In a recent article I mentioned abortion as the most egregious example of the barbaric way our society treats children. The other day, I was struck by another angle: abortion could be compared with the transatlantic slave trade. Let me explain.
A question of rights
It seems to me the pro-choice argument largely boils down to a question of rights. In the Roe vs Wade supreme court leak (which I mentioned last time), the biggest pro-choice response was to talk about “rights”. Sometimes you see people say “my body, my choice” – which is the same point, just worded differently. We should have the right to choose.
But rights must be linked with ethics and morality. For example, I don’t have the right to take someone else’s property without their consent. And we are agreed as a society that no-one has the right to murder another human being. Even if they’re really, really annoying!
So, saying that we have the ‘right’ to a particular course of action is neither here nor there, if the action itself is immoral.
A right to … own slaves?
A couple of hundred years ago, I can imagine someone making almost exactly the same argument about slaves. “It’s my right to own slaves… my property, my choice!”
And, legally speaking, they were correct. A man did have a right to own slaves, you can’t deny it. The question is not whether he had the legal right, but whether it was actually a human right. Fortunately, we came to realise as a society – with great help from the work of Christians such as William Wilberforce and John Newton, amongst others – that slavery was wrong, and abolished it.
Some people would argue that abortion is a human right – not simply a legal one. There’s a case that needs to be answered. To help us, let’s look into some of the other arguments that people used to keep slaves.
Arguments for slavery … and abortion?
These arguments are all found on the BBC Ethics page for slavery. As they say at the beginning:
A number of arguments have been put forward to try and justify slavery. None of them would find much favour today, but at various times in history many people found some of these arguments entirely reasonable.
“At various times in history many people found some of these arguments entirely reasonable” – never a truer word was spoken! People were very very keen to defend their rights when it came to owning slaves, but we need to consider the arguments that they used. Likewise, some people are very keen to defend their abortion rights, but we need to consider their arguments carefully.
Are some of the pro-slavery arguments that were used centuries ago anything like the pro-abortion arguments used today? I think so.
“Slaves are inferior beings”
It’s almost impossible now to imagine that people used to think this: the idea that some races or people groups are inferior is anathema to the modern Western world. And yet, this is exactly what people used to argue. A few years ago, someone I was debating with on Twitter was shocked to discover that science had once been used to justify racism. But it’s undeniable!
There is a parallel with today’s thinking about abortion: people agree that a foetus is a human being, but an inferior being – a less-developed being – so it is not worthy of human rights. People once claimed that “blacks” were inferior to “whites” because they were less evolved – and therefore not worthy of treating with equal dignity. People now claim that foetuses are less developed human beings, therefore not worthy of treating with equal dignity.
But the problem with both is – where do you draw the line?
Where, exactly, is the line between a human being and … NOT a human being? How do you draw the line between blacks and whites? How do you draw a line between an embryo and a newborn baby? In fact, you may be aware that some philosophers such as Peter Singer argue for post-birth abortion – it has even been defended in the BMJ, which I wrote about ten years ago.
Do you draw the line in terms of self-awareness? But then what about someone with severe disabilities who never develops? Are they only worthy of life once they are born? Any attempt to divide “this side” as human and “that side” as not human is doomed to fail. That’s because eighteenth century slaves, and modern-day foetuses, are human – just as human as you and I.
If we don’t defend all human life as sacred and worthy of protection, then any line we draw is just a line in the sand. It doesn’t have any scientific or logical basis.
“Slavery is acceptable in this culture”
This is an argument from the way that things are, and it’s not a very good one! All sorts of things have been acceptable throughout history in our culture, and that doesn’t mean they’re right. As the BBC themselves point out:
if ethics is a matter of public opinion (Cultural Ethical Relativism) then some would say that slavery was ethically OK in those societies where it was the cultural norm.
Abortion and slavery are ethical issues which should be argued on those grounds – not on the basis of whether they’re legal or acceptable or not!
“Living in slavery is better than starving to death”
When it comes to abortion, you sometimes hear the argument that it would be better for a baby to be aborted early than born into a home where it was unwanted and unloved. It’s very sad when a child is born in those circumstances, but there are many who could testify to the fact that they would rather be here and around to contribute to society! Even though their start in life wasn’t ideal, they now enjoy life.
As the BBC ethics page points out:
While slavery may be the least bad option for an individual, this doesn’t justify slavery, but indicates that action should be taken to provide other better options to individuals.
If a child is going to be unwanted, the solution is to provide better options – not to kill the child. Pro-life activists are often accused of only caring about abortion and not caring for children, which I think at points has been a valid criticism. If we as a society say that abortion is wrong, we must do all we can to ensure that every child has a safe and secure upbringing.
There are many ways of doing that – I think one such way would be to do more to promote marriage. But we could get into that another time.
History repeating itself
The more I think about the slave trade and its parallels with abortion today, the more I think history is repeating itself. The abortion industry today has many powerful advocates in government and in the media. It is clear there is a lot of money involved – abortion providers don’t work purely out of the goodness of their hearts!
It was the same back in the days of the slave trade: powerful and rich people kept the industry going, because it made them lots of money. And yet, it was ended.
My sincere hope is that, one day, as a society, we will look back at abortion with the same horror that we look back at the slave trade today. In my view, abortion is not a complex ethical issue, it’s about as black and white as you can get: killing a human life is simply wrong. (This is not to say there are other problems e.g. the case of ectopic pregnancies and so on – but those are complex ethical issues on their own and account for a tiny number of the 200,000+ abortions per year in the UK).
As Martin Luther King once said in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
All men were guaranteed a right to life. It would be wonderful if we as a society could recognise that all human beings – yes, unborn as well as fully grown – had the same right to life.