Should society condone a “private choice” that permits one person to oppress or even kill another person for their own benefit, if that choice is justified by the “private, deeply held personal convictions” of the person making the decision to kill or oppress?
Should the person or group who benefits from that oppression or death be the final arbitrator of the morality that justifies the decision to do so?
Strangely enough, the pros and cons of those questions have already been passionately argued, over 140 years ago. The emotional issue of that day was the institution of slavery. Today, over 130 years after the issue of slavery was finally settled, civilized people find it almost incomprehensible that anyone could have found any justification to defend such an inherently evil institution. Yet, slavery was defended vigorously by mainstream politicians who believed that free men should have the right to choose to own slaves if their community allowed it. An examination of the arguments that were made then to support that position reveals an eerie similarity to the arguments that are made today in defense of abortion rights.
One of the best-known contemporary discussions of the slavery issue can be found in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held seven debates in different cities during their campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. Thousands of spectators crowded into small towns, sometimes doubling the population of the town, to hear these two men debate the two dominate issues of the day: slavery and race relations. Douglas enthusiastically defended the institution of slavery and subsequently defeated Lincoln in the election later that year.
In the sixth joint debate held in Quincy, Ill., Oct. 13, 1858, Steven Douglas argued:
I don’t discuss the morals of the people of Missouri, but let them settle that for themselves. I hold that the people of the slaveholding states are civilized men as well as we. They have consciences as well as we. They are accountable to God and to posterity and not to us, and it is for them to decide the moral and religious right of their slavery question for themselves and within their own limit. … Let each state mind its own business and let its neighbors alone – then there will be no trouble on this question. If we stand by that great principle, then Mr. Lincoln will find that this republic can exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it … and it don’t become Mr. Lincoln or anybody else to tell the people of Kentucky that they have no conscience – to tell them that they are living in a state of iniquity – to tell them that they are cherishing the institution to their bosom in violation of the law of God. Better for him to adopt the doctrine of “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Matt. 7:1)
Careful examination of the arguments and rationalizations used by both slavery and abortion-rights defenders reveal some striking parallels in their beliefs. Douglas was very “pro- choice” in regard to the institution of slavery. He believed each state should have the right to determine, based on a vote of its citizens, if its individuals could choose to own slaves. Douglas and abortion-rights supporters would heartily agree, in regard to their own positions, that others who believe differently should “mind their own business,” because it is for them and not for anyone else to decide the moral and religious right of the slavery or abortion question for themselves, within their own limit, in the way that is right for them. Both would believe the morality of their decisions should be validated solely by the deeply held personal convictions of the persons making and benefiting from those decisions regardless of the effect those decisions might have on other “persons.” And like some modern politicians who are uncertain of the definitions of common words, both would dispute what the word “person” means and to whom that title should apply. Dictionaries define the word person as an ordinary word for referring to a human being.
How could supporters of slavery, who claimed to believe in individual freedom, who said they embraced the concept that “all men are created equal,” justify enslaving other human beings? At the first debate in Ottawa, Ill., on Aug. 21, 1858, Douglas explained (the reaction of the crowd is in brackets):
But Mr. Lincoln, following the lead of abolition orators that came here and lectured in the basements of your churches and schoolhouses, reads the Declaration of Independence that all men are free and equal, and then says: “How can you deprive the Negro of that equality which God and the Declaration of Independence awards to him?” If they think so, they ought thus to say and thus to vote. I do not question Mr. Lincoln’s conscientious belief that the Negro was made his equal, and hence his brother. [Laughter] But, for my own part, I do not regard the Negro as my equal, and I positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever. ["Never," "Hit him again," and cheers.]
Douglas’s belief that blacks were “not his equal” justified, in his mind, the denial of their civil rights even to the point of their enslavement. Similarly, today many do not regard the “fetus” as “being their equal,” and therefore, in their mind, it does not deserve the protections guaranteed to American citizens by the Constitution. History has demonstrated that in order to defend – first to ones self, then to the community as a whole – the oppression or even outright destruction of another human being, the humanity or value of the intended victim must first be denied. Supporters of abortion rights intentionally use the term “fetus” instead of “unborn baby” for the same reason racists refer to African-Americans as “niggers.” Both words are used respectively as verbal tools designed to place in question their victim’s full humanity or inherent value as a human being to enable them to minimize or even negate the injustice they wish to visit upon them. In both cases, regarding slavery and abortion, attempts by the opposition to modify the law to legally recognize the full humanity of those being oppressed were and are met with vehement hostility because the social and or economic consequences of such recognition would be unacceptable to those who desire to continue benefiting from the status quo.
Historically, one of the most difficult and contentious questions our country has struggled over is who should be legally recognized as a full citizen. Originally, the Constitution, for census purposes, defined slaves as being only three-fifths of a “person,” legally something less than a full human being. Today, a “fetus” is not considered to be a person, much less a citizen, unless its mother decides it is. Roe v. Wade has turned the legal clock back over 150 years. For through that decision, the Supreme Court has once again re-established the legal principle, based on location and age this time instead of location and race, that the full humanity, and therefore the citizenship, of some can, once again, be denied. As a result, a “fetus,” as was a slave, is legally considered to be nothing more than the “property” of its owner who can free it (let it be born) or destroy it at will, based solely on its “owners” perception of the value of that life to them. This despite that, as before, the “property” in question, after a short time, has its own distinct human DNA, brain activity and heartbeat.
In 1858, several states did recognize black residents as citizens of the state. As a result of the Dred Scott decision, the federal government did not recognize African-Americans as federal citizens. A black person was either a state citizen, deserving at least some civil-rights protections, or just “property” based on the accident of the location of his birth and the attitude of the citizens of that state toward him. Today, an unborn baby is a “person” or just “property” based on the accident of the location of its conception and the attitude of its mother toward it. Today, no one would be taken seriously who argued that an African-American should enjoy civil rights in one location, but then have them denied in another, yet our society continues to accept that absurd line of thinking in regard to its own offspring. Unborn children are either human beings, deserving their civil rights, or they are not. Individuals should not have the right to arbitrarily reduce their offspring to the status of “property” today any more than one man should have been allowed to reduce another man to the status of property in 1850.
Financial and social advantages of the institutions of slavery and abortion
Unfortunately, history has proven great social and or economic advantage can be secured by denying the full humanity of others. Plantation owners knew this and defended the institution of slavery primarily because they knew it was economically and socially beneficial for them and, they believed, for society in general to do so.
As Jefferson Davis said in a message on April 29, 1861, to the Confederate Congress:
… and the productions in the South of cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man.
The financial and social benefits of slavery were obvious. It supported a superior lifestyle for the slave owner that would not have been possible without society embracing the philosophy that it was acceptable for one man to own another and enjoy the fruit of that man’s stolen labor. Slave owners honestly and sincerely believed, based on their private, personal convictions, that their lives were inherently more valuable and important than those of their slaves. There was no regard given to whatever hopes, dreams or aspirations their slaves may have had for their own lives; rather, they were forced to sacrifice all they might have been or had so their owners would be supplied with the “wants of civilized man.”
The Old South had adopted a system of morality they believed was highly “principled.” “Honorable” men defended the South’s corporate right of self-determination. They believed the states, and the states alone, should have the right to control what happened within their own land (limit) and that no one else outside their community had the right to judge or interfere with how they conducted their internal affairs. They maintained that the treatment of their black residents, since they didn’t recognize their full humanity, was no one else’s business but their own.
Abortion supporters claim their cause is a “principled” defense of the individual right of self-determination. They passionately argue that the woman, and the woman alone, should have the right to control what happens within her own body (limit) and that no one else has the right to judge or interfere with her decision to destroy her own offspring. They maintain that if she doesn’t recognize the full humanity of her unborn offspring, what she does with it is no one else’s business but her own.
The Old South used the term “States Rights” to define its defense of the right of corporate self-determination, which, for them, centered on the right of a state to choose to allow slavery within its own borders. Today, it is curious that many people who sneer at the term “States Rights” don’t realize they are embracing one of its central tenets when they defend the right of individual self-determination as defined by the women’s rights movement in regard to abortion. There are many areas in which the philosophies represented by these terms are diametrically opposed; however, they do share a central tenet, which is the moral foundation of both causes: Supporters in both camps honestly and sincerely believe, based on their private, personal convictions, that their lives are inherently more valuable and important than the lives of those whose full humanity they fanatically dispute.
They would be in agreement that they should have the undisputed right to control the fate of those lives without interference, since doing so enables them to significantly enhance the quality of life they enjoy. Their philosophies become mirror images of each other when they argue that their right of self-determination, one individual and the other corporate, legitimizes the pursuit of their own self interest even when doing so has a catastrophic effect on the lives of others. The Old South demanded the unquestioned corporate right to decide within its “own limits,” “within its own land” who was a person, who was going to be accepted into its community as a full human being. The women’s rights movement has successfully extended that tradition into the modern era by its successful legal campaign to give a woman the individual right to decide if the life “within her body,” “within her own limit” is or is not going to be recognized as a full human being and be accepted as a full member of her family and the community at large. Like a slave, the life within her is at the mercy of its owner.
Which raises the question, which is a truly “principled” society? One that expects parents to sacrifice the quality of their lives for the benefit of their offspring, or one that expects the child to sacrifice its very life to provide a better life for its parents? How can it be considered “moral” or “principled” to destroy another human life to enhance the quality of your own? Should the “wants of civilized men and women” for an education, a good job, the desire to avoid social embarrassment or even to just protect their sex life, rightfully take precedence over the very life of an unborn child? In a nutshell, abortion and slavery are social diseases that share the same root cause: selfishness and greed. Both institutions’ propaganda have and did convince millions that “greed is good” and that doing what is in your own self-interest, over the life of another person, can be considered a “principled” course of action.
Lastly, let us not forget that a lot of money was made in the slave trade then, and is being made today by those providing abortion “services.” Fortunes are made in abortion clinics, the modern moral equivalent of a slave auction house, by those profiting from the destruction of the lives of the innocent and powerless, to ensure that the wants of “civilized” adults are satisfied. Significant amounts of this money, then and now, has found its way into the hands of politicians who soon understand that those promoting self-interest, in the form of corporate or individual self determination, provide far more in the way of campaign contributions than the powerless can.
‘Every child a wanted child’
One of the cruelest aspects of slavery was the all too common rape of female slaves by their owners. As we now know, many children were born as a result of those rapes. Unfortunately, for his slave children, the slave owner had the same “choice” then as women have today because the children he produced with his slaves were recognized by the society of that day as being his “property” to do with as he wished. He could use their stolen labor to benefit his wanted children, or if he exercised his legal option to sell one or all of his unwanted children and/or their mothers, the profits from those sales also could be used for the benefit of his wanted children. Morally outrageous? Just how much moral difference is there between selling an unwanted child or killing an unwanted child … for the material benefit of the “wanted” family? Today, one of the most touted “benefits” of abortion is the ability to make sure family resources are not diluted taking care of “unwanted” children, which then frees those resources to be focused on the needs of the “wanted” children. Many in our so called “compassionate” society believe it is moral to arbitrarily designate one child as “wanted” and another child as “unwanted” and then kill the “unwanted” child. Which is worse – to kill or to leave enslaved a child to materially benefit their brother or sister?
An explosion of truth
Contrary to popular myth, the first detonation of a weapon of mass destruction did not occur in the New Mexico desert in July of 1945 when the atom bomb was first tested. The first and most powerful weapon of mass destruction set off in America was an ideological bomb detonated in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. “All men are created equal …” Those words have come to define who we are and what we believe as a nation. The shock waves generated by the explosion on the political scene of that seemingly simple ideal have been knocking down the walls of tyranny and oppression and leaving freedom in their path ever since those words were first proclaimed. And unlike a conventional explosive, which loses its strength over time and distance, this explosion’s power has consistently increased over time and distance, first at home and increasingly in the whole world.
Those who detonated it had no idea of its true power. Some thought they could limit its destructiveness to the institutions that oppressed them. They did not understand that the light generated by that explosion would illuminated their own hypocrisy, and the resulting shock waves would continue until they eventually found and would begin to destroy the walls of tyranny and oppression the hypocrites themselves had erected around their fellow man. Indeed, throughout our history that light has exposed and its shock waves have continued to assault the barriers that have kept the blessing of liberty and freedom from being extended to all members of our community. However, as we know, the walls that have fallen have not fallen without resistance, and some continue to stand to this day. Many times in our history it seemed as though those who opposed freeing the slaves, the right of women to vote, or even the right to sit at the front of a bus would prevail.
In 1859, it looked as though Mr. Lincoln had been right – we could not survive half free and half slave. Slavery was winning. Sen. Douglas, through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had been successful in opening up all new territories to slavery by promoting the right of “popular sovereignty,” the right of each new territory to choose to enter the union as a slave state if it so desired. Abolitionists were seen then by most as being nothing more than radical troublemakers or religious fanatics. Yet eventually, this nation came to its senses and realized that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the moral and political cornerstone of our nation – the ideal that “All men are created equal.” Ironically, some of those who are the loudest in proclaiming and demanding their own rights today stridently work to prevent the extension of those same rights to their own offspring. In doing so, they are following the example of some of the Founding Fathers who fought to secure the “blessings of liberty” for themselves and then opposed their extension to all members of their society, especially their own slaves, even those they had fathered.
Supporters of abortion rights have been wise to use the title “pro-choice” to describe their position. This has been particularly effective because, in our culture, the word choice has a positive connotation regardless of whether it is used in a political, economic or moral setting. However, it is important to remember that some of the “choices” our society has sanctioned for its citizens in the past have been harshly judged by history. Those who exercised or defended those choices then are now considered to have been immoral, even evil.
Therefore, we must be careful, for in the future we will be judged by the same standard of measure by which we have judged our own forefathers. We look back 150 years and shake our heads in wonderment and disbelief as to how a society that considered itself “civilized” could have justified enslaving others to advance its own social and financial situation. One hundred and fifty years from now our posterity will look back at our “civilization” and shake their heads and wonder how we could attempt to morally justify the killing of our own offspring to protect and advance our social and financial situation. They will see us for what we are, a society that, to this day, embraces as its own the slave owner’s morality that one life is somehow more important than another, that it is morally acceptable to minimize the humanity of another life, then exploit or even destroy that life to improve our own lot. It is sheer hypocrisy for our society to look down its nose at the “social system” of the Old South since our society agrees, for many of the same reasons, with its central tenets. As a result, the rationalizations our society uses to defend abortion rights will be as laughable and absurd to those in the future as the previous generation’s defense of slavery is to us.
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Bill Smart is an electronics technician in Sparks, Nev.