Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Abortion Worse than Slavery?

“Abortion is worse than slavery.” So said a pastor I interviewed this summer for an article on Black pro-life groups. Does that statement make any sense?

Perhaps. You have to subscribe to a certain set of assumptions. If you believe that a fetus has the same intrinsic worth as a fully developed human being, then an abortion constitutes murder. Millions of pregnancies have been aborted since Roe vs. Wade (along with many before then). Even slaves got the right to live, while an aborted fetus is denied that right.

Now, you could argue that it would have been better for a slave to be aborted than to live an awful life in slavery. But that slave might have some hope of one day being free. No fetus can ever have hope for anything.

By contrast, if you think the fetus is just a clump of cells that has no worth until it’s born, then there’s no way abortion rises to the level of slavery. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with having an abortion then; it’d be just like getting knee surgery in terms of moral weight.

Where it gets thorny is if you think the fetus has some rights, but not as many as a fully developed human being. These people often say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Though they might not agree they are killing a baby, many would say that at the very least abortion prevents a potential human life from occurring. Since millions of fetuses have been aborted, it seems abortion would have to be judged a great moral evil from this perspective.

One difference would be between potential mothers and slave masters. While it is true that some women terminate their pregnancies with nary a thought, most really struggle with their decisions. A lot of times, they might think they have no way to financially support a child, or an insufficient network to help them raise it. Slave masters on the other hand were often deliberately cruel and used slavery not out of any necessity, but out of a desire to maximize personal gain.


  1. One thing that you also have to consider in the abortion debate that I personally don't think gets talked about enough is cases of incest and rape. If someone is raped and made pregnant, and does not have the financial nor social means to support a child, should the parent still have to give birth to a child that from day one is doomed to a disadvantaged existence where it can never really reach its full potential? And in the case of incest, genetic defects can arise that can make the child incapable of living a fulfilling life.

    Yes it's a loaded question with no correct answer, but you have to contemplate situations where it just may be the best thing for parent and child.


  2. I think a far more accurate analogy for slavery would be barring a woman from having an abortion. You are depriving her control over her own body, forcing her to allow something she doesn't want to grow inside her, which is actually a horrifying thought. (In addition, slave woman were often forced to reproduce against their will as part of their bondage.)

    While this isn't the most flattering portrayal, a fetus is basically a parasite living off of a host. It steals nourishment and causes health problems--and making abortion illegal deprives a woman of the means for self-defense. It's expensive--food bills, medical bills. If you want to have a baby and be a mother, then you are willing to make the sacrifices involved in carrying a fetus--and probably don't think of it as a parasite. But to force a woman to do so against her will, turning her into a living incubator, seems a form of slavery.

    There are a number of philosophical thought experiments that look at the moral grounds for abortion even if you believe the bunch of cells/fetus is a separate human life. Most abortions occur in the first trimester when there is no brain function, hence no living being, in my opinion so I prefer not to engage in these much. But I'll put one example forward anyway for people of a different opinion.

    One is the "violin player" example: a famous violin player has been connected to your body, living off your nourishment, and he will die if you disconnect yourself. He is unconscious and has no agency in any of this, just as a fetus would not. Can you legally be forced to remain attached to him for nine months, allowing him to live off of your body, restricting your movement, etc.? That certainly sounds like enslavement.

    Note the difference between a "legal requirement" and moral statement of "ought." If someone opposes abortion because they believe life begins at conception, I understand their desire to convince women that the right thing to do is to carry to term. I respect people who are both pro-life and pro-choice--who want abortion "safe, legal, and rare," as you say.

    In the above example, the person hooked up to the violin player is like a pregnant woman who believes the fetus to be a life. She might thus decide of her own free will not to terminate the connection--the violin player and the fetus are both blameless in the situation, and I don't think that many women who believe the fetus to be a life choose abortion with "nary a thought." (Actually, that's really insulting.)

    Taking away from women the legal (and human) right to make this decision about their own bodies comes too close to setting up the state as slave master and woman as slave.

  3. Just to be clear here, I was saying that I think most women who have abortion's do so after a lot of soul searching and reflection. Here's what I said:

    "While it is true that some women terminate their pregnancies with nary a thought, most really struggle with their decisions. A lot of times, they might think they have no way to financially support a child, or an insufficient network to help them raise it."

    Anyway, interesting comment, and good analysis of this difficult issue!