Home > Uncategorized > Abortion is not like slavery or the Holocaust – posted 2/1/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/16/2020

Abortion is not like slavery or the Holocaust – posted 2/1/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/16/2020

Probably readers saw the recent story about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, comparing the abortion rights debate to the struggle to end slavery. As a partisan of the anti-choice side, DeVos compared the choice to have an abortion with the choice to own slaves.

Speaking at the Colorado Christian University on January 22, Secretary DeVos said:

“Lincoln contended with the pro-choice arguments of his day. They suggested that a state’s choice to be slave or to be free had no moral question in it. Well, President Lincoln reminded those pro-choicers that a vast portion of the American people do not look upon that matter as being this very little thing. They look upon it as a vast moral evil.”

DeVos is certainly not the first to make this argument. The anti-abortion movement has long seen itself as fighting for the rights of a voiceless, marginalized group. I recall Ben Carson, when he ran for President, comparing abortion to slavery. He had compared women who have abortions to slavemasters.

It is routine to see Roe v Wade compared to Dred Scott, the Supreme Court decision that upheld slavery.

Also, the anti-abortion movement has often compared abortion to the Holocaust. For example, just this last year, Alabama’s newly-passed abortion ban explicitly compared abortion to the Holocaust.

While political movements often use historical analogies, the comparison of abortion with slavery and the Holocaust is a non-starter. And it is not just the obvious difficulty of comparing the experience of an unborn child to that of a slave or a Holocaust victim.

Slavery was, in part, a slave-breeding industry. Slaveowners saw their laborers as breeding stock. Slaveowners expected their female slaves to produce marketable children. More slaves equaled more money for the slaveowners.

Slavery was all about reproductive coercion. As Imani Gandy has written:

“If you think about it, the claim that abortion is like slavery is exactly backwards. I’m not a fan of comparing anything to slavery that is not slavery, but I’m fairly certain that we can all agree that slaveowners systematically forced Black women to give birth.”

Those comparing slavery and abortion are not looking at what actually happened during slavery. The historians Ned and Constance Sublette show that breeding was an obsession for Southern men of property. Slavery was a license for libertine behavior and sexual violence against slaves was a norm. The Sublettes write:

“The girl who tried to refuse being bred might be beaten, and in the end, the girl who wasn’t a “good breeder” could expect to be sold South, which was commonly understood to be the worst thing that could happen. There she would work among strangers under an overseer’s lash in the cotton fields, or finish her life after a few years on one of Louisiana’s sugar plantations.”

Home remedies for contraception and abortion were a form of resistance for Black women who were subject to rape and sexual violence by slaveowners. Slaveowners wanted babies for profit. The more babies produced, the more money made. Selling slaves was a big part of the profitability of slavery.

The anti-abortion movement misses how preventing birth and avoiding bringing children into a horrible world was the real opposition to slavery. Black women knew their children would be forced to live as chattel.

More generally, the anti-abortion movement trivializes and devalues the harm of slavery. Slavery went on for centuries and its residual effects still shape our world. It was a permanent, lifelong condition, not temporary, like pregnancy. The harm alleged by the anti-abortion movement about women who have abortions is a nullity. It is speculation about potential life, not lived life. There is an incongruity in comparing the historical experience of slaves to an unknown.

I think that same thing is true for comparisons with the Holocaust. The death of six million Jewish people (and millions more if you count all the victims) who were living their lives is vastly different than concepts about lives the might have been but never were.

The Holocaust was about extermination of Jews because of a vicious hatred, anti-semitism. Even if opponents of abortion intensely dislike the choice made by women who decide to have abortions, abortion is about a personal, individual choice made by a woman in consultation with her doctor.

There are many different reasons why a woman might choose to have an abortion. It could be because of an inability to care for a child, danger to the health of the mother or health issues with the fetus. It could also be because the woman was a victim of rape or incest. In none of these circumstances is the choice about hatred.

Unlike abortion, which is about an individual choice compelled by circumstances, the Holocaust was a state-enforced series of genocidal policies designed to eradicate groups of people. The moving party was the German Nazi government enforcing and institutionalizing mass murder based on hate.

As a Jewish person, I find the appropriation of the Holocaust by the anti-abortion movement offensive. As with slavery, there is a difference between real life suffering and an intellectual construction. I would note that Jewish law allows abortion, believing that life starts at birth and that a mother’s life should never be sacrificed to save a fetus.

It is also hard for me to forget the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian by an anti-abortion fanatic. Dr. Slepian was an abortion provider in Buffalo, New York. He also happened to be Jewish. Dr. Slepian was shot in the back through a window in his kitchen after he returned from Friday night services.

There is something terribly wrong with invoking the Holocaust to strip women of their fundamental right to bodily autonomy.

DeVos was also wrong that a “vast portion of the American people” considered slavery wrong before the Civil War. Abolitionists did not gain much support until the 1840’s and 1850’s and even then they were still a minority. When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, Southern whites and most Northerners still supported slavery and white supremacy and saw Black people as inferior.

While I understand why the anti-abortion movement would want to align with great moral movements, abortion is nothing like slavery or the Holocaust. Those analogies fail.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rwise65@tds.net
    February 2, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Jon,

    Thank you for such a powerful column..

    I am still undecided on a candidate and more despondent than ever.

    Hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel.

    Best. Ronni

    Sent from my iPad


  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: