Slavery & Abortion – A False Analogy

Frequently the pro-life leadership draws a parallel between slavery and abortion.  You Say Abortion Is Legal?  The Supreme Court Also Legalized Slavery, reads one popular bumper-sticker.  The motivation for this comparison is understandable, since slavery and the Civil War occupy central places in the American historical imagination.  By gesturing toward one of the issues associated with the mythos of Abraham Lincoln, pro-life leaders try to draw upon a powerful and influential legacy.  Upon examination the slavery-abortion analogy does not hold up, however, and we can only persist in touting it by falsifying history and distorting the Christian tradition.  It is one thing to be glad that slavery no longer exists – in those parts of the West which remain Western, at least.  It is quite another to reconfigure perennial Christian teachings in order to conform them to the American civil religion, which gives to the slavery issue far more weight than does the Faith.

Perhaps the best-known proponent of the slavery-abortion analogy is Princeton Professor Robert George, who argues that slavery and abortion alike constitute “a denial of the equal dignity of a particular category of human beings.”  As George’s fixation with equality unnecessarily complicates things, we also consider Justin Dyer, a scholar affiliated with the Witherspoon Institute who contends that each controversy raises the question of “what it means to be a person.” Just as the abortionist denies the child’s humanity and accords unlimited power to the mother, or possibly himself, so likewise did slaveowners deny the slave’s humanity and accord absolute power to the master.  Dyer concludes that both practices invariably “violate the basic moral principle that persons ought never to be treated as things to be used or discarded.”

Much as he may have agreed with the basic moral principle, Saint John Chrysostom seems to have drawn quite different conclusions.  In his homily expounding upon 1 Corinthians 7, Chrysostom asserts that “it is obvious that Paul’s intention is not to abolish slavery as a social institution,” for  “he attacks slavery in its worst form, the slavery to evil, which pays no respect to any external freedom.”  No casual aside, Chrysostom’s argument against interfering with slavery goes on for quite some time, with the following passage being typical:

If you are not held in bondage to sin, rejoice and have no fear; no one can harm you, since you are made of such stuff that no one can enslave.  But if you are a slave of sin, I tell you that even if you are free ten thousand times over, it is of no advantage to you.  Can you tell me what advantage a man has who, although not in bondage to another man, is in constant subjection to his own passions?  At least men are merciful from time to time, but the passions – they won’t be satisfied until they have destroyed you!  Are you another man’s slave?  Well, your master is also     enslaved to you:  he has to provide you with food, take care of your health, and provide you with clothing, shoes, and every other need.  You have to take care not to offend your master, but his cares for your material welfare are greater.  Does he recline at table, while you stand and serve him?  So what!  The reverse also is true.  Often while you are lying in bed sleeping sweetly, your master is not only standing, but keeping a most unpleasant vigil in a marketplace full of strife.

Just to be clear, Chrysostom is not “pro-slavery,” in the sense of insisting upon slavery as a positive good.  His argument is about priorities:  Our foremost concern should be the cultivation of the immortal soul, not the attainment of political and civil rights in the here and now.  Even if he is in error, his position should not be dismissed lightly and without soul-searching; for the purposes of evaluating the abortion-slavery analogy it is surely significant that he even makes the argument.  Should pro-lifers see Saint John Chrysostom as standing on the opposing side, since he shrugs off an institution that was supposedly just as bad as abortion?  If not, why not?  If slavery per se entails a denial of human dignity, regardless of whatever legal reforms and regulations might circumscribe the institution, then do any disparities of wealth, power, or status constitute a denial of human dignity, as Marxists, feminists, and gay rights activists argue?  If not, why not?

Turning to Scripture, we can even gloss over the several embarrassing references to slavery made by Saint Paul, such as “servants, be obedient to them that are your lords”.  (Ephesians 6:5) Instead, turning to the Gospel of Luke, we find a Roman centurion discussing with Christ the fate of an ailing servant, with the word used in the Greek text being δοῦλος (doulos), “slave.”  At the end of the encounter Christ characterizes the centurion as extraordinarily praiseworthy.  (Luke 7: 8-9)  Were holding a bondsman in itself morally indistinguishable from murdering a child, it is difficult if not impossible to believe Our Lord would have merely commended the centurion’s “great faith,” and left it at that.  

In 1861 such reasoning as this led Bishop Augustin Verot of Florida to identify abolitionism with a heresy which had already been condemned in strong and clear language by the 4th Century Council of Gangra.  (“If any one shall teach a slave, under pretext of piety, to despise his master and to run away from his service, and not to serve his own master with good-will and all honour, let him be anathema.”)  In his own day, Verot would attack the unexamined assumption

that “all men are born free and equal.” This assertion, although liberal and popular with a certain class of persons, is, however, false and a glaring falsehood. Some are born poor, and others rich. Some are born weak, puny, and unhealthy; others strong and healthy. Some are born dull and stupid, others of quick and penetrating intellect, etc. etc.; for the enumeration would be too long. The true ground of equality in men is that we will be condemned by our Maker only for guilt voluntarily and freely incurred, or rewarded in the next life only for the supernatural good we will have accomplished in this life.

“In all these respects,” Verot argues, “a slave is absolutely on the same footing with his master.”  So Verot concludes that “the state of servitude is reprobated neither by natural law, nor by the Divine positive law, nor by the ecclesiastical law, nor by the civil laws.”  Again, it would be an exagerration to describe Verot as “pro-slavery,” at least when he is compared to those who saw bonded servitude as an inevitable and even positive feature of human society.  It would be more precise to describe the bishop as anti-abolitionist, which is not at all the same thing as being against emancipation per se

In any case, as Gerard Vershuuren concedes in  the “Slavery” chapter of his Five Anti-Catholic Myths, not only did Christ and His apostles never challenge slavery, the Church Fathers “actually accepted” the institution, “as did the popes (Muslim slaves were manning papal galleys until 1800) as well as religious orders (Jesuits in colonial Maryland owned slaves, as did nuns in Europe and Latin America).  Even Saint Peter Claver, who in Colombia befriended, instructed and baptized African slaves, bought slaves to serve as interpreters.”  For Vershuuren as for so many others, these awkward facts are an occasion to indulge in circular reasoning.  While the Church did not “directly challenge” the institution of slavery the way it directly challenged idolatory, divorce, polygamy, and countless other once widely-accepted practices, Vershuuren contends, by recognizing the humanity of slaves the Church by definition promoted the abolitionist cause.  Such an argument is identical in form to the claim that the Church must by definition promote socialism since it recognizes the humanity of the poor.  In any case, proponents of the slavery-abortion analogy are here invited to imagine early Christians shrugging off infant exposure – or early popes, colonial Maryland’s Jesuits, and Saint Peter Claver helping girls procure the abortifacient potions already forbidden by the ancient pagan physician’s Hippocratic Oath.  If we cannot imagine such scenes, maybe there’s a reason.

At times, it almost seems as if the only real purpose for the abortion = slavery argument is to give pro-life establishmentarians a chance to signal that they have at least one thing in common with the liberal elite:  They, too, despise the American South.  Yet no honest and informed person could for a moment claim that slaves in the antebellum era were regarded with the contempt to which the child in the mother’s womb is subjected today.  To cite but one of several inconvenient facts, a mere decade before the War Between the States Virginia’s General Court rejected the appeal of one Simeon Souther, who had been convicted of murder for having killed one of his slaves.  Although it in no way questioned the legitimacy of the peculiar institution, the court also insisted that “the relation of master and slave affords no ground of excuse or palliation” for such a “case of atrocious and wicked cruelty.”  And so “the principles of the common law in relation to homicide apply to his case, without qualification or exception; and according to those principles, the act of the prisoner, in the case under consideration, amounted to murder.”  Souther was remitted to a penitentiary, where he died. 

So the assumption that slaves were nonpersons with no moral or legal rights whatsoever is an unexamined one, based upon prejudices that are likewise unexamined.  “The law protected the legal right of the slave to his Sabbath,” writes Robert Louis Dabney in his Defence of Virginia, “forbidding the master to employ him on that day in secular labours, other than those of necessity and mercy. Instances in which slaves were prevented by their masters from attending the publick worship of God, were fully as rare among us, and as much reprobated, as similar abuses are in any other Christian country.”  How could either the General Court’s verdict or Dabney’s remarks possibly be translated into the ethical universe of Margaret Sanger? 

By now those “respectable” conservatives who live to sniff out and suppress dissident thought have had enough time to gather their thoughts and compose accusations of “defending slavery.”  To such people this essay is not addressed, however.  It is instead addressed to those few 21st-Century adults still capable of serious moral inquiry, who will recognize that what we think about servitude as it existed in the past, much less today, is quite beside the point.  One could be undecided on the question of antebellum slavery – or even regard it quite objectionable – without thinking its abolition justified a war which cost the lives of half a million soldiers, killed another 50,000 civilians, and redefined the U.S. Constitution such that federal bureaucrats now wield unprecedented powers.  And whether we endorse servitude, oppose it, or are neutral has nothing to do with the fact that self-styled Christian intellectuals have no business damning defenseless dead Southerners by way of cherry-picking, straw-men, and fantastical caricatures.

This brings up a crucial, connected metapolitical issue, which is the extent to which the Christian wing of the conservative establishment has been a politically-correct echo-chamber, one wherein the only respectful dialogue permissible points leftward.  “[I]t is important for our friends on the left to understand why many social conservatives find analogies between slavery and abortion to be compelling,” concludes Dyer in his summary, “and why careless denunciations of the analogy ring hollow.”  Although it may have only been intended rhetorically, Dyer’s expression –  “our friends on the left” – is nonetheless telling, for it highlights the frustrating dynamic that has, for better or for worse, caused so many to turn their backs on a worse-than-useless conservative establishment, and turn instead toward right-wing populism.

For clearly proponents of the abortion-slavery analogy only care about the sensibilities of their friends – i.e.,  their liberal academic colleagues, who deem it unfair to the civic-minded abortionist to compare him with wicked Southerners.  For Dyer, ordinary patriotic Americans who might be offended on behalf of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Marion, or William Clark are simply beneath notice, as are those troubled by the utter impossibility of reconciling with Scripture the modern hypersensitivity toward the slavery issue.  A mere generation or two ago in America, however, it would have been unthinkable to imply that our admittedly fallible forefathers belong on the same plane as people who murder their own children. Likewise, it would have also been unthinkable to gloss over the Bible’s importance as a moral reference point.  

There has been a transvaluation of values since then, and not everyone agrees with Professor George and his disciples that this transvaluation reflects an improvement.  Among other things, lame comparisons with slavery obscure the real value at stake with respect to the abortion fight.  Maybe equality is not the first thing we should dwell upon when we address abortion, for the unconditional fixation upon equality may have had something to do with getting us into this predicament in the first place.  Rather, we might do better to focus upon bonds, and motherhood, and to think about how the maternal role has been marginalized, degraded, and subverted by revolutionaries bent upon reinventing humanity in their own image.  Maybe the abortion struggle is not about individual rights, but about a foundational relationship within the natural order, a relationship which reflects that of the Mother of God with Her Son. 

Andrew Nelson Lytle

Andrew Nelson Lytle (1902-1995) was a celebrated author and poet whose contributions to Southern literature, history, and philosophy helped form the backbone of the Southern intellectual renaissance.

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