Recently, Nathaniel Peters wrote a review for Public Discourse of Justin Buckley Dyer’s Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning, which examines the parallels of abortion and slavery.
Both Dyer and Peters believe that slavery and abortion are analogous and that we ought to fight abortion the same way abolitionists fought slavery: “underscoring the humanity of those whose humanity is denied, providing compassionate care for those affected, naming the lies that dehumanize and kill, and tirelessly arguing for the truth about who “counts” as a human person,” Peters writes.
Though I have yet to read the book, I found Peters's review to be interesting enough to put the book on my wish list, as I too generally find the abortion-slavery analogy compelling. I also agree with Peters’s prescriptions on how the pro-life movement ought to follow the path of abolitionists of slavery, as quoted above. Yet, I think that Peters overlooks one great problem faced by the abolitionists that applies to the pro-life movement and other human rights activists. American society does not condone evil practices such as abortion or slavery out of ignorance of their evil, but because they prove to be pragmatic and convenient for the personal comfort of society at large.
To make this case, let us turn to a different human rights atrocity: sweatshop labor. Incidents in one Pakistani and two Bangladesh sweatshops, Ali Enterprises and Tazreen Fashions and Rana Plaza, respectively, killed a total of 1,500 people. In Bangladesh, garment workers earn a wage of only $68USD per month for work that could potentially lead to death or serious injury. Wal-Mart and The Children’s Place have both used Bangladeshi garment factories to make their clothes, as have suppliers of the US military.  Yet, aside from a bit of public outcry and calls for reform with no teeth behind them, the policies of Wal-Mart and its ilk have continued unfettered. Indeed, ridiculing proponents of safer working conditions for either hating economic freedom or hating poor people who benefit from cheaper clothing prices remains popular sport for both conservative and liberal media outlets. These reactions make sense. Sure, it would be nice for people in the third world to have a decent wage and a safe place to work, but if it will raise the price of jeans, maybe we should just forget about the issue.
To get to the point, Americans understand the immorality of sweatshops, but we willingly cast aside our grievances if the sweatshops will benefit us. The same can be said for abortion. According to a poll from the Pew Research Center earlier this year, only 15 percent of Americans believe abortion is morally acceptable, yet 63 percent believe that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Only the South-Central region had a majority that believed abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.  These seemingly inconsistent statistics make more sense in light of American pragmatism. Certainly, we like to talk about our high ideals and our desire to do the right thing no matter the cost. However, we see that these ideals can be easily traded for a chance to save a few bucks. Many Americans identify as pro-life and recognize the horror of killing an unborn child. At the same time, they see the implications of saving the lives of those babies: over 56 million new people would live in the United States. All those people would need to be educated, fed, clothed, sheltered, and provided healthcare. When we recall that 40 percent of all women who have abortions are below the poverty line , we recognize that these people would need extra assistance from either the state or civil society to receive proper care. Faced with these numbers and costs, it is less surprising that many Americans decide that the lives of the unborn might not be worth saving, regardless of their personhood.
This applies to slavery as well. During the 19th century, the North and South disagreed on the personhood of slaves and the legality of slavery not because the North had a better moral sense than the South, but because the South needed slavery to survive economically. Any moral disapproval for the practice that may have existed had to be ignored for the prosperity of the region. Today, we see the same with abortion. Americans find abortion to be ghastly, but they know that if faced with an unexpected pregnancy, the option to terminate it and save the $200,000 it costs to raise a child is an option they certainly want to have.
Here, we reach the lesson the pro-life movement must learn. Helping Americans understand that unborn children are actually children and that we ought to secure their right to life is not sufficient to combat support for legal abortion. Instead, we must go further, to convince our country that the cost that comes with this population increase is a cost worth bearing.
It will certainly be a hard fight. Even abolitionists could only achieve the end of American slavery through the bloodiest war in American history, an option unavailable in the fight to end abortion. The end of sweatshop labor does not seem near on the horizon, either.
Yet, we should still have cause for hope. The pro-life movement has made impressive inroads over the last 50 years in convincing Americans that the clump of cells on an ultrasound truly is a human being. Perhaps in the next 50, we can convince them that these little humans are worth any sacrifice we would have to make to support them.