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Slavery, Abortion, and Abraham Lincoln

When I have discussions with those who identify as pro-“choice,” I often compare pro-life advocacy to that of abolitionists in the Civil War era. The abolitionists of that era struggled to change the perception from black people as mere property to black people as human beings with the full rights of personhood; similarly, pro-life advocates seek to change the perception of unborn children from “blobs of tissue” or parts of a woman’s body to human beings entitled to the full rights of personhood.

More often than not, these comparisons are dismissed as irrelevant or sometimes as outright ridiculous. However, I recently read an article – “Abraham Lincoln and the Natural Law Tradition” by Professor Herman Belz – that discussed Lincoln’s appeals to the natural law in his opposition of slavery, and I was struck by the similarity of his arguments to the ones used today by pro-life advocates.

“Lincoln denounced slavery as a ‘monstrous injustice’ and a direct contradiction of ‘the very principles of civil liberty’ in the Declaration of Independence,” Professor Belz writes. “Lincoln said that the right of republican self-government ‘lies at the foundation of the sense of justice,’ both in political communities and in individuals. It meant that ‘each man should do precisely as he pleases with all that is exclusively his own.’”

Lincoln’s latter point parallels the pro-choice mantra “my body, my choice” as well as their common argument that no one can or should tell a woman what to do with her own body.

However, Lincoln continued, “Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? […] If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no more moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

Just so, the crux of the pro-life argument depends upon if an unborn child is a human being from the moment of conception. As Peter Kreeft writes in his Apple Argument against Abortion, there are four possibilities when it comes to the personhood of unborn children:

  1. The fetus is a person, and we know that;
  2. The fetus is a person, but we don't know that;
  3. The fetus isn't a person, but we don't know that;
  4. The fetus isn't a person, and we know that.

In the case of (1), Kreeft avers, abortion is murder, plain and simple. In (2), abortion becomes manslaughter, but manslaughter is still morally wrong even if the perpetrator didn’t intend to kill a human person. In case (3), abortion becomes pure irresponsibility, similar to fumigating a building with toxic chemicals when you don’t know for sure that the building has been evacuated.

Only in case (4), Kreeft says, could abortion possibly be justified, but in that instance it would require knowledge beyond the shadow of a doubt that the fetus is indeed not a person. This closely mirrors Lincoln’s position that slavery is only acceptable if a negro is not a man, for if he is a man then he cannot be owned or governed – or disposed of – by another man.

“In an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859,” Belz’s article continues, “Lincoln criticized the ‘mud-sill’ theory of society which regarded hired labor, like slave labor, as ‘a fixed condition for life.’”

The “mud-sill” theory sounds eerily like the belief of a certain Representative from Wisconsin who believes that all underprivileged children who are not aborted are destined to spend the rest of their lives “eating Ramen noodles and mayonnaise sandwiches.”

Lincoln’s response to the “mud-sill” argument was to assert that “…as the Author of man makes every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that heads and hands should cooperate as friends; and that that particular head, should direct and control that particular pair of hands.”

Or, as pro-life response to those who believe it’s better to kill children then have them potentially live in poverty goes, we wouldn’t tolerate killing impoverished born children, so why would we tolerate killing impoverished unborn children? Being born in poverty does not necessarily condemn one to a life of poverty, and it’s wrong to kill a person based on what their life might be like, given that they could overcome those conditions.

Lincoln also had to combat attitudes regarding slavery as a subjective issue. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, Democrat Stephen Douglas “insisted that in his official capacity as a United States senator he did not care whether the people in a territory voted slavery up or down.”

Lincoln admonished him thusly: “Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he don’t [sic] care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down.”

Douglas’ response was to argue that the people had a right to have slaves if they wanted them; in other words, Douglas was personally opposed to slavery but couldn’t make that “choice” for anyone else. Lincoln replied, “So they have if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong.”

Similarly, pro-life advocates argue that there is no “right” to abortion and no “right” to choose abortion, because we don’t have the “right” to kill another innocent person – as Lincoln said, we don’t have a right to do wrong.

This principle was recognized and reiterated over one hundred years later by Civil Rights advocate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as stated by him in “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression”:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber. Religion reminds every man that he is his brother's keeper. To accept injustice or segregation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right. It is a way of allowing his conscience to fall asleep. At this moment the oppressed fails to be his brother's keeper. So acquiescence - while often the easier way - is not the moral way. It is the way of the coward. The Negro cannot win the respect of his oppressor by acquiescing; he merely increases the oppressor's arrogance and contempt. Acquiescence is interpreted as proof of the Negro's inferiority. The Negro cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or the peoples of the world if he is willing to sell the future of his children for his personal and immediate comfort and safety.”

Nor can we, as a society, hope to win the respect future generations if we are willing to sacrifice our unborn children for convenience and comfort. Just as slavery was, in Lincoln’s time, “the eternal struggle between… right and wrong throughout the world,” so the fight against abortion and the recognition of the personhood of the unborn is our struggle.

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