sounding language, these mothers are not counseled to consider the intrinsic worth of the baby they are carrying, but rather their economic value—what will they cost to raise and what they can contribute to society. Since they are viewed as a “net expense,” they are immediately candidates for abortion. In short, when one adopts this perspective, moral clarity is lost in the “grey,” and in vitro genetic testing starts to look much like the examination that Frederick Douglass and other slaves faced on the auction block.
Finally, supporters of both slavery and abortion believe there are certain vulnerable lives worth sacrificing. This perspective is illustrated clearly in a Salon article by pro-choice writer, Mary Elizabeth Williams titled, “So What if Abortion Ends a Life.” In the article, she chastises pro-choice advocates who continue to argue that the unborn child is “just a clump of cells,” etc. Of course, holding to this notion makes one increasingly look like a “flat earther.” Why? Because at 3 weeks gestation, a heartbeat can be detected, and ultrasound technology offers a window into the womb to show human life that was not available when Roe v. Wade was decided.
Human life is not constructed like a Chevy on an assembly line, which, at some point, before it’s finished, can be scrapped to make a toaster. Human life develops like a Polaroid picture that has its God-given intrinsic worth and essence at conception and the fullness of its beauty and wonder are revealed over time. Human life can only be human life.
That said, one would think that once Williams had this epiphany about human life, she would change her position about abortion. But, alas, she did not. In fact, she ends her article with these words: “And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”
Now, when you consider her words, it’s clear that abortion and slavery have much in common. For example, look what happens when you replace the words mother and fetus with slaveholder and slave: “And I would put the life of a slaveholder over the life of a slave every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the slave is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”
When one considers the similarities between slavery and abortion, it’s clear that abortion must be rejected by our nation for the same reason slavery was. Indeed, as tragic as slavery was for my people, it pales in comparison, in terms of the loss of the most vulnerable black lives, as a result of abortion. So, there must be an urgency to address the one aspect that abortion and slavery don’t share in common. After slavery was codified, protected, and justified at the highest levels in the United States for hundreds of years, it was finally abolished with the 13th Amendment and black folks gained citizenship and equal rights with the 14th Amendment. Indeed, I await the great day when a similar court or legislative decision is made to finally liberate the unborn.