Anti-choice comparisons between slavery and abortion are nothing new. It is a canard so common that whenever I see it, my eye starts to twitch, because it is nonsense, devoid of fact and logic, stripping women of agency and co-opting this country’s brutal racial history to score a political point against ideological foes.
Abortion is not slavery, nor is it comparable to slavery. An abortion is a medical procedure that results in the termination of a pregnancy. People who seek abortions do so for myriad reasons: because a wanted pregnancy presents a danger to the health of the pregnant person, or simply because a person has decided, as is her right, when and whether to have children. Abortion, quite simply, allows women the freedom to live full and free lives and to retain control over their bodies.
Slavery, on the other hand, was the centuries-long system under which Black men and women were treated not as human beings, with attendant freedom and liberty, but as chattel—human property owned by other humans, stripped of their freedom and cruelly forced to work under inhumane conditions. During slavery, Black human beings were murdered, raped, and treated like animals simply for the economic benefit of white aristocracy and to further white supremacy.
Comparisons between abortion and slavery are popular among the anti-choice crowd because most people agree that slavery is morally wrong. If anti-choice forces can equate slavery and abortion, and draw parallels between an “unborn” person and an enslaved person, then surely no morally righteous person could continue to defend abortion as a medical procedure that enables women to retain some modicum of control over their physical selves and their economic realities.
The comparisons are often tailored for the Black community and lobbed at Black women by the same forces who erect billboards in Black communities that scream “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb,” blissfully ignorant of the bitter irony of feigning concern for Black children even as they appropriate images of Black girls to spread their anti-choice propaganda, and wage war against social programs—public assistance, food benefits, health care, sex education, fair pay—that would permit Black women to not only choose motherhood, but to raise healthy children.
These messages are tailored for Black women in an effort to exploit Black history and to shame Black women into signing on to the anti-abortion crusade. Our ancestors suffered under the yoke of slavery, so we understand, don’t we? We understand how horrible it is to deny freedom to the innocent. Surely we would agree that abortion is worse than slavery, right? After all, under slavery, we were permitted to live. Abortion denies innocent lives even a single breath, they argue.
Such arguments are the bread and butter of the rabid anti-choice crowd—who ignore any discussion of the hostile birthing environment that exists for women of color and low-income women to this day. Moreover, such arguments ignore the horror that slavery was for Black people, and the unique ways in which Black women in particular suffered under slavery.
Among the less rabid anti-choice crowd, attempts to elide the differences between abortion and slavery lead to commentary like that of federal Judge Lee Yeakel, who, in his recent opinion striking down the admitting privileges provision of Texas’ HB 2 as unconstitutional and upholding the medication abortion restrictions as constitutional, essentially claimed that abortion is a divisive issue about which reasonable people could disagree. Almost as if he were apologizing to the anti-choice forces that worked so hard to ram HB 2 through the Texas legislature, he wrote (emphasis added):
Today there is no issue that divides the people of this country more than abortion. It is the most divisive issue to face this country since slavery. When compared with the intensity, emotion, and depth of feeling expressed with regard to abortion, the recent arguments on affordable healthcare, increasing the debt ceiling, and closing the government retreat to near oblivion. Sincere and caring persons of good will are found on both sides of the issue, but neither side will ever change the position of the other.
We are talking about the same slavery, right? The slavery that saw millions of Africans snatched from their homes and crammed by the hundreds onto slave ships, where many of them died, either due to unsanitary conditions, brutal beatings, and assault by slavers, or by throwing themselves overboard to avoid the fate that awaited them in the United States? The slavery that saw human beings beaten into submission so that by the time they reached the shores of this country, the prospect of forced labor in the hot sun seemed like paradise compared to the conditions they suffered during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when they were shipped like animals? The slavery that saw families ripped apart—mothers taken from sons and husbands taken from wives? The slavery that saw Black female slaves exploited as breeding mares and sexual objects ripe for rape? The slavery that made any children born to a Black woman automatically the property of whomever owned that woman?
The slavery under which, as Loretta Ross pointed out in her article “African-American Women and Abortion: A Neglected History” (referencing a 1989 brochure published by African American Women for Reproductive Freedom), “Somebody owned our flesh, and decided if and when and with whom and how our bodies were to be used. Somebody said that Black women could be raped, held in concubinage, forced to bear children year in and year out, but often not raise them.”
That is the slavery supported by “sincere and caring persons of good will”?
To put it bluntly, Black women weren’t seen as human, and there certainly were no “sincere and caring individuals” on the side of slavery who gave a moment’s thought to the ways in which Black women were systematically stripped of their reproductive rights and their humanity. Black women were simply pawns in a cruel game, the goal of which was to increase the economic viability of this nascent country, at least until the point that fear of Black mass reproduction led to forced mass sterilization when slavery ended.
I understand what Judge Yeakel was trying to do—or at least I think I do. He was trying to soothe anti-choice anger as he ruled unconstitutional the latest anti-choice effort to squeeze abortion access out of existence, so that even if Roe v. Wade is never overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, it won’t matter; it will be so impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion that the right to abortion will be meaningless.
I get it. But that doesn’t make Judge Yeakel’s commentary any better than that of the “abortion is just like slavery” crowd. His characterization of slavery, well-meaning though it may be, is based on a romanticized notion of slavery that simply never existed. In Judge Yeakel’s hagiographic version of slavery, well-meaning white folks were to be found on both sides of the issue. This is simply not true. Such comments attempt to absolve white people, some of whom call themselves good Christians, of the horrible deeds that were done in the name of Christianity, and lead to ahistorical claims that credit Christianity and Christians with the downfall of slavery without ever mentioning that Christianity was used to promulgate slavery and to oppose those who wished to end it.
The fact of the matter is slavery was not all that divisive an issue during the period leading up to the Civil War. The number of people who outwardly opposed slavery were few and far between, and abolitionists were not popular in antebellum America. And those who did sign on to the abolitionist cause usually had already succumbed to the racism that slavery fomented, believing that Black abolitionists were inferior to white abolitionists, thus silencing the voices of Black abolitionists in favor of white ones.
In Texas, Judge Yeakel’s home state, abolitionism was wildly unpopular. According to the Texas State Historical Association, only a few people dared criticize the institution of slavery, and even fewer were outright abolitionists. Texas was as much a Southern pro-slavery state as any other Southern state at the time. The revised version of slavery urged by Judge Yeakel, therefore, is a vulgar recasting of history, as is “abortion is like slavery” rhetoric.
What I find most troubling about this rhetoric is the profound ways in which it erases the history and experiences of Black women who, as slaves, sat at the intersection of abortion and slavery. During slavery, Black female slaves used contraceptive and abortion methods learned in their native land to resist slavery—to avoid bringing into the world children who would suffer under the yoke of oppression with no chance of living a free and healthy life, and to deprive their masters of property born from their own bodies.
If abortion is like slavery—indeed, if abortion is the most divisive issue since slavery—then what of the women who suffered under slavery? What of the women who performed self-abortions in order to resist slavery? They cease to exist.
The point is this: Abortion is not like slavery. And while it is true that abortion is a divisive issue, it is incumbent upon legislators, politicians, and judges to make that argument without leveraging slavery to do so.