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Book Review: Team of Rivals
(Doris Kearns Goodwin)

“Team Of Rivals” is, of course, an excellent biography of Abraham Lincoln. It is readable, compelling, and original. I have no new praises to add. So, instead, I’m writing this review to compare the philosophy and politics of the Civil War era to our philosophy and politics today, on the topic of abortion.

The comparison of slavery to abortion is not new, of course. It is frequently rejected as bizarre and outlandish by abortion rights supporters, though always without any argument as to why that should be so. The comparison has recently (as of October 2015) been thrust back into the spotlight, when Republican presidential candidate (and black man) Ben Carson explicitly made the comparison, to be received by the usual Two Minute Hate from both the media and from Correct Thinking People, including establishment Republicans, who want nothing more than the abortion issue to disappear entirely. Carson’s exact quote was “During slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave. Anything that they chose to do. And what if the abolitionists had said, ‘I don’t believe in slavery. I think it’s wrong, but you guys do whatever you want to do.’ Where would we be?”

At its most basic level this argument is very simple, and Carson puts it well. I have carefully searched for a counter-argument to this position. But I cannot find any. I do find a huge number of unhinged rants about how wrong Carson is, but nowhere do I find any reasoning as to why he is wrong. I imagine this is because, given Carson’s premises (shared by the majority of Americans), that unborn children are human beings, the analogy is unassailable. If you reject his premises, if you believe an unborn child has no inherent right to life, or has some lesser set of rights than a later-stage human, the analogy is wrong. But it is entirely, and unavoidably, internally coherent, and internally compelled. In fact, the conclusion that abortion is worse than slavery is compelled, since, on average, death is worse than slavery.

It’s not just Carson, and it’s not conservatives or Republicans, who agree with this most basic argument. Jesse Jackson (senior) took exactly the same stand against abortion rights: “There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of higher order than the right to life. I do not share that view. I believe that life is not private, but rather it is public and universal. If one accepts the position that life is private, and therefore you have the right to do with it as you please, one must also accept the conclusion of that logic. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside your right to be concerned.” (Jackson also noted: “I was born out of wedlock (and against the advice that my mother received from her doctor) and therefore abortion is a personal issue for me.”) Of course, this was 1977, and Jackson has since trimmed his sails to sail with the monolithic Democratic ideology, which requires being absolutely pro-abortion to be a state or national candidate for the party, but his original logic is unassailable. (There is a strange political inversion here. Those who view politics through the prism of victimhood and power, which Democrats do more than Republicans, should especially be in favor of ending abortion—but the opposite is true.)

Anyway, to my main point. “Team Of Rivals” shows that, from a historical perspective, the arguments in favor of slavery are logically indistinguishable from those in favor of abortion, and in fact frequently even use the same language. These arguments in favor of both slavery and abortion range from basic philosophical arguments about the nature of different types of humans; through philosophical arguments relating to political arrangements; all the way to purely practical arguments about the impact of political choices. I will take each class of arguments in turn.

With respect to basic philosophical arguments, the most basic philosophical question of any time and place is “who belongs to the human race?” (We can ignore as effectively insane those odd people, like Peter Singer, who see no difference between humans and animals.) This question can have two types of answers: a scientific answer and a politico-philosophical answer.

As “Team Of Rivals” shows, those in favor of slavery had a very clear scientific answer. Using the best science of the day, they assigned a subordinate and sometimes non-human status to black people. This was possible, of course, because the science of the day was, to put it mildly, not as precise or as well-developed as today (phrenology, anyone?), so it was hard to decisively prove the contrary. Today, those in favor of abortion face a problem, in that the science is very clear and undisputed, so they have to dodge the question rather than answering it. The scientific answer is that unborn children are clearly human, because they are genetically human, merely at a different stage of development, just as a child differs from an adult. Any other response is the response of the liar or the sophist.

Interestingly, the pseudo-science used to support slavery didn’t die with slavery. It was instead re-purposed to support abortion, overtly through the 1950s, and covertly even today. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, explicitly founded Planned Parenthood to advance the “science” of eugenics, which held, among other things, that black people were inherently inferior. She founded Planned Parenthood with a primary goal of limiting the black population through the eugenics methods of the day, including birth control, forced sterilization, and abortion. As she said, in writing, talking of hiring black ministers to propagandize recalcitrant black people opposing her methods, “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” (In fairness to Sanger, this was mainstream progressive thought of the time. For example, the sainted Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., endorsed these methods in the infamous opinion permitting forced sterilizations of the mentally handicapped, Buck v. Bell, concluding “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”) And even today, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg let the mask drop a few years back, noting with approval that Roe v. Wade was decided in part because of “concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

The politico-philosophical answer to “who belongs to the human race?” is more conflicted, because throughout history some groups have answered, always about other groups, to exclude others. This is always done to undermine or deny that the “others” have equivalent rights, up to and including any right to life at all. Sticking to the time period here (though we could adduce other time periods, going back to the Greek use of the term “barbarous”), we see how the correct-thinking people of the Civil War era decreed, in Justice Taney’s Dred Scott decision, that black people were “a subordinate and inferior class of beings,” who could “therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which [the Constitution] provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” In the exact same way, in Roe v. Wade, the exact same court in a different era decreed that “the word ‘person,’ as used in the [Constitution], does not include the unborn.” (As Goodwin also says, “Abraham Lincoln eloquently summarized the logic of this position in his First Inaugural Address. If the ‘policy of the Government upon vital questions is to be irrevocably fixed by the Supreme Court,”’ he insisted, then the ‘people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.’”)

Proponents of slavery avoided words that implied slaves were human, instead choosing characterizing slaves as property. Similarly, today’s abortion supporters demand that terms such as “fetus” or “product of conception” be used, in order to drive the conclusion that unborn children are not human. In February of 2016, NARAL publicly objected to a humorous Doritos ad showing an unborn baby in an ultrasound hungering for a chip as “using the antichoice tactic of humanizing fetuses.” In fact, abortion supporters are more radical than slavery supporters—the latter tended less to fully dehumanize black people, than to argue that their supposed innate inferiority required them to be subordinate and paternally guided by the supposed superior races. Abortion supporters realize it is all or nothing for their position, so they put a lot of effort into using the language of full dehumanization.

The second class of arguments are philosophical arguments relating to political arrangements. Proponents of slavery, as Goodwin shows throughout her book, based their claims of right squarely on that most American of rights—the right to property, explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution, both in general and with respect to slaves. Those opposed to slavery found this argument very difficult to counter, because under the American political system, it was inarguably correct. One possible response was to purchase the freedom of slaves—but the amount of money involved was impractical, and anyway slave owners weren’t interested. So the usual response from those opposed to slavery was, in practice, to admit that slave owners were correct, and instead to hope that slavery would of itself die out over time. This was Lincoln’s position until he decided, during the Civil War, that purely in order to help win the war, he had the power to emancipate slaves—but only those slaves living in states in rebellion. Ultimately (and much of Goodwin’s book focuses on this), Lincoln pushed through the 13th Amendment, in order to trump this argument.

Proponents of abortion, of course, wouldn’t and couldn’t amend the Constitution to strip the right to life from those previously protected. Instead, they got the progressives of the day (1973) to radically re-interpret the Constitution to exclude the unborn. Their politico-philosophical reasoning was and is precisely analogous to the slave owners’ argument. It is not that women own their unborn children as property, but that their autonomy is restricted by having children if they decide they don’t want a child. But naturally the impact of this is indistinguishable from claiming a property right—it allows use and disposal of the object at issue, whether slave or child, by a person not the slave or child.

Abortion proponents realize this is, um, distasteful. So they conceal what this really means under constant repetitions of the mantra of “choice.” Who can object to choice? But, of course, there’s a parallel in Goodwin’s book there too. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which the future status of slavery (especially in new states) was a major issue, Douglas claimed to oppose slavery—but insisted that the government shouldn’t get involved, that instead “choice” of the citizens should be the focus. Naturally, the slaves were not consulted on the choice, any more than unborn children are consulted before they’re killed. The sorry parallel would be darkly humorous if it weren’t heartbreaking.

Nor is it a valid philosophical argument that much opposition to abortion is driven by religious belief and therefore somehow illegitimate (in a way that’s never quite defined, since religious belief has driven most social change in the United States, including the entire struggle for black civil rights, and never been questioned before). The same was true, perhaps even to a greater degree, of opposition to slavery. Britain banned slavery earlier than the United States, based on a purely religious campaign, and essentially all of the most vigorous opponents of slavery in the United States founded their arguments on religious belief, supplemented, of course, by logical arguments such as those used by Lincoln, and by pro-life people today.

The third class of arguments are purely practical arguments about the impact of political choices. There are a variety of such arguments, and again each has parallels in Goodwin’s book. We have already discussed eugenics—the practical impact of abortion is, for some, to cull the numbers among those populations regarded, by proponents of slavery or abortion, as inferior. (It is no coincidence that abortion rates are vastly higher among blacks than whites, or that Planned Parenthood focuses its efforts to increase abortions in black communities.) Another argument is comity. Another is that abortion is politically divisive and unsolvable.

Perhaps the most compelling practical argument that abortion proponents have is that restricting or forbidding abortion has a disproportionate impact on women. In practice, they say, women bear the costs more than men. This is true. If a woman cannot choose to have an abortion, this will affect women more than men. (It will not NOT affect men. First, men are affected if their children are killed. Second, and contrary to received wisdom, statistically men favor abortion rights more than women—doubtless because it relieves many men of responsibilities they would rather not have.) A society that focuses on ensuring that women have equal rights should be troubled by this. It also ignores that the unborn child bears the cost more than either, and to a degree that makes any other cost irrelevant. The disproportionate impact is an consequence of biology, which says nothing about the moral legitimacy of abortion.

As far as comity, one possible practical argument is that comparing abortion to slavery trivializes the suffering of black people under slavery, or under the post-slavery regimes of Jim Crow. But this counter-argument begs the question. It assumes the conclusion, by assuming that the suffering of the visible is greater than the suffering of the invisible. As Lincoln said, it is just that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” We viscerally agree with this, because we have seen, through pictures and the study of history, the reality of slavery. Goodwin’s book makes that reality very clear. Lincoln’s words apply with just as much force the blood drawn by the abortionist. We have seen, and Goodwin’s book reminds us, the horror of slavery. But what we have not seen is tens of millions of unborn children dismembered alive, burned to death with chemicals, being partially delivered and then having their skulls crushed and the brains sucked out, or being dumped in a dark and empty room to die alone when they inconveniently survived attempts to murder them. We have not seen these things because they are deliberately hidden from us (witness the uniform reaction to the whistleblowing Planned Parenthood undercover videos of 2015, which was to simply lie about what they contained and then criminally prosecute the whistleblowers), and because, like most Americans during slavery, we turn away from hard things to see. But in both cases the suffering is real, and in fact to the extent one can measure evils by the ending of human lives, abortion is far worse than slavery. Comparing abortion to slavery doesn’t trivialize slavery; quite the opposite. It realizes our moral responsibility, as individuals and as a society for both, and our moral imperative to end both.

On another comity argument, those opposed to abortion rights are frequently accused of being intemperate, which is code for “shut up, you’re making me uncomfortable.” The same treatment was given abolitionists, as Goodwin shows repeatedly. Most Northerners were not interested in aggressively ending slavery. Many didn’t care at all. Those, like Lincoln, who opposed slavery on moral grounds, were not interested in ending it by force, even well into the Civil War. Lincoln nearly lost re-election in 1864 because many saw the war as a war to end slavery, which was not a popular goal and was never the official goal. Abolitionists were a tiny minority, seen even in the North as obstreperous and intemperate, even dangerous. In our day, those in favor of abortion hope those opposed will disappear. But of course they, and their moral demands, will never disappear, any more than opposition to slavery did, because being pro-life is a compelling human position.

On the argument that abortion is politically divisive and unsolvable, and therefore we should have a “truce” (a truce which, given that the United States has the most permissive abortion laws in the Western world, is merely another term for granting victory to the pro-abortion forces), Goodwin is also instructive. Her book shows the difficulty of ending such a contentious debate, even after a devastating war. It took hundreds of years from the beginnings of opposition to slavery (driven by Christianity, of course—the first anti-slavery crusader was the 16th Century Spanish friar, Bartolomé de las Casas) to the final abolition of slavery in the West. (One difference, of course, is that until the 20th Century abortion was universally regarded in the West as morally abhorrent, and only recently has come to have many supporters, whereas slavery was always widely supported, until it wasn’t.) It is entirely possible that it will take as long to return to our original moral consensus on abortion. And that will be necessary for pro-life success, for technology will permit easier abortion in secret, so that mere government proscription will not be adequate, nor should that in practice be the focus. This change may seem unlikely—but then, all social changes seem unlikely, until they seem inevitable.

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Published in American History Book Reviews Charles Civil War Political Discussion & Analysis


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