No, I am not Frederick Douglass
Okay. Perhaps I stirred the pot a bit too vigorously. In any case, let me clarify a few things. Ta-Nehisi Coates – whose work I admire greatly, too!* – has quite a lot more to say about the abortion/slavery analogy. I described it as ‘bulky, awkward, creates more heat than light, etc.’ whilst still defending it as undeserving of a Malkin award.
It is not bulky or awkward, it is just wrong. I thought about writing a long response to this detailing the problems with E.D.’s logic. But to point out the obvious fact that Africans were not "part" of the fight against slavery, but its authors, to again detail how enslaved Africans resisted slavery from the moment they were taken into baracoons, to again show how slaves, themselves, by their own actions, transformed the Civil War into a war of liberation, to argue against the implicitly racist notion that enslaved Africans are somehow the equals, not even of children, but of embryos, to even begin to "escaping" the womb does not make you Frederick Douglass is just too much. It is, to be blunt, beneath me.
This is not a matter of being pro-choice or pro-life. This is a matter of living in a country that is more fascinated with the machinations of Stonewall Jackson, than Sojourner Truth. One reason that black people grimace at invocations of their history to justify the struggle de jure, is because, very often, the invokers really don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. Put bluntly they have no deep knowledge of the black struggle, and are not seeking any. For them, black history is a rhetorical device, employed to pummel their ideological foes, and then promptly discarded for more appropriate instruments.
I would never argue that history is the property of specific groups. I would not even argue that history is the property of my allies. But I would argue that those who invoke it should regard history–all history–as something more than a rhetorical device. If you’re going to claim that Susan B. Anthony was pro-life feminist, have your fucking facts straight. 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.)
It is not a very good analogy. And I think E.D., whose work I greatly respect, knows it.
So let me just first say that yes – I agree it is not a very good analogy. It is a bad analogy, full of holes designed to inflame more than enlighten. To my knowledge, I have never used the analogy myself.
But. I can still see how someone who vehemently believes that an unborn baby is still a person could stumble into it. I can see this and I can believe in the sincerity of this belief (if not the sincerity of those who then use it to win political battles). This is the entirety of my argument.
I am not arguing that it is a good analogy, that it is one that people should employ, that it does the larger abortion debate any good, that it is at all fair to the legacy of slavery in this country, or that it doesn’t – in the wrong hands at least – cynically appropriate that legacy for political gain. As Ta-Nehisi notes, if anything once it reaches the political stage it twists black history into a ‘rhetorical device, employed to pummel their ideological foes, and then promptly discarded for more appropriate instruments.”
I agree with all of this.
Inevitably the debate – at least in the various comment threads – has spun into one questioning whether an embryo or a fetus is in fact a living being, a person, etc. On these matters, I don’t think we’ll ever reach consensus. I dislike the one side calling the other misogynistic and anti-woman because they consider a fetus a living human being; I don’t particularly like many of the methods the pro-life side uses either. I certainly don’t consider a woman who chooses to have an abortion a murderer any more than I consider a fetus the rough equivalent of a fingernail.
In the end, what I draw from all of this is that when we enter into these debates we should be careful of the language we use. More often than not, all we do is paint the other side in whatever way best caricaturizes them, whatever casts them in the most foolish or most villainous light possible and casts us in the light of truth and goodness and tolerance. And analogizing abortion to slavery is part of this rhetorical warfare. Best to find ways to ratchet down the culture wars rather than find new ways to ratchet up the arms race.
* Thanks to Ta-Nehisi for tossing that last line in. Made for a much softer landing….
I want to draw attention also to this comment from Nevertaken, which I think has some useful push-back in it against Ta-Nehisi and the Malkin award:
I think Ta-Nehisi protests too much. An analogy, any analogy, is not meant to be a perfect equivalence. There are parts of slavery which are analogous to abortion: should we accord certain rights to every human organism, or are there other considerations which justify withholding certain rights from certain classes of human organisms.
That is a question which is common to both slavery and abortion. It does not mean that the particular classes of human organism being dicussed are equivalent to each other. The only crude similarity is that slaves in pre-civil war America and unborn human organsims today are each less powerful than what their respective society’s regarded and regard as full citizens.
The fact that pre-birth human organisms are much less powerful, to the point that they are not capable of standing up for themselves in the way that slaves were is certainly true. But I don’t see how that makes the analogy any less apt.
As far as taking offence at the implied comparisons (mother = slaveholder!!), I think we need to separate the discussion of the acts from the culpability of those who are doing them. I’m in no position to judge the mens rea of any slaveholder, but I can’t imagine that they could have seen what they were doing similarily to what women who have abortions see what they are doing in our society. These women are told by almost all of society that it is their ‘choice’ and that there is no other person involved. Rationally determining what is going on requires the assistance of biological science, which tells us that a conceived embryo is an organism of the species homo sapiens, rather than the common sense that the must have informed the slaveowner that the guy he was having whipped was a person.
So while I agree that the analogy adds "more heat than light", I think that giving it a Malkin Award and Ta-Nehisi’s ranting that his ‘head hurts’, is also on the bad side of the heat to light ratio.
All very good points – especially the question of culpability and motive. I’ve been thinking of that as well, but didn’t know quite how to put it into words….