In the great and proud history of the United States, no failing, no appalling ideology, no perverse institution—no national tragedy—compares to the American sin of chattel slavery. Codified in the nation’s founding documents in a grotesque mockery of the Declaration’s self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” the 250-year bondage of black Americans was an uninterrupted reign of savage violence, capricious brutality, and never-ending dehumanization. At its peak in 1860, one in eight people in the United States was the “property” of another American; in the South, five million whites owned four million blacks. Those slaves didn’t just constitute the single largest asset in the entire U.S economy; the institution of slavery was central to the development and expansion of American industrial capitalism. And sustaining the entire enterprise was an all-encompassing ideology of white supremacy bolstered by the complicity of Christian churches which split South from North precisely to perpetuate the “peculiar institution.” What Vice President Alexander declared “the great truth” that was “the cornerstone” of the Confederacy, President Jefferson Davis proclaimed divinely mandated:
“We recognized the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him. Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”
Under the American slavery regime, the man, woman, or child “fitted expressly for servitude” was not to be considered human at all. Deemed property that could be arbitrarily bought and sold, abused and raped, tortured and killed, the slave was denied any notion of autonomy. Barred from moral agency, slaves simply had no right to make choices in any aspect of their lives. (As Chief Justice Roger Taney infamously stated in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”) In the most elemental sense, the slave was not the sovereign of his or her own body. The nature of her toil, the fates of her children and even the sanctity of her body itself would be decided by her master alone.
Simply put, state-sanctioned slavery justified by a dogma of religious paternalism is a monstrous crime unequaled in American history. All of which is why analogizing any political controversy to slavery isn’t merely wrong, but obscene. Nevertheless, today’s Republicans routinely compare slavery to Obamacare, gun control, the national debt, the social safety net, and just about any other political development they hate. And as their wave of draconian bans in Georgia, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri and other states shows, the Republicans equation of abortion to slavery is the most insidious of them of all.
Consider the bill recently signed into law by Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey. The text of the legislation explicitly compares abortion to slavery—and more. The law, which makes abortion and attempted abortion felonies in the state of Alabama while offering no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, declares:
In the United States Declaration of Independence, the principle of natural law that “all men are created equal” was articulated. The self-evident truth found in natural law, that all human beings are equal from creation, was at least one of the bases for the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and the American civil rights movement. If those movements had not been able to appeal to the truth of universal human equality, they could not have been successful.
Further along in the text of Alabama HB 314, the law provides a comparative “body count “of abortions freely chosen by women in the United States with the historical bloodbaths of past “crimes against humanity.”
By comparison, more than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.
During the debate over new Kentucky anti-abortion bills in March, the Lexington Courier-Journal reported, “supporters of the bills continued to invoke references to the Holocaust and slavery, with several lawmakers and witnesses defending them as appropriate. Rep. Nancy Tate, a Meade County Republican and a sponsor of House Bill 5, agreed, “Absolutely, when taken in the proper context.” That context?
Tate, in an interview, said it’s fair to compare abortion to slavery because like abortion, slavery once was legal in the United States. Abortion opponents are hopeful that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision of 1973 that legalized abortion, eventually will be reversed.
Two weeks ago, Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy, mother of eight and wife of Wisconsin GOP Rep. Sean Duffy, announced that banning abortion was a “fundamental human rights issue.”
“This issue is as fundamental as an issue was back in the middle of the 1800s called slavery,” she said on “The Story,” hosted by fill-in anchor Ed Henry. “This is an issue about who gets to decide who is human enough so they can do whatever they want with that person — or the person they’re saying is not a person.”
In Alabama, Republicans have announced that it is they who will decide who is or is not a person. Among their law’s definition is this one:
(7) UNBORN CHILD, CHILD or PERSON. A human being, specifically including an unborn child in utero at any stage of development, regardless of viability.
As we’ll see below, these GOP legislators are literally running afoul of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which begins by stating that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
As Perry Bacon Jr. recently detailed for FiveThirtyEight, several factors are fueling this new wave of absolutist abortion restrictions in red states. The elevation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the horde of new conservative judges across the federal bench and the zero risk of backlash in GOP-dominated states have empowered Republican legislatures and state houses to challenge Roe head on:
[A]bortion opponents have stepped up their efforts in 2019, according to advocates on both sides of the issue. Alabama this week enacted a law that bans all abortions except to save a woman’s life. There would be no exceptions for pregnancies caused by incest or rape, and conducting an abortion could result in a prison sentence of up to 99 years. Four other states — Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio — have adopted laws that ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
Nevertheless, many of the leading lights have been making the despicable comparison of abortion to slavery for years. It’s no mystery as to why. These conservative ideologues don’t merely want to create a simple, visceral connection in Americans’ minds between abortion and the nation’s original sin. They specifically hope to use their demagoguery of the issue to peel away African-American voters from the Democratic Party. And by equating abortion and slavery, the Party of Lincoln seeks to portray the abolition of abortion as a historical inevitability morally required nationwide. (For more on that cynicism in action, just see the recently tabled Texas House Bill 896, also known as “The Abolition of Abortion Act. Among other things, it would have subjected Texas women obtaining abortions to the death penalty.)
Take, for example, former brain surgeon and failed GOP White House hopeful turned Trump HUD Secretary Ben Carson. In the fall of 2015, Carson explained to NBC’s Meet the Press why he wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned and abortion prohibited:
“Think about this. During slavery — and I know that’s one of those words you’re not supposed to say, but I’m saying it — during slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave. Anything that they chose to do. And, you know, what if the abolitionist had said, you know, ‘I don’t believe in slavery. I think it’s wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do?’ Where would we be?”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) certainly agreed. “Slavery and abortion are the two most horrendous things this country has done,” Gohmert declared, before adding that the nation’s growing national debt is similarly “pretty immoral.” That pitbull with lipstick Sarah Palin concurred. “When that money comes due—and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due,” she warned. “We are going to beholden to the foreign master.” And abortion, Palin told Bill O’Reilly in 2015, is being used by Planned Parenthood to target the slaves’ descendants for ethnic cleansing. Claiming that “Planned Parenthood’s foundation is based on racism,” the living gateway drug to Donald Trump argued that “80% of Planned Parenthood shops [are] set up in minority neighborhoods” because “they’re in there trying to convince minority women that they’re incapable of giving a child life.”
Of course, by 2015 “abortion is slavery” had become a staple Republican soundbite. Former Republican Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp declared in 2012 that Planned Parenthood is “a racist organization and it continues to target minorities for abortion destruction.” Pro-choice Americans, Ohio legislator Matt Huffman explained, are no different than slave owners. And while some Southern Republicans compared healthcare reform to the “Great War of Yankee Aggression,” former Louisiana Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao ultimately opposed it over abortion coverage he wrongly claimed was provided by the Affordable Care Act:
“For me abortion is such a moral evil, at a par with slavery, that I cannot in good conscience support a bill that seeks to expand it.”
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks was also among the Republican luminaries to proclaim that a woman’s control over her own body is no different than a master over a slave’s. Franks, who left Congress in 2017, suggested that the private decisions women make about their reproductive choices are no different than 4 million black slaves kept in bondage by 5 million Southern whites, one-third of whom were slaveholders. In fact, Franks argued in 2010, for African Americans it’s even worse today:
“In this country, we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say ‘How brave were they? What was the matter with them? You know, I can’t believe, you know, four million slaves. This is incredible.’ And we’re right, we’re right. We should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America’s soul. And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery.”
Anti-abortion groups have been running with that message for years. In 2010, Georgia Right to Life rented billboards to declare, “Black children are an endangered species.” In 2011, the conservative Radiance Foundation similarly used billboards to mark Juneteenth which read, “The 13th Amendment Freed Us. Abortion Enslaves Us.” That same year, billboards in New York and other cities announced:
“The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American is in the womb.”
But the best-known of all the Republican “abortion equals slavery” propagandists is former Arkansas Governor and failed GOP presidential wannabe turned Fox News fixture Mike Huckabee. In July 2012, the Texas Tribune reported, “Huckabee compared abortion to slavery, asking if society could reject slavery and ‘come to the conclusion that one person can take the life of another person.'” As the Huffington Post recounted the next year:
“It’s the logic of the Civil War,” Huckabee said, comparing abortion rights to slavery. “If morality is the point here, and if it’s right or wrong, not just a political question, then you can’t have 50 different versions of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Two years later, he told an anti-choice group that he believed the issue of abortion was resolved “150 years ago when the issue of slavery was finally settled in this country, and we decided that it no longer was a political issue, it wasn’t an issue of geography, it was an issue of morality.” In 2011, he again argued against abortion rights being determined at the state level, saying that “it was wrong to own a slave in Mississippi and Michigan.”
It’s more than a little ironic that the Baptist minister Mike Huckabee would present himself as some sort of 21st century abolitionist and declare “the Supreme Court was wrong when it denied Dred Scott his rights and said, ‘blacks are inferior human beings.'” After all, Huckabee’s Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 on that very claim. Sixteen years before the shots fired on Fort Sumpter, the Southern Baptists explained their separation from the American Baptist church this way:
An evil hour has arrived…In December last, the acting Board of Convention, at Boston, adopted a new qualification for missionaries, a new rule viz, that: “If anyone who shall offer himself for a missionary, having slaves, should insist on retaining them as his property, they could not appoint him.” “One thing is certain,” they continue, “we could never be a party to any arrangement which applies approbation of slavery.”
If Huckabee’s Baptists sided with the slave owners, they were not alone among the Christian denominations to face schism over the issue. The cracks that began between Old School and New School Presbyterians in 1837 broke wide open in 1857. One leader predicted, “The Potomac will be dyed with blood.” And in 1844, the Methodist Church, the largest organization in the country, split in two over the rising abolitionist fervor among its northern members. North Carolina’s delegates to the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church supported the resolution of separation:
“We believe an immediate division of the Methodist Episcopal Church is indispensable to the peace, prosperity, and honor of the Southern portion thereof, if not essential to her continued existence we regard the officious, and unwarranted interference of the Northern portion of the Church with the subject of slavery alone, a sufficient cause for a division of our Church.”
To put it another way, many of the faith-based communities now demanding the restriction of women’s reproductive rights insisted on perpetual bondage for millions of Americans in the 19th century. As for Mike Huckabee, his Southern Baptist Convention only issued an apology for choosing moral depravity over human freedom in 1995.
Back in 2013, Imani Gandy made a simple but compelling request in her piece, “Abortion Is Not Like Slavery, So Stop Comparing the Two.” Writing in Rewire News, Gandy declared, “Abortion is not slavery, nor is it comparable to slavery.” While “abortion, quite simply, allows women the freedom to live full and free lives and to retain control over their bodies,” slavery forcibly guaranteed the opposite.
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.
Gandy concluded with a warning about America’s grim past and the potential for a shameful future:
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.
But they did exist. And even the most ardent hagiographers of the Dixie aristocracy recognized their degradation. Mary Chesnut, that self-proclaimed “objective” diarist of the Confederacy, acknowledged that those women literally did not own their bodies.
“God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity. … Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children – and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.”
Mrs. Chesnut also shared a story from her husband, who “saw a poor negro woman in the last stages of pregnancy, sitting by the roadside in bitter wailing, her eyes smashed up, and frightfully punished in the face.” When she learned that the “brute” responsible for this beating was “some woman we did not know,” a relieved Mrs. Chesnut sighed, “thank Heaven.”
But we shouldn’t rely on the beneficiaries of the slave power for their accounts. Former slaves could and did speak for themselves. And they experienced the brutality, the depravity, the family separation and sheer inhumanity of chattel slavery firsthand.
Consider Harriet Tubman, the woman who until recently was set to become the new face of the American twenty-dollar bill. The girl who “grew up as a neglected weed—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it,” would become “the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” And Harriet Tubman’s story was one shared by hundreds of thousands of enslaved men and women across the South:
“I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang – one of them left two children. We were always uneasy.”
While Tubman had concluded, “there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other,” the despair of family destruction drove some slaves to the latter. Former slave William Wells Brown told the story of a woman on a steamboat full of slaves on the Mississippi River. After her husband and children were all sold to different buyers, she chose death:
“With all our care, we lost one woman who had been taken from her husband and children, and having no desire to live without them, in the agony of her soul jumped overboard and drowned herself.”
From 1936 to 1938, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) deployed workers throughout the South to collect the oral histories of former slaves. Among the 2,000 interviews they conducted was the testimony of Mingo White. “When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I was loaded in a wagon with a lot more people in it,” he recounted, “Where I was bound I don’t know.” Laura Clark of Livingston, Alabama had been sold off in North Carolina when she was six or seven years old.
“I recollect Mammy said to old Julie, ‘Take care my baby child (that was me), and if I never see her no more raise her for God.’ Then she fell off the wagon where us was all sitting and roll over on the ground just a-crying…I didn’t have sense enough for to know what ailed Mammy, but I know now and I never seed her no more in this life.”
Delia Garlic of Montgomery recalled numerous episodes of abuse. When the master’s baby Delia was holding began to cry, his daughter “picked up a hot iron and run it all down my arm and hand. It took off the flesh when she done it.” Later, the master’s second wife “picked up a stick of stovewood and flails it against my head. I didn’t know nothing more ‘till I come to, lyin’ on the floor.”
After Nat Turner’s unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, Alabama and other Southern states made it a crime for anyone to teach a slave how to read. “The white folks didn’t allow us to even look at a book,” Mary Ella Grandberry remembered. “They would scold and sometimes whip us if they caught us with our heads in a book.” William Henry Towns put it this way:
“If we so much as spoke of learning to read and write we was scolded like the devil. If we was caught looking in a book we was treated the same as if we had killed somebody.”
Frederick Douglass explained why. “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.”
“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men.”
It’s no wonder Douglass confronted his fellow countrymen by asking, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
If, as Douglass proclaimed, “knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave,” it is because he or she is made more deeply aware of the alternatives to bondage, to the possibilities of choice, to the potential for sovereignty over one’s own mind and body. Which is another painfully obvious reason why the slavery to abortion analogy, if it is to be used at all, should be reversed.
Why else would the Trump Department of Health and Human Services have issued its Title X gag rule which would have barred federally funded family planning programs for lower-income Americans from receiving the money if they say or do anything to advise or assist a patient about securing an abortion? Why do the Trump administration and GOP-governed states allow so-called “pregnancy crisis centers” to lie to American women about what services they provide and the supposed “risks” of abortion? Why are Republican-dominated states across the country requiring doctors to commit medical malpractice by deceiving their patients about mythical “abortion regret,” “abortion reversal,” and baseless claims about links to breast cancer? As Alabama abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker explained to a patient seeking the procedure:
“I’m required by law to tell you that by having an abortion, you can increase your risk of breast cancer. There’s no scientific evidence to support that.”
The Republican Party that loudly proclaims its desire to “protect the doctor-patient relationship” simply doesn’t believe what it says. Not when the patient is a woman and her physician provides abortions. The truth, the GOP worries, shall set you free.
The end of the Civil War brought emancipation for America’s four million slaves. The 13th Amendment of 1865 proclaimed, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But freedom alone was not sufficient to achieve the aims secured by the Union force of arms. The freed men, women, and children needed their citizenship codified and enshrined for all time. That is the project, still unfinished, of the 14th Amendment of 1868. As Section 1 explains:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Over 150 years later, tens of millions of African Americans, LGBTQ American, Americans of any stripe, are still fighting for the realization of that promise. They will continue, as Frederick Douglass urged, to “agitate, agitate, agitate.”
Meanwhile, four million children are born in the United States each year. Roughly one million women choose to have abortions annually. And with rates estimated at 15 to 20 percent by the Guttmacher Institute and others, another 1 million-plus miscarriages occur yearly, most before the women involved even knew they were pregnant. Nevertheless, the reddest of red states like Alabama have ignored the plain text and plainer meaning of the 14th amendment by proclaiming that an “unborn” child at “any stage of development” is a “person.” Under Georgia’s so-called “fetal heartbeat” law, such a “person” qualifies as a resident for population purposes and as a tax deduction for its mother. At the federal level, the Trump administration has unilaterally declared what should be called the “Fetal 14th Amendment.” (The 2016 GOP Platform rejected this idea and instead called for a “human life amendment” to the Constitution.) In a nutshell, fetuses are to enjoy the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection of the law, guarantees denied to millions of actual, living American women.
Left unchallenged and unblocked, these laws promise a dark, dystopian future for American women’s health care. The Georgia law, for example, promises conspiracy charges for anyone assisting a woman in obtaining an abortion out of state. If this sounds hauntingly familiar, it should. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 strengthened the federal mandate for arresting and returning escaped slaves to their owners in the South. Designed to combat Northern vigilance committees and personal liberty laws aimed at protecting the runaways, the act led to “shocking confrontations” as anti-slavery groups intervened to protect escapees or liberate those in custody. The result, as the New York Times described it earlier this year:
The uproar of these pitched battles…helped turn Northern moderates into abolitionists and temperate Southerners into fire-eaters; at its height in 1854, it prompted President Franklin Pierce to order 1,500 federal troops to escort a single fugitive in Boston named Anthony Burns back into slavery in Virginia. Enforcing the fugitive slave law put the federal government emphatically on the side of slavery over freedom, which hastened the collapse of the national political system, the rise of the antislavery Republican Party and the coming of the war.
Of course, abortion isn’t slavery. The United States is not geographically riven and headed toward a second civil war. To suggest the emergence of a “New Underground Railroad” is indeed “tone deaf and inappropriate.” But some of the same social, cultural, and religious forces that backed slavery over freedom and unconditional bondage over personal autonomy are now working overtime to constrict the choices and bodily sovereignty of American women. It’s hard not to conjure up the likes of Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, Franklin Graham, and their ilk when reading Harriet Tubman’s prayer:
“As I lay so sick on my bed, from Christmas till March, I was always praying for poor ole master. ‘Pears like I didn’t do nothing but pray for ole master. ‘Oh, Lord, convert ole master;’ ‘Oh, dear Lord, change dat man’s heart, and make him a Christian.’”
Until that change of hearts comes, we know what to do. Agitate, agitate, agitate.