On Tuesday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee traveled to Texas, where the debate over an extremely restrictive — and more than likely unconstitutional — anti-abortion bill raged on this week. Huckabee came flanked by more than 3,000 anti-abortion protesters, and armed with a by now familiar message: Abortion is like slavery, and anti-abortion activists are the modern-day equivalent of abolitionists.
The analogy is meant to cast the anti-abortion movement in a positive, even heroic, light, by evoking the stark image of trafficked human beings, bound into the holds of slave ships, borne across the Atlantic, terrified and abused, and if they survived, sold like cattle in the stocks. It is the image of human objects at the mercy of their “masters” that anti-abortion activists hope to cement in the minds of Americans, whom they hope to inspire to demand the outlawing of abortion (and in many cases, contraception, too, which the most devout equate to human pesticide.)
It is historically anachronistic and offensive to just about every descendant of African slaves, who recognize that there should be a slavery equivalent to the “Reductio ad Hitlerum” principle, whereby trying to equate an opposing opinion with Hitler and the Nazis is a fundamental logical failure. In short, nothing is like the Holocaust, and nothing is akin to the 400 years of human enslavement practiced by Europeans and their American cousins.
In fact, if one were to draw an analogy between slavery and the abortion issue, it might not be the one Huckabee and friends have in mind.
Because what groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life, the model legislation factory writing the bills proliferating across the United States want, is to control the reproduction of other people. And therein lies the unintended analogy.
Throughout the ugly history of American slavery, in which bondage was passed from generation to generation — as if in the genes themselves — slave owners possessed total authority over the reproduction of the women and men bound to them. They decided how, when, and where female slaves gave birth. Slave owners sometimes forced male slaves to impregnate female slaves in order to harvest the babies, thereby multiplying the value of their portfolio of human chattel. Some slave owners impregnated their slaves themselves.
There was no exception made for a pregnancy resulting from rape, or for the potential death of the mother, since the resulting children had their own, distinct monetary value. Enslaved women had to give birth, come what may.
Enslaved women had no more control over whether they gave birth to children than they did over what became of those children after they were born. They were utterly robbed of authority over their own bodies and families. The governance of their reproductive lives was given to the plantation owner.
Empowering state governments (or even the federal government) to essentially force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, whether by outlawing abortion outright (the activists’ ultimate goal), or because all other options have been closed off, is certainly not slavery. But it unequivocally robs modern-day women of their autonomy and thus, their liberty.
And it isn’t lost on the women demanding freedom over their own bodies that slave owners also claimed they were acting under God’s direction. I don’t doubt the sincerity of anti-abortion activists. They truly believe that they are saving lives, which they believe begin at the moment an egg is fertilized. They believe those eggs have every right that you and I have, and that the government should enforce those rights, even over the objections of the woman in whom the egg resides. It isn’t clear how far they would be prepared to have the state go. Should women be jailed at 20 weeks and one day if they indicate a lack of willingness to continue a pregnancy? Or confined to house arrest until the pregnancy is complete? And won’t outlawing abortion simply drive more women into the arms of butchers like Kermit Gosnell?
People have the right to debate and oppose abortion, which is a tragic, emotionally wrenching — sometimes devastating — decision for women, who often make it in desperation. We should find a way to get contraception into the hands of more women, so that unintended pregnancies don’t happen. We should teach our boys to grow into men who don’t rape.
But Huckabee and his cohorts ought to be very careful about making slavery analogies, because there is more than one way those analogies can go.