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The Oneness of Human Rights



Image by Vectorpal on flickr; some rights reserved.

"Seward Seminary: Rosetta, daughter of Frederick Douglass, was denied the right to enroll in [this] girls' private academy."

So reads an historic plaque on the grounds of Genesee Hospital in Rochester, New York, reminding us of our sins of discrimination in 1834.

Today at the hospital, another group of individuals is being denied their right to enter society -- pre-born children.

I am confused. As a person active in peace and justice work, I ask why is there polarization of those groups active on behalf of civil and human rights for the born and those involved on behalf of justice and human rights for the pre-born?

It is fitting that the recent rescues held at abortion clinics in New York City and at Rochester's Genesee Hospital used the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King. Steadfast resistance, no unkind word, and absorbing the evil through a sit-in presence . . . these methods were promoted in the pro-life training sessions.

My first acquaintance with these methods was at Howard University in Washington, DC. I was privileged to be one of three white students on the campus of this all-Black institution in the mid-1960s. I learned fast the language of oppression. These memories today engender in me a sense of outrage about another institutional violence -- abortion.

James Burtchaell, in Rachel Weeping, describes the many parallels between abortion and slavery. Both injustices were aggravated by Supreme Court rulings (in 1857 and in 1973) that were rendered in 7-2 decisions. In each case, that of Dred Scott in 1857 and infant Roe in 1973, one party was designated as the property of (i.e., their rights were at the disposal of) the other. Both Justices Taney and Blackmun refused to grant personhood or human rights to any class of beings not specifically referred to in the Constitution.

Pre-born children today are considered underdeveloped, less human, insensitive to the pain of an abortion, and not individuals. Likewise, Blacks were labeled all of the above, and one slaver wrote that the inability of slaves to understand their misery made slavery "a vice less viceful, less hurtful . . . and less displeasing to God."

Like anti-abortionists, the anti-slavery people were looked upon as self-righteous religious fanatics with a single-minded purpose. They mixed politics and religion, much to the dismay of certain church leaders, such as George Armstrong, a Presbyterian pastor from Virginia. In his "Christian Doctrine on Slavery," he wrote that Christians should stay out of the slavery question, "because it requires the Church to obtrude herself into the province of the state."

Abolitionists, like anti-abortion people, were accused of being "impracticable," "simple," "absolutists," who didn't understand the complexities of this "necessary evil." Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was considered to be a northern elitist, ignorant of the realities of plantation life. In addition, like abortion, they claimed that, legal or illegal, "slavery will always exist."

Many humanitarians and politicians held a kind of pro-choice position on slavery. Abraham Lincoln, in his early political career, claimed that, while he himself would never own a slave, he wasn't sure he could pass judgment on those who did. Chief Justice Taney himself, who ruled against Dred Scott, strongly opposed slavery and regularly attended Mass and confession with Black people.

One of the more striking resemblances between abortion and slavery is the claim to privacy and freedom of choice. Congressman Drayton of South Carolina, in 1828, said, " . . . we would as soon permit others to invade the sanctuary of our dwellings as to touch slavery, We would as soon permit Congress to dictate to us a code of morals."

The most prevalent justification of the pro-slavers' position in the mid-19th century was that slavery as an institution was good for the Black race. Not unlike the arguments of abortion supporters, who genuinely care about potential problems of child abuse, poverty, and the mental health of the child in the womb, anti-abolitionists genuinely believed emancipation was "inconsistent with the best interests of slaves" (1834 Synod, Southern Clergy). Indeed, it was argued by sociologists of the time that since a higher proportion of Blacks in the free states were certified insane than in the slave states, then slavery must somehow be beneficial to mental health.

Another altruistic claim is the benefits to society. The 4,000 abortions per day in the United States, it is argued, keep down the welfare rolls and control population. Likewise, emancipation was seen as "an evil" that would "let loose a population nearly twelve times as numerous" as the slave states' existing population. Educational costs, unemployment, and crime, it was argued, would take a suicidal toll on the south.

Sojourner Truth, the spiritual Black abolitionist leader, challenges us in her "And Ain't I a Woman?" speech to see the interconnectedness of the rights of all "sub-human" persons. When the rights of one group in society are threatened -- Blacks, the unborn, women, Jews -- then all our rights are threatened.

Perhaps it is too soon to make heroes out of the fanatical purists in the pro-life arena. But Michael Harrington, the Democratic Socialist leader, angered a 1979 Planned Parenthood assembly when he said that the anti-abortion movement was "one of the few genuine social movements of the 1970s.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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