October 29, 2007
This week I stumbled across an astounding blooper in a column by the usually informative Bob Novak about the “Abortion War’s Newest Front.” Novak was discussing a Kansas District Judge, James E. Vano, who had brought criminal charges against Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri for its involvement in “facilitating” late-term abortions. Novak commended Vano for having gone after the pro-abortion lobby; and he praised the anti-abortion former attorney general Phill Kline for having taken similar actions at the state level.
But then Novak pulled out this counterfactual comparison: “”Bloody Kansas” was the battleground between rebel and loyal forces nearly 150 years ago, and it’s now an epicenter of abortion conflict.” In point of fact there were no “rebel and loyal forces” battling in Kansas in the 1850s because the Civil War didn”t start until seven years later. What famously happened in Kansas when it was being settled in the 1850s was that Northern Abolitionists and slaveholding Southerners landed up fighting each other. Although it would have been good for the country if Kansas did not become a “slave state,” most of the violence emanated from anti-slavery fanatics like John Brown, who had received their arms from partisans as far away as New England. The bloodbath there had nothing to do with rebels and loyalists.
It would not be implausible to suggest that Novak has picked up on a favorite (stupid) tactic of the pro-life movement. It is to compare slavery in the Old South to a presumably comparable evil, which is to snuff out the lives of unborn children. The problem is that no one, save for Mike Gerson, a few of his Evangelical friends and perhaps some half-educated editors at National Review trying hard to sound serious, can believe in such moonshine. This groping for PC comparisons is obviously intended to bring blacks and their liberal well-wishers into the pro-life camp by appealing to the themes of the civil rights movement. Actually the two injustices do not seem comparable, if one believes that abortion involves homicide. (In the case of late-term abortion, where one is dealing with an empirical human being, only a feminist lunatic or a sleazy politician like Hillary Clinton or the “moderate” Joe Lieberman would deny the obvious.)
While slavery entails a grievous loss of liberty, it does not reach the same degree of evil as abortion, if one believes that abortion involves the destruction of human life. If what we are examining, however, is some kind of natural rights argument, the comparison may be even more misleading. Unlike a slave, who can be made aware of his servile condition and therefore can demand his right to freedom, the fetus has no real awareness of its right to life. The slave but not the fetus, as some feminists have properly argued, can be conscious of inborn rights and can act on the basis of them. The same rights-consciousness by contrast does not exist in the unborn child. Despite the eagerness of the pro-lifers to apply their favorite line out of the Declaration, about being “endowed with inalienable rights,” it is hard to see how Jefferson and John Locke were referring to the status of the fetus. Their “inalienable rights” pertain to those who are already born—and especially to those who are engaged in making social contracts.
The real reason that our anti-abortionists get so exercised about involuntary servitude is the race issue, which lies at the heart of the American politics of guilt. Otherwise they would not be dredging out the race question every time the discussion turns to the fetus before its passage down the birth canal. Note that I am not a fan of slavery for blacks or for anyone else. I am simply sick of the dishonest historical parallel that comes from the pro-life forces, a parallel that is broadly hinted at by Bob Novak. No one, and particularly not the minorities whom the pro-lifers wish to flatter, seems interested in this ritualized reaching out.
By the way, nothing in my criticism should be read as an endorsement of “abortion service providers,” who deserve the same respect that is owed to crack-peddlers or former guards in Nazi concentration camps. I am not endorsing a “woman’s right” to dispose of her fetus, except in the most uncommon of circumstances. And I believe there are sound “scientific” arguments that pro-lifers should stress in making their case for the sanctity of human life. But this productive approach to a burning moral question requires the exclusion of a useless comparison. We should learn to ignore those who cannot talk about abortion without dwelling on America’s racist past.