History Lessons: The Post-Roe Abortion Debate in Light of Popular Sovereignty, Part 3

Understanding the Old Slavery Debate Is More Important than Ever

In the first two parts of this series (click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2), we explored some Post-Roe political happenings and the historical context surrounding America’s slavery debate in the 1800s. Now in Part 3, I’d like to suggest some parallels showing how both conflicts reveal how moral relativism and a low anthropology eventually break down. (A special note of thanks to Michelle Bauman of Youth4Life for her help in reviewing and improving this section.)

Historical Rhyme Schemes

While it’s by no means an exact repeat, there are several rhyme schemes that can help us better understand our post-Roe landscape. Connecting abolition and abortion is not unprecedented. In the aftermath of the Civil War, there were some who made the connection, and even at that time spoke of slavery and abortion as “twin evils.” In their book The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652-2022, Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas tell the story of well-known 19th-century pastor and author John Todd who, regarding abortion, said, “we have rid ourselves of the blight of Negro slavery, affirming that no man may be considered less than any other man. Now let us apply that holy reason to the present [abortion] scandal” (159). Todd is on to something. I suggest we apply our “holy reason” and recognize the following realities.

1 - The Insufficiency of Moral Relativism
A frequent pro-choice retort is that “if you don’t like abortion, don’t get one.” With my high school history students, I suggested they consider applying that line to the historical slavery debate: “If you don’t like slavery, don’t buy one.” Such a perspective reveals an underlying moral relativism, and was the essential critique that Lincoln, Seward, and others made—that in such a weighty moral matter as slavery, relativism doesn’t work. Despite attempts at “live and let live,” tension and division over the morality of slavery only grew, revealing that even those whose arguments were shaped by an underlying moral relativism still held certain precepts as objectively true and even worth fighting for.

2 - The Inadequacy of Popular Sovereignty
As history clearly shows, allowing states to choose on the matter of slavery didn’t solve the problem. Now, post-Roe, this rhyme scheme with popular sovereignty seems even stronger. States can determine abortion policy in a way analogous to how territories and states could determine slavery policy in the 1850s. And the divergence between the positions states are taking is growing wider. To bring Lincoln’s language into the present day, just because a majority of people agree with something doesn’t make it morally right. Morality is rooted in objective standards that apply to all. Slavery is wrong, even if a majority of people in a state or legislative body want to practice it or allow it. So too with abortion.

3 – The Intensity of Doubling Down
Another parallel is found in the shift from abortion being “safe, legal, and rare” to the “shout your abortion” perspective, which rhymes with the shift from slavery supporters arguing that it was a “necessary evil” at the time of the American founding, to being a “positive good for society” according to the Southern apologists in the lead-up to the Civil War. This doubling down further entrenched the competing interests and viewpoints, which made each additional legislative outcome, judicial decision, and cultural event all the more fraught with increasing weight.

4 – The Imposition on Livelihood
Another common argument used to support abortion is that having a child is an imposition on the woman—her body, her livelihood, her future. Having a child could mean real economic hardship, and certainly a change in career aspirations. This has some parallel to the economic pro-slavery arguments—slavery was a vital part of the economy, it was said, and ending it would cause serious disruptions to economic productivity. But economic arguments are utilitarian calculations that ignore the weightier matters of morality. The parallel here is that sometimes doing the right thing is hard. Sometimes there are costs to morally upright choices.

5 - The Implication of Dehumanization
Yet another parallel is found in the overtones of dehumanization. Those in favor of abortion frequently dehumanize the unborn, using phrases like clump of cells, fetal tissue, or products of conception. There is also a common hostility expressed towards the unborn with terms like “parasite” and “invader” being used. Abortion proponents who are more honest about fetal development may acknowledge that the fetus is a human but make a distinction as to its personhood. It may be human, some will say, but it is not a person yet, and therefore does not possess rights in the same way as those who are deemed persons. All of this is eerily reminiscent of the dehumanization of enslaved persons. Slavery supporters wove a tangled web of dehumanization that included everything from a hierarchy of races based on now-debunked anthropological and evolutionary arguments to claims of the slave’s brute-like nature and sub-human intelligence, all-the-while forcibly preventing them from learning to read and write. Such attempts at dehumanization are frequently nothing more than nefarious attempts at self-justification. They will not fly before God, and we should not allow them to stand unchallenged in our public square, either.

A Challenging Path Forward

I don’t have a crystal ball nor am I suggesting that these historical rhymes map precisely onto today’s abortion landscape. But such historical literacy is necessary; it gives us much food for thought, and it grants us a better understanding of possible scenarios that might play out when certain decisions are made.

And of course, all this bumps up against the longstanding debate among pro-lifers between incrementalism and abolitionism, a debate with renewed vigor as of late. If what we saw unfold regarding slavery in the 19th century is any indication, the path forward will be challenging. And, Lincoln’s famous concern about national unity now looms over us again as a question: can a house divided against itself still stand?

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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