The Unbearable Whiteness of Pro-Lifers and Pundits

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Last week Rick Santorum proved himself to be Rick Santorum:

"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no," Santorum says in the interview, which was first picked up by CBN's David Brody. "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"

This argument has been made before, and will likely continue to be made, no matter how many times its flaws are pointed out. Hence my initial response was to ignore it and move on. I thought more about the response when I saw Pat Buchanan assert that Santorum's "Facts are correct." I thought even more when I saw Joe Klein's defense of Santorum:

First, you must understand that Santorum truly believes that abortion is murder--at any point after conception, even when the mother's health is at risk (as it was in the case of one of his wife's pregnancies). This is an extreme position, but not an implausible one. If you believe that a fetus is a person, then abortion is the denial of its most basic right--the right to exist. 

According to Santorum, the only other category of Americans whose civil rights were so severely truncated were slaves. He's right about that. Slaves were considered property; there was also that most odious Constitutional assertion that, in terms of representation, blacks counted as 3/5s of a person. Santorum believes that this history should make the descendants of slaves more sensitive to the civil rights of fetuses. There are a great many members of the black church who would agree with him. 

Now, once again, you may not believe that a fetus is a person--but if you do, as Santorum does, this is a perfectly reasonable argument, an argument against limiting the civil rights of anyone according to race or life status. (It also, I'd argue, compels Santorum to support fully equal rights for homosexuals--which he doesn't, a sad consequence of his rather straitened ideology). But those who would describe his argument as racist are either purposely trying to distort what he said or they don't know what they're talking about. 

Klein, speaking for Santorum, moves from calling the fetus "a person" to calling fetuses "a class of Americans." He then asserts that the only other "class of Americans" to be denied "the right to exist" were slaves. Finally he claims that African-Americans, as the descendants of slaves, should have special sympathy for the pro-life case, and one specific African-American--Barack Obama--should share that sympathy. He finishes by noting that a "great many members of the black church would agree."

But Klein's argument and Santorum's analogy is wrong at every step -- whether Klein's black church friends agree or not. The notion that enslaved African-Americans were considered non-persons "without the right to exist" is bad history. Forgive me for quoting myself, but we've been here so many times:

Slaves married. Slaves were baptized. Slaves were converted to attend Christianity--and even attended white churches, at times. Slaves and masters exchanged gifts on Christmas. Slaves were allowed to hire themselves out and buy their own freedom. Slaves were manumitted by masters.

Nor were slaves, as a class, denied "the right to exist," a notion that sounds cute and pleasing when deployed as a pundit's thought experiment, but is revealed to be foolish under the harsh light of actual history. Whereas abortion is necessarily premised on ending the existence of a fetus, slave-holding was directly premised on the continued existence of slaves. The lynching of slaves was virtually unheard of in the Old South, not because slave-masters were beneficent, but because they had enormous sums of money invested in them. 

In other words, slaves did not simply have "the right to exist"; it was essential to the society that they exist. In this sense, abortion and American chattel slavery could not be more opposite. According to Klein, Santorum believes that "abortion is murder." Santorum is factually wrong. Murder is a legal term that refers to the unlawful taking of a life. Abortion is very much legal. Even a broad reading of murder takes us nowhere. If abortion is murder, then it follows that the thousands of American women who each year get abortions -- as a class -- are murderers. Slave-holders were investors in a deeply evil scheme. They were not -- as a class -- murderers.

Nor are the pro-Lifers analogous to abolitionists, because the first abolitionists, the ones who repeatedly staked their lives on the matter, were slaves themselves:

Abortion is a debate between two groups over the ultimate fate of embryos. The Anti-Slavery fight was a violent struggle between two groups over the fate of the enslaved, but with the enslaved as indispensable actors. Unlike embryos, black people were very capable of expressing their thoughts about their own personhood, and never held it in much doubt. Whereas the fight against abortion begins with pro-lifers asserting the rights of embryos, the fight against slavery doesn't begin with the abolitionists, but with the Africans themselves who resisted.

In that difference lies the racism implicit in the abortion/slavery analogy Santorum employs and Klein defends. The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos--helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves. And it is equally impossible to say the same about the end of abortion, if only because fetuses are generally incapable of egressing from the womb and setting up maroon societies, publishing newspapers or returning to the womb to "liberate" other presumably endangered fetuses.

Noting that Jesse Jackson employed the same logic, or that anonymous members of some black church, somewhere -- as is the fashion in this day -- is an appeal to authority, an argument via proxy that simply shows that the alleged authority (Jesse Jackson, unnamed black people) is wrong too. But the appeal also shows how little pro-Lifers who push this issue, and pundits who defend them as "right on the facts," actually know about American history. 

"African slavery" was not merely the practice of slave-holding; it was the economic juggernaut that built 19th century America. Historian Daniel Walker Howe is instructive here:

During the immediate postwar years of 1816 to 1820, cotton constituted 39 percent of U.S. exports; twenty years later the proportion had increased to 59 percent, and the value of the cotton sold overseas in 1836 exceeded $71 million. By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.

According to the historian David Blight, by the dawn of the Civil War "there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States." Indeed, by 1860 the American South was home to the second largest slave society in the entire world, one whose net worth exceeded "all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together."  In terms economic, cultural, and political, slavery made America possible.  Reducing this grand, indefensible and complicated institution to the simple act of slave-holding is like reducing the Holocaust to mass murder -- and then proceeding with the egregious and erroneous comparisons we so often hear about. But that reduction is essential to the abortion/slavery analogy. Its employment is not just wrong, it is a lie.

That the lie is employed by dishonest men like Rick Santorum, who feign knowledge in order to push an agenda, is unsurprising. That the same lie is defended by men (and it is men) who make their living constantly dispensing answers but rarely asking questions is equally unsurprising -- but it must be called out. Joe Klein's merits as a writer and thinker are considerable. But it must be said that in this business he is wrong, and that his knowledge of this specific and essential thread of American history is wanting. He is not just wrong on the logic -- he is wrong on the information. 

Addendum:

1.) Forgive the length.

2.) Forgive me for quoting myself. I keep having this damn debate. I can't keep writing the same thing.

3.) Forgive the lack of a serious gender critique. My sense is that there's a strong one to be made. I grounded this in my current field of study. My knowledge of the history of reproductive rights is much sketchier. I'd love to read a critique from someone who has that knowledge.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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