Of abortion and abolition

Like Megan, I kind of have trouble with this church/state deal. If I believed that not accepting Christ condemned people to an eternity of torture, I'd be an unrepentant zealot. I say that having never been a church-goer, so there could be something I'm missing in the translation. Equally, I'm not so much dismayed that that the religious right is religious, as I am dismayed by what much of what they literally stand for. History has shown that, even without God, people have no problem exuding homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia etc.

Anyway, I want to offer a humble corrective to Megan's comparisons between abolitionists and pro-lifers today:

The question of personhood is not definitionally religious, even if the only people interested in expanding society's definition of personhood are religious.  Blacks are people, and those of us without any particular religious convictions are able to apprehend this, even if 150 years ago the only people much interested in prosecuting their claim to personhood were ministers and their flocks.

The fundamental question in the abortion debate is, "When does life begin?" Slaveholders and abolitionists were quite clear that slaves were alive. What they doubted was that they were actually human and thus equals. The debate wasn't over the personhood of blacks--but, quite literally, over their humanity. This may seem like nitpicking, but here is why it's important. Moreover, if religion is to take the credit for abolishing slavery, it has to take the weight for helping enshrine it in the first place:

Indeed, though I myself am pro-choice and mostly irreligious, it seems more likely to me that the main effect of faith is to spur people to embrace causes that are personally and socially inconvenient.  Slaveowners didn't need religion to motivate them to defend slavery; they had a powerful financial interest in doing so.  Similarly, the pro-choice movement, at least in my experience, gets most of its activist energy from reproductive-aged women who have a strong interest in being able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Well yeah, in the name of religion, people often do take positions that are inconvenient. But at least as often, people use religion as cover for what is manifestlt in their self-interest. Thus the conquistadors weren't brutalizing the native population of the Americas, they were bringing them civilization and Christianity. Slaveholders weren't simply coldly pursuing profit, they were fulfilling The Book, which had long ago decreed that blacks--by divine order--were destined to be slaves. The whole reason abolitionists had to use religion was, A.) Because there simply was no other real tool for making a popular argument and B.) Because the slave-holders, themselves, had made the case for slavery, largely, on religious grounds.

UPDATE: Several commenters have noted that "alive" question really isn't up for scientific debate, thus giving credence to comparison. I concede the first half, not the second. The claim that undergirded slavery--and really Jim Crow--wasn't simply that blacks lacked "personhood" it was that they either weren't human, were sub-human, or were a lower order of human. This wasn't simply an ethical debate--whole reams of bad science sprung up to back up this notion. Eventually, better science prevailed. I'm arguing that that's a lot more cut and dry than abortion, and that religion was a constant on both sides, and basically dominant among those who defended slaveholding. Science, which rose above the level of alchemy, on the other hand, was not.

Blaming slavery on religion doesn't hold much truck with me--but neither does giving religion the credit for emancipation. "The power of the church" was never behind abolition or the civil rights movement. In the case of abolition, the Quakers hardly represent "the church" in antebellum America. Likewise, the power of the black church was behind the civil rights movement--and even then, the black church was split on that question. I'd also add that those in the black church who were pro-CRM weren't acting out of total benevolence--indeed, they were part of an oppressed middle class that wanted access to the same world that the white middle class wanted.

In that sense, those who suspect something more at work besides religion in the arguments of pro-lifers, those who note the strange correlation between homophobes and pro-lifers, between those who think the home is the proper place for wimmen-folk and pro-lifers, between anti-birth controllers and pro-lifers, aren't crazy. Correlation isn't causation, and surely there can be a pro-life position that cleaves to none of those previously mentioned beliefs. But it's not insane to see the parallels.

One last point--confining the debate over slavery to religion actually understates how wrong the system ultimately was. To understand slavery you have to understand that it was justified by religion and by psuedo-science.  Put differently, those who believed in slavery weren't simply people who were on the wrong side of God's law--they were on the wrong side of science itself.  This is an important distinction between slavery and abortion. The biological theories about black people weren't ultimately defeated because of a belief in the beneficence of all God's children--they were defeated because they were bad science.

Thus it's now laughable, for instance, to argue that blacks as the missing link between ape and man. I don't think any such relief is coming to the abortion debate. There is a tangible scientific answer to the question of whether blacks are homo-sapiens. Is there really a scientific answer to whether life begins at conception?