Notes From Babel

Missing the point of the analogy between abortion and slavery

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Several months ago, I read about Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates getting in a huff over certain bloggers’ comparing abortion and slavery.  At the time, I was too tied up with work to find out what was going on (and I still am), but it appears Coates is still irritated that people continue to find the analogy between slavery and abortion compelling.  Quoting himself in an older post, Coates insists that slaves were not “denied the right to exist”:

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.

Other differences between slaves and fetuses:  Slaves were taller.  Slaves weren’t soaked in embryonic fluid.  Slaves worked outdoors.  Obviously, pointing out these sorts of distinctions is childish.  The argument is not that abortion is the same thing as slavery.  It’s that there are important parallels at a certain level of abstraction.  That parallel, obviously, is that in each case, the most fundamental of rights—life and liberty—are deprived based on a crafty legal determination of personhood.  Coates’s argument draws our attention to the very different meaning of personhood as it applied to slaves, and that most Americans during the slavery years didn’t really believe blacks weren’t “persons,” only that they were unequal to whites.

Well, of course this was the case.  It’s easy, particularly for those who believe in natural law, to see that all people are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that attempts to violate this natural law employ pseudo-intellectual machinations.  That’s the point:  When it came to the legal basis for denying blacks equal rights, just as with fetuses today, the legal meaning of personhood takes center stage.

Yet, apparently without considering the import of the personhood argument when it came to the legal basis for denying blacks equal rights, Coates concludes the analogy of abortion to slavery is all flash and no fire.  For all the thoughtful historical points he raises, his unwillingness to cede this basic point does not serve him well.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 25, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Abortion

Tagged with ,

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