Abortion, slavery & personhood
So several of Andrew’s readers disagreed with my post on abortion and slavery. And at least one of my readers had some particularly colorful things to say to me in an email after it was posted. Let’s tackle Andrew’s readers first and then move on to Ta-Nehisi Coates (via Sullivan, who is keeping the discussion – for better or worse – alive and kicking.)
The first reader writes:
Kain makes the mistake of thinking that any moral belief deeply held, no matter how extreme, can’t be criticized for being too extreme. It’s a moral belief, after all!
But imagine a militant animal rights activist who claimed, "The meat industry is indisputably the worst Holocaust in history." If we buy into Kain’s argument, there’s nothing ridiculous here. If you believe in your heart of hearts that an animal is a sentient being worthy of equal moral weight to a human being, and yet the law of the land dictates that said being is not in possession of even the most basic right – the right to life – then really how different is the meat industry from the Holocaust?
The only difference that I can see is that it’s those damn hippies who would make one argument, while respectable and upstanding members of the community would make the other.
For those of you just getting here, my post basically said that if you believe abortion is murder since you believe a fetus is a person, then likening it to slavery is not such a terrible stretch and certainly not deserving of a Malkin Award.
I think we have to distinguish between human and animal life. I understand not everyone feels that way. But I think placing animal life on the same level as human life is morally reprehensible. There is no Sophie’s choice between our children and our pets. Yes, a PETA activist could claim slaughtering cattle is comparable to the Holocaust; nothing I can argue will change their mind. I simply believe that one must differentiate between human and non-human life. Then the question becomes whether a fetus is a human life, which I believe it is. If we stop distinguishing between human and non-human life, we cease to be human.
The second reader writes:
Two can play that game: If you believe in your heart of hearts that a woman is nevertheless a person – a live, autonomous human being – and yet the law of the land dictates that said live, autonomous being is not in possession of even the most basic right – the right to control what happens to her body – then how different is this from slavery? It’s all about control; does the government get to decide what I do with my body, or do I?
First of all, I’m personally pro-life but politically I favor some form of limited, regulated abortion. Not because I find it morally acceptable, but because I want to avoid a brutal abortion black market that is even more morally reprehensible and antithetical to questions of life.
Second of all, I think this is a bit of a fallacious argument. Women already have choice over what happens to their bodies. They can choose to not have sex or, more practically, they can choose to use birth control. The question is not one of choice at this point but of when and where you define the beginning of human life. If you define it at conception then you no longer are speaking merely of the woman’s body but of another body as well. What’s the line about your liberty ending when your fist connects with my nose? It’s like that, but the nose in question is a fetus.
In the US, murder of a slave was still murder. They had a right to life. The enforcement may have been lax (or nonexistent), but it was illegal. So I say the Malkin award stands. Abortion = Slavery is a ridiculous analogy. Abortion foes have legitimate morals to raise, why raise specious ones?
Good question! Actually I said in my post that the comparison probably bogs down an already heavily charged subject unnecessarily. I don’t like the comparison. My point was simply to show that we’re dealing with the question of life. It’s not so outrageous that some might liken it to slavery, even if it’s not very useful.
And finally, here’s Ta-Nehisi:
Slave-masters often allowed–indeed encouraged–slaves to engage in acts common among people. Slaves married. Slaves were baptized. Slaves were converted to attend Christianity–and even attended white churches, at times. Slaves and masters exchanged gifts on Christmas. Slaves were allowed to hire themselves out and buy their own freedom. Slaves were manumitted by masters. The point is that what you see in all of that is something more complicated than "Are Africans people?" The better question seems to be "Are black people equal to whites?"
But more than that, core reason an abortion/slavery comparison falls down lay in the actions of the enslaved, versus the inability of action amongst embryos.
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.
Well that’s true. Africans were part of the fight against slavery. Especially freed slaves. Indeed, the faculty to fight against slavery increased dramatically for those slaves who escaped or purchased their freedom and went North. Not to stretch this too greatly, but the capacity for those of us who were not aborted also greatly increased after we escaped that fate. What I mean is, we were all embryos once. That was back when we really had no choice in the matter. We were left up to the whims of others. Now that we’ve been spared a premature exit, we do have the ability to save others – much like freed slaves and African intellectuals and religious figures of the day worked to help the still-enslaved. Yes, I realize the comparison is bulky, awkward, creates more heat than light, etc. But it exists nonetheless. Furthermore, simply because embryos do not have the ability to express their opinion in the matter, that does not change what their inevitable opinion would be. Is there any doubt that if you could go and ask an embryo still in the womb if it would rather live or die, what its answer would be? Is there any doubt that if it chose to live and survived that it would become anything other than a human being?
Everything on this planet fights bitterly for survival. I can’t imagine an embryo is any different.