I’m not Harriet Tubman either

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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55 Responses

  1. Pat Cahalan says:

    I agree that trying to understand is a worthwhile goal, E.D.

    I imagine that the counter-thought is something along these lines: trying to understand is only useful if it’s going to lead to some insight that will allow progression on what appears to be an intractable problem, and this appears to not be a possible outcome, so why bother?Report

  2. Dan Miller says:

    It seems to me that anyone who uses this analogy would implicitly agree that George Tiller’s murderer is morally equivalent to John Brown. I’m not sure that’s a path we’d want to walk down.Report

    • Steve in reply to Dan Miller says:

      @Dan Miller,

      The concept of late term abortion as it applies specifically to George Tiller complicates that, and I’m not sure for better or worse:

      On one hand, a lot more people would agree that a late term fetus is a person, so in that sense maybe killing a doctor who is one of few to perform late term abortions seems more justified. (To be clear, it doesn’t to me.)

      On the other hand, the legal standard/requirements to have performed a late term abortion in Kansas are so high that, essentially, to be against them in the cases in which they are allowed is to believe that both mother and child should die in a situation in which both can’t live. It’s hard to find even pro-life people who are willing to say, ‘Yes, I think women deserve to die when we could save them for the sin of getting pregnant.’

      But maybe the real point here is that the original analogy is not a good one — it can’t help but try to simplify (in a way that is distorting of the truth and not helpful to reasoned discourse) two complicated issues enough to make them line up enough.Report

  3. Rufus says:

    I think more recently the pro-life argument has been that there is an anti-black genocide going on in the country due to the higher rate of abortion in the African American community. I’m not sure how well that message has gone over in that community though.Report

    • John Henry in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus,I’m not sure how recent it is, given that Jesse Jackson was making that argument in the 1970’s…Report

      • John Henry in reply to John Henry says:

        @John Henry, Also, apropos of the validity of the analogy, here’s Jesse Jackson in 1977 making the abortion/slavery analogy:

        There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of higher order than the right to life. I do not share that view. I believe that life is not private, but rather it is public and universal. If one accepts the position that life is private, and therefore you have the right to do with it as you please, one must also accept the conclusion of that logic. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to concerned.


      • Rufus in reply to John Henry says:

        @John Henry, Maybe old Jesse’s finally getting his due- I’ve gotten a bunch of “black genocide” emails from pro-lifers recently. Hopefully, though, they won’t start calling New York “hymietown”.Report

  4. Jonathan says:

    Mr. Coates writes:

    But if you’re mission is to clarify your own thinking, and understand the experiences of other people, then you tend to shy away from defending analogies which, by your own lights, are “full of holes and designed to inflame more than enlight.”

    In this debate, is he really the person to suggest how to “understand the experiences of other people”?

    I don’t get the sense that he’s reading you in good faith.Report

    • silentbeep in reply to Jonathan says:

      and why don’t you get that sense that he’s reading is in good faith? what do you mean?Report

      • Jonathan in reply to silentbeep says:

        @silentbeep, he’s arguing against the analogy rather than Erik’s point. As well, in the comment thread, he comes around and accepts Erik’s point, then says he doesn’t care.

        It’s fine that he doesn’t care, but he could have started at that point rather than running through a whole other set of arguments first.Report

        • silentbeep in reply to Jonathan says:


          Probably because (and this confused me too) you can make a perfectly good case for understanding the motives of pro-lifers and empathizing with them too, without having to trot out a bad analogy with slavery. He trotted all the reasons why it’s a bad analogy.

          Slavery comparisons to abortion are such bad analogies as to almost a red herring. Make the case instead of invoking something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.Report

        • silentbeep in reply to Jonathan says:


          Well, yeah he was always arguing against the analogy, he was never against Erik’s main point, which seems to be one of understanding and empathy. His argument was always against a weak analogy that makes for a weak stance by pro-lifers. He never cared about the “main point” because that was never the issue. In fact, this whole analogy detracts from the main point.

          From TNC:

          “This is not a matter of being pro-choice or pro-life.” Right, it’s a matter of getting history right and not using slavery as a rhetorical device, or even defending the usage of slavery as a rhetorical device.Report

    • EMY in reply to Jonathan says:

      @Jonathan, also: I don’t think he is suggesting that he is the person, to instruct others on how to understand someone else’s experiences.Report

      • Jonathan in reply to EMY says:

        @EMY, he is giving some advice in that matter.Report

        • EMY in reply to Jonathan says:


          Where? I seriously don’t remember reading that.Report

          • Jonathan in reply to EMY says:

            @EMY, the quote was, “But if you’re mission is to clarify your own thinking, and understand the experiences of other people…”

            It just seems to me that he wasn’t trying to understand Erik’s point. He was arguing against something else (as silentbeep and I go through in the tread directly above this one).Report

            • silentbeep in reply to Jonathan says:


              Well you are right, he was arguing against something else. This was never about the main point. Rather, it was always against a weak analogy that doesn’t buttress the main point. You can throw out the slavery/abortion thing, and still make the same point that E.D. is trying to make, which seems to be one of understanding and empathy.Report

  5. legal historian says:

    It is not true that enslaved people were not defined as people in the antebellum United States. White citizens could (and were) charged in criminal courts for killing enslaved people.

    Technically, I do not think embryos or fetuses are defined as property. The human body is not defined legally in identical ways to material property. (ie – you can’t sell organs for profit, ect.)

    The problem with this analogy is that it is facile. For example, the Holocaust is not early modern slavery. To make these sort of easy analogies robs people of their history. It is disrespectful.Report

    • @legal historian, I don’t have the documents in front of me, but I do think that a few courts have ruled that embryos are property. The one case I’m thinking of specifically involved a divorcing couple which had embryos left over after IVF: the wife wanted them to be implanted, the husband did not; the judge ruled in the husband’s favor.

      That case may not have involved a specific property right, but I think it has been invoked in similar cases.Report

  6. Splendid One says:

    “Others were given the right to decide their fate.”

    Nope. Only one person – the woman carrying the fetus – has that right. No “others” about it. And she always has had it, except when theocrats took it away. Now it’s restored, not “given.”Report

  7. BobPM says:

    The analogy fails because there is no human suffering and misery in most if not all abortions. Biology has shown that the fetus has no brain synapses and therefore no brain function until well past when 99% of abortions occur. Therefore, the anti-abortion argument rests on the theological belief in a soul since the fetus is not a functioning individual.

    In comparison, slavery is the total subjugation of the person and inflicts misery and human suffering on the body and mind. Abortion is wrong almost entirely based on the conception of the soul or the perceived denial of the right of an individual to exist in the future, while slavery must be understood as an immoral act against an actual unqualified individual.Report

    • Nevertaken in reply to BobPM says:


      Your logic would sanction murder if appropriate anasthetics were used.

      And my pro-life belief has nothing got to do with souls. It rests on the conviction that all humans are equal, regardless of their physical attributes, one of those physical attributes being brain function.
      If I go into a coma with no brain function, but the doctors all say they expect me to wake up in 9 months, you are not to harvest my organs.Report

      • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Nevertaken says:

        The difference is that you have already formed a mind.

        The fetus has not.

        Consider two garages:
        neither has a porshe in it.

        In case A: There is no car because someone stole it overnight. Something was taken from someone.
        In case B: There is no car because cars haven’t been invented yet. Nothing was taken from anyone.

        Also if I goto the hospital and I cannot breathe on my own I can with an advanced directive instruct the hospital not to intubate me. So even if I have brain function I can choose to not be kept alive with a machine.

        And you still keep sneaking in YOUR definition of human while trying to sneak in. You also keep trying to assume in your definition of living person.

        It doesn’t work that way. Potential != actual.Report

        • Nevertaken in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:


          A fetus is not a potential thing. He or she is an organism of the species homo sapiens.

          And yes, you can give all sorts of directives about what care you should receive. You can do all sorts of things to yourself that you can’t do to other people. I’m not sure what that has to do with imposing anything on an unborn human who has not consented to anything.Report

          • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Nevertaken says:


            You apparently don’t understand why humans and chickens have different rights. Have fun with your deceptive attempts at word games.Report

            • Nevertaken in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

              Humans and chickens have different rights because rights are things we humans give to other humans, not to members of other species.

              Your logic here would accord an adult monkey with a higher right to life than a newborn baby.

              I don’t think that either one of us are playing word games or trying to be deceptive. I do think that I understand your arguments, but that you do not understand mine. I’ll take some responsibility for not being clear enough, but I think you need to refrain from determining that anything you find confusing or repugnant is a deception or a game.Report

            • ThatPirateGuy in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

              I understand your arguments perfectly. It is just that they are profoundly dishonest in their attempt to assume your conclusion into being.Report

            • Nevertaken in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

              Well that’s a bit cryptic, but at least it gives me something to respond to…

              When you accuse me of assuming my conclusion, I think that you are saying that I have assumed that an unborn human is an entity which deserves human rights. The conclusion that abortion is wrong is tautological after that.

              If that is what you are saying, looking back at what I have posted, that is a fair criticism (although your accusation that this is ‘deceptive’ is not fair, or even based on anything).

              I am not ‘assuming’ anything about the nature of fetuses or embryos. They are organisms and they are human. That identity is sufficient to give them the right to life.

              You may dispute the facts that I am putting forth (that they are human and they are organisms) or the conclusion I draw (that therefore they should have the right to life). I am happy to argue these points with you. I am not hiding any complex sophistic premise in any deceptive trick. The use of the descriptor ‘profound’ does not change any of this.

              Maybe I am wrong and you preceive some other deception. If so please explain this deception. If you do that I will consider this explanation and apologize if anything I have posted may have mislead a reasonably intelligent and literate reader. If you can’t explain this alleged deception, I will thank you to stop libeling my posts with that accusation.Report

          • Bill in reply to Nevertaken says:


            you can give all sorts of directives about what care you should receive. You can do all sorts of things to yourself that you can’t do to other people.,

            This would appear to be the missing point of the argument. Are there cases where things like a DNR can be done to other people, that normally you can only do for yourself? Yes. It’s called parental rights. As a parent, I can sign a DNR, authorize risky surgery, or make other life-or-death decisions for my son, that I would normally only do for myself. The abortion issue gives the right to make these decisions to the government.Report

      • BobPM in reply to Nevertaken says:

        I am catholic and theologically pro-life because of the existence of the soul. Nevertheless, the analogy of abortion to slavery is without merit as I stated, there is no infliction of suffering on a reasoning thinking individual. Before an embryo thinks autonomously, how can you biologically distinguish it from say a kidney or any other individual part of the body?

        As to your other comments, the deprivation of the life of a living person is the destruction of an existing person with human experience and regardless of the suffering it is morally wrong. As to the coma, there is no medical condition where a person has no detectable brain function and yet wakes up. Indeed this is somewhat analogous to the issue of the legal existence of a fetus. Since we define death by lack of brain function, should we not also define life for legal status based on the initiation of brain function?Report

        • Nevertaken in reply to BobPM says:

          Well I’m Catholic too and I’m against killing adults because I think they have souls. But I’m also against killing adults because I think they have rights.
          I have many moral beliefs as a Catholic, which I don’t think should be imposed on everyone by law; for example, adultery is horrible sin, but a law enacted today in our society banning adultery would be a horrible law.

          This is different from abortion though because it doesn’t deprive any humans of their lives because they don’t have the attributes other humans think they should have.

          We can talk about brain function if you like. A child 30 minutes before birth has pretty much the same brain function as a child 30 minutes after birth. Brain activity can be detected at 3 months

          So how much brain activity do you need to see in someone before you give value to his or her life? What possible authority do you have to make this determination? Brain activity is an attribute: a very important one to be sure, and if there is no hope for an individual of ever having brain activity again.

          Here’s a quote from wiki:

          “Note that brain electrical activity can stop completely, or drop to such a low level as to be undetectable with most equipment. An EEG will therefore be flat, though this is sometimes also observed during deep anaesthesia or cardiac arrest. Although in the United States a flat EEG test is not required to certify death, it is considered to have confirmatory value. In the UK it is not considered to be of value.

          The diagnosis of brain death needs to be rigorous, in order to be certain that the condition is irreversible.”

          Irreverisbility, i.e. the absence of any hope of recover is the essentail ingredient for any definition of brain death. I doubt that any one here would want that to be any other way. That is the fundamental difference between the fact that some humans have not yet matured enough to have brain function and some have lost their brain function forever.

          Yes, the brain function difference is a major failing of the slavery analogy, but I don’t think even the people who employ that analogy say otherwise.Report

  8. anarchaotic says:

    There is no way to enforce an abortion ban without encroaching on the rights and liberties of the mother. Presuming the personhood of the fetus in no way changes that. The abortion dilemma is based in the competing rights of the mother and fetus; that is not the case in slavery, and that is why the metaphor is fundamentally unsound.

    Given the government intervention required to enforce a ban, the mother could just as easily be cast in the role of slave.Report

  9. MoeLarryAndJesus says:

    If every fetus is considered a legal person, should pregnancies be registered with the state, as births are? Should each miscarriage be investigated as a potential homicide?

    I’ve asked these sorts of questions in discussions with pro-lifers many times and almost without exception they refuse to engage with them. But if you’re going to confer real legal personhood on the fetus then these become serious questions.

    Or am I somehow wrong about that?Report

    • Nevertaken in reply to MoeLarryAndJesus says:

      “should pregnancies be registered with the state, as births are?”

      No. Registration with the government is required for various policy logistical reasons. There is no practical reason to do this until the human is born (and I would argue, not for some time after that). This has nothing got to do with the moral value of the child’s life.

      “Should each miscarriage be investigated as a potential homicide?”

      No. Only if there was sufficient reason to believe that it was a homicide should an investigation occur. This is no different from adult deaths, very few of which are investigated by homicide detectives.Report

      • anarchaotic in reply to Nevertaken says:

        The policy and logistical reason would be to have a record of a human’s existence so they don’t slip through the cracks. Without registration, a woman could take a home pregnancy test, find she’s with child and if it’s early enough, kill it with some form of abortifacient and suffer no consequences.

        If abortion is banned and the “miscarriage” rate suddenly jumps, miscarriages could legitimately be investigated as possible homicides, just as suicides can initially be investigated as homicides.Report

        • MoeLarryAndJesus in reply to anarchaotic says:


          Exactly. Nevertaken’s reply is typical of the responses I’ve gotten from pro-lifers about these questions in the past in that it fails to really grapple with the issues involved.

          If legal personhood is bestowed on the fetus I’d go even further and suggest that health care providers would be required to notify the state of positive pregnancy tests AND miscarriages. Home pregnancy tests would probably have to be prescription items.

          Add your own!Report

        • Nevertaken in reply to anarchaotic says:


          First, I think any policy would have to focus on preserving life and not punishing women.

          Second, yes if there was an epidemic of ‘miscarriages’ something would have to be done. But I don’t know what that something would be – it would depend on all sorts of things that the hypothetical does not cover.

          Just to be clear: I’m not claiming to have a policy solution to abortion. I’m saying that unborn humans are humans and have rights. I do not know what the best policy to preserve those rights would be. I’d be open to arguments to the effect that something other than a ban could better protect the unborn. But if I’m having those arguments with someone who openly believes that the unborn are akin to fingernails or tumors and have no moral value, then I’m not likely to trust those arguments.Report

          • MoeLarryAndJesus in reply to Nevertaken says:


            If you grant rights under law and do nothing to preserve and protect them you’re effectively doing nothing at all. You’re basically just asking for a ceremonial acknowledgement of your own beliefs so you can pat yourself on the back.

            What’s the point, really?Report

            • Nevertaken in reply to MoeLarryAndJesus says:


              I did not say ‘do nothing’.
              You are commiting the falisy of the excluded middle here: you put forth extemes as your opponent’s position (homicide investigations for all missed periods!!!), and then accuse your opponent (me) of being false (‘ceremonial’ is the word you used) when he explains that the extreme you caricatured is not his position.
              This type of arguing is great fun, but is ultimately a waste of everyone’s time. I you decide that you actually want to try to understand what I’m say, let me know.Report

          • anarchaotic in reply to Nevertaken says:

            I fully concede the absolute personhood of a fetus from the moment of conception while still supporting legalized abortion. As I said, it ultimately comes down to a conflict between the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus. Since only one of those parties can exist without the other, I’m forced-pragmatically and biologically-to side with the mother.

            While you might favor policy which preserves rather than punishes, the simple fact of the matter is that at some point you’re going to have to punish. Keep in mind that the US has the largest prison population in the world. We excel at punitive solutions.

            Rather than being “open” to arguments that involve protecting the unborn, why not actually offer some? And why not recognize that the pro-life movement actively and systematically undermines alternatives which reduce abortion. Alternatives like contraception, expanded healthcare, sex education and welfare.

            To effectively reduce the number of abortions, you need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

            Only one side of the debate works to that end.Report

            • Nevertaken in reply to anarchaotic says:

              I’m not defending the ‘pro-life movement’ here. I am part of it, but we are not a monolithic bloc.
              Yes, other people who have the same or similar views about the value of pre-birth humans as I do, sometimes advocate for policies I think are counterproducive.
              As far as offering some: I would start with making adoption much more easy and accessible. I would also suggest revering and exhaulting the service which mothers do for our society much more than our society does now.

              I suspect that you won’t be satisfied with this stuff. If that is the case, it may be due to a generally different way of seeing things: I’m conservative and when I see a problem in society my reflex is not to think: what government policies should we enact and impose on everyone to solve this? It is rather to think: why has our culture failed in this area, and what values can we promote to solve this?

              I think that a large amount of misunderstanding between the pro-life and pro-choice movements stems from the fact that the former are more conservative and the latter are more liberal. The pro-choicers hear the arguments I have made on this thread and because they tend to be liberal, they assume that I want a ‘liberal’ solution: the government should impose some massive burden.
              And I admit that this is correct in many cases because plenty of pro-lifers think that is what is needed. But many (maybe most, maybe almost most) of us are advocating for a cultural change, not some new system of gestapo pregnancy test distribution.Report

  10. anarchaotic says:

    “The pro-choicers hear the arguments I have made on this thread and because they tend to be liberal, they assume that I want a ‘liberal’ solution: the government should impose some massive burden.”

    This is absolutely false. The pro-life movement, by definition, is working to outlaw abortion; to overturn Roe v. Wade . That is not simply a cultural change, it is a legal change and pretending otherwise is disingenuous.

    Your actions will have consequences. If you are successful in outlawing abortion, the government will be required to take steps to enforce that. It does not matter what good intentions you may have had about protecting the unborn. The fact is that police will need to investigate abortions. Laws are not magic. They require government enforcement or else they are little more than prayers.Report

    • Nevertaken in reply to anarchaotic says:

      I disagree, the pro-life movement is working to protect the unborn. Yes, this means that abortion needs to be banned eventually, but it does not mean that, I were appointed King tomorrow, that I would decree it banned. The culture has to change first.

      Objections to the pro-life movement based on scare stories about pregnancy test registration are therefore disingenuous. Of course, there are parts of the pro-life movement who do advocate for an immediate ban, and I agree that they need to be challenged with the practicalities of such a thing. They may have good responses, but because I can’t see how an immediate ban could be imposed without doing more harm than good for some time, I am not one of them, so I can’t give you those answers.Report

      • anarchaotic in reply to Nevertaken says:

        The day you finally ban abortion, that ban will have to be enforced or else it will be pointless. To say “not now, but someday” is rather bizarrely cavalier with the lives of today’s unborn.

        Who in the pro-life movement is working to change the culture rather than the law? The Catholic Church in it’s opposition birth control? Republicans who insist on abstinence-only sex education? Conservatives who believe healthcare isn’t a right and that everyone has to fend for themselves? And what specific cultural changes do you mean? You’re being terribly vague on that matter given that it’s the crux of your argument for ultimately banning abortion.

        The fact is, decisions like Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut are the focal points of the pro-life movement. The Supreme Court and “activist judges” are their bogeymen. Democrats and Feminists are their enemies. These are all political and legal actors. The pro-life movement is overwhelmingly political, not cultural. To say that only “parts” of the pro-life movement seek an immediate ban is either naive or a lie.Report

        • Nevertaken in reply to anarchaotic says:

          They are trying to explain the facts of the matter: that the unborn are humans. We are operating under the perhaps naive view that if people are convinced of this, that social mores will change. Recent polling trends suggest that we are not entirely unsuccessful.
          And you are right that the court cases are a focal point. They have removed the issue from the democratic process, so of course they are a focal point.Report

          • anarchaotic in reply to Nevertaken says:

            So you don’t favor an immediate ban on abortion, preferring to wait until the culture changes and you focus on the culture rather than the law, but “of course” you focus on the law and the culture is set to change.

            What vague dishonesty.

            Not once have you attempted to describe how an abortion ban would be enforced. The only “cultural change” you seem interested in the personhood of the unborn which I fully conceded earlier. Recognizing the personhood of the unborn does nothing to change the fundamental conflict between the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus. You are unwilling to address that.

            The courts are part of the democratic process. You seem only interested in majority rule, not in actual justice. You refuse to specify what anti-abortion legislation would involve, you avoid any mention of the executive action required to enforce that legislation, and you casually dismiss the judicial branch as being undemocratic.

            You are either a naive and unserious utopianist with no regard for how the world works, or you are actively running interference for the radical right.Report

      • MoeLarryAndJesus in reply to Nevertaken says:


        It’s hard to have a discussion with someone who insists that he WOULD do something but then refuses to even begin to talk about what that something would be.

        Vague nonsense about “changing the culture” is utterly worthless.

        And you may think my examples and speculations were “extreme” but if you’ve taken a look at some of the flaming nutjobs on the right who are actually holding elected office these days, I maintain that there is nothing “extreme” about anything I put forward here.

        Maybe you wouldn’t want to punish women who got abortions, but we both know that many of your fellow travelers have no such queasiness in that department.Report

        • Nevertaken in reply to MoeLarryAndJesus says:

          So argue those points with those “nut jobs” and “fellow travellers”. I do when I get the chance to and I don’t see any reason to defend them here.
          I suggest that your focus on them may be preventing you from engaging with more moderate voices who have different opinions from you on this issue.Report

          • MoeLarryAndJesus in reply to Nevertaken says:


            It’s hard to know if you’re a moderate voice or not because you’re really not saying much.

            You said what you would NOT do if you became King. I’m just wondering why you won’t say what you would do.Report

            • Nevertaken in reply to MoeLarryAndJesus says:

              I’m not interested in being King. What I am doing is what I think needs doing: trying to convince people that an unborn child is a human being deserving of the right to life.
              I trust that society will figure out a just way to protect that life if we accept that truth. I am not under any illusions that I can solve all of the complxities with some suppostion here.Report

  11. MoeLarryAndJesus says:

    Nevertaken, you’re the one who brought up the King business in the first place.

    Perhaps the position of Court Jester is more up your alley, though.Report