Laurie Toby Edison

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(Some of the Reasons) Why Slavery Has No Place in the Abortion Debate

Laurie and Debbie say:

As the battle for women’s reproductive rights heats up to even more insane levels, certain right-wing anti-abortion fanatics are comparing the rights of fetuses to the rights of slaves. (Never mind that some of these same people also want to repeal the 14th Amendment, which freed the slaves. We’re not going there.)

We found this through a superb post from scatx at Speaker’s Corner, which we’ll quote from as we go along. But read the whole post and the comments.

Rick Santorum, former United States senator and a probable Presidential candidate in 2012 (!) has said:

For decades certain human beings were wrongly treated as property and denied liberty in America because they were not considered persons under the constitution. Today other human beings, the unborn of all races, are also wrongly treated as property and denied the right to life for the same reason; because they are not considered persons under the constitution.

Simplistic fanatical claims like this one can sound almost convincing until you take a minute to notice that they are looking at an extremely narrow slice of what is always an extremely complex story. The simplification usually involves taking into account a tiny fraction of the viewpoints involved, and acting as if many of the central people and forces in the story simply don’t exist.

Santorum didn’t invent this analogy and he’s not the first prominent politician to use it, by any means. Ta-Nehisi Coates has one response which we think is particularly important.

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.

So one thing Santorum and his ilk are doing is erasing the agency, desires, and struggles of slaves.

Another thing they are doing is erasing the question of lives inevitably linked to other lives: notice the absence of mothers from this argument. Coates speaks to that also in an older post on the subject:

If you’re going to compare abortion and slavery, then, by God, understand that whereas mothers choose every day whether to bring children to term, no slave-master ever chose to have his slave escape. (To say nothing of comparing mothers with slave-masters!! Fuck, my brain is hurting.)

Scatx takes yet another tack, by pointing out and examining the role of slave women in this analogy and in the real world:

This reading of history removes the enslaved female all together (which is, incidentally, how much of the history of the enslaved is written – “the enslaved” is assumed to be male unless otherwise noted. …)

When people talk about slavery and abortion as if they existed in two separate realities, they are ignoring so much and giving enslaved women very little credit and no agency. At the same time … having a child as an enslaved woman was not the wonderful thing we like to imagine motherhood and childhood to be. I think that is really important when we think of the institution of slavery, abortion nowadays, and the history of enslaved women.

Here’s more from scatx:

… looking back through the lens of history and the eyes of enslaved women, the intersection of slavery and abortion doesn’t teach us that abortion is wrong and evil and inhumane. Instead, it teaches us that the lives of women are complicated, often dependent on resources and support beyond themselves, dictated by people whose interest in their bodies are divergent from their own and callously so. Also, it shows us that the moral arguments around abortion often exist in direct relationship to larger ideas about economics and who has the right to a woman’s body.

If you do take the time to understand the intertwined history of abortion and slavery, it becomes painfully difficult to assert that abortion is wrong. Because then you must defend the slaveholder who wanted the enslaved woman to birth that child so that he could enslave them both (even as he probably used religion and morality, rather than economics and labor, as his excuse and defense for why one shouldn’t turn to abortion). Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she didn’t want that child to be a slave? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she physically could not bear the burden of labor and pregnancy? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus as a punishment to the man who raped her, barely fed her, barely clothed her, denied her religion, denied her liberty, and whipped her when she worked too slowly, made a mistake, or attempted to flee? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus to protect her life and to save the evils of her life from those of her child? To include the history of enslaved women in the history of slavery and then compare that history to abortion is not easy.

To equate abortion to slavery involves at least three viciously dehumanizing oversimplifications: you have to forget or ignore the fact that slaves had agency and were capable of independent thought and action; you have to forget or ignore that there are living human mothers involved in the futures of fetuses, and you have to forget or ignore that there were enslaved women who were also living human mothers. These are only three of the dimensions you have to ignore to take this analogy seriously.

Thanks to Stefanie for the pointer!

2 Responses to “(Some of the Reasons) Why Slavery Has No Place in the Abortion Debate”

  1. Adrian Says:

    My first reaction to the this post was that the slavery metaphor seems exactly appropriate for the abortion debate–we are, after all, talking about forced labor. (Because the history of slavery in the Americas has been so much about racial supremacy, it may not be an appropriate political argument to invoke slavery when speaking only about forced labor.) Sure, pregnancy and motherhood may be a wonderful thing in many cases, but the abortion question only comes up where the woman involved has reason to believe it would be bad for her to continue the pregnancy.

  2. Cameron Says:

    I have to admit, I read the title of the post and went “WHAT?” I am evidently sheltered somehow…I haven’t heard that argument before. How, I don’t know since I have been caught in the rip tide of the debate all my life, as I have family members who run a virulently anti-abortion adoption clinic with other family members who are pro choice. I swear I think its all about power. Those who are anti choice are very much in its darker levels operating on a power trip…I control this woman, I “save this infant”, I am in charge. Or, they are submitting to the model of power that says we must surrender control etc. So, on a certain level, I suspect the slave/abortion rights issue “feels” right to them…power over who gives birth, power as a savior due to superiority, denigration of those subjugated. It all hangs together. Wow. I think my head hurts.

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