In February 1837, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun changed the tone of the cultural, religious, political, and social war over slavery by declaring human bondage a “positive good.” Most members of the generation of Americans who created the United States government, by contrast, saw slavery as an unfortunate legacy of the colonial period. A few in Georgia and South Carolina were indifferent to its moral status but committed to its economic benefits. Many others hoped that the new government might eventually put slavery on the road to extinction.
During the debates over the federal constitution, even members committed to allowing the retention of slavery argued against provisions that might affirm the morality of human bondage. William Paterson of New Jersey, for example, opposed representing slaves in the Congress because it might afford “an indirect encouragement of the slave trade,” an institution seen as wicked even by many slaveholders. And in 1790, when Quakers presented a petition to Congress arguing for the abolition of the slave trade, Virginia planter Josiah Parker thanked them for “attending to matters of such momentous concern to the future happiness and prosperity of the people.” Parker, like Washington, Adams, and scores of the revolutionary generation, hoped eventually to eradicate chattel slavery from the new United States. Richard Henry Lee, another slaveholding Virginian, called slavery a moral blight. Even as late as 1820, when Congress argued over slavery’s expansion into federal territories and the new state of Missouri, South Carolina’s virulently pro-slavery Senator William Smith could only offer an anemic moral defense of slavery when he called it a “necessary evil.”
Calhoun’s radical embrace of slavery added to the dehumanization of African-Americans and departed from long-held moral and political understanding of slavery in American political life. In our own time, modern-day John C. Calhouns make up the abortion lobby in American politics. The 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) clearly demonstrates that the Democratic Party has shifted from acceptance of abortion as a necessary evil to celebration of abortion as a positive good.
“Safe, Legal, and Rare” No More
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
In previous decades, abortion advocates said that they wanted to make abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” Abortion seemed a tragedy even to its early defenders. As late as 2008, Hillary Clinton—a leading political voice for the abortion cause—used this phrase, emphasizing that she believed abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare, I mean rare.” She even conceded that a mother’s decision to end the life of her unborn child “should not in any way be diminished as a moral issue.” Clinton understood, she said, the religious aspect of the decision, because the decision undoubtedly distressed “a young woman, her family, her physician and [her] pastor.”
But the actions of abortion advocates at the 2016 DNC demonstrate how much has changed since then. Far from viewing the terminating of unborn lives as a tragedy, Democratic partisans now enthusiastically embrace the brutal vision of “reproductive rights” put forth by NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Cheered on by individuals such as Lena Dunham and Wendy Davis, they encourage each other to “shout their abortions” as things to be celebrated. At the DNC, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue proudly recounted her story of ending her unborn child’s life. This prompted wild cheering from the crowd. “To succeed in life,” Hogue said, “all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path. . . . I made the decision that was best for me—to have an abortion.”
Abortion, Slavery, and the Tyranny of the Individual
Abortion activists couch their arguments in the language of absolute individual autonomy. A woman, they declare, has a right to do what she pleases with her body. No one—not her husband, parents, family, faith community, or society at large—has a right to tell her what to do with it. In an interview in April 2016, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards exasperatedly told the audience that she and women around the country were “so sick of men telling us what to do with our bodies.” But Richards wasn’t just sick of men coercing the individual will of women to spare the life of the unborn. She was sick of churches, families, local communities, state legislatures, and any other human institution. Her will should be absolute over theirs even in the case of the life or death of a human being. The DNC crowd cheered when Ilyse Hogan invoked the same idea. In so doing, they cheered nothing less than the tyrannical disposition that dominated the psyches of antebellum slaveholders.
A popular antebellum argument against abolition and emancipation foreshadowed the current abortion narrative in its emphasis on total autonomy. John Townsend, a southern pamphleteer, published a virulently pro-slavery tract during the 1860 election titled The South alone, should govern the South: And African slavery should be Governed by Those Only Who are Friendly To it. That southerners alone—without the influence or interference of natural law or revealed religion—should govern slavery was a very new idea, even for slaveholders. Patrick Henry, a slaveholding Virginian, believed that slavery was “repugnant to humanity . . . inconsistent with humanity, and destructive to liberty.” Townsend and the slaveholding generation of 1860 rejected any and all cultural, legal, political, and religious restrictions on slavery—much in the same way their latter-day analogues have done with the killing of the unborn. The tyranny of the individual is as complete with abortion activists as it was with slave owners.
Both slavery and abortion defenses often use the language of submission. Abortion supporters argue that women should not have to submit themselves to the state or any other mediating authority, such as churches and family. Not even the father of the unborn child has a say. Similarly, Townsend angrily denounced those who would allow authorities other than the individual to determine the moral rightness of chattel slavery in the United States. “Submission,” cried Townsend, remained intolerable because it abrogated the individual slaveholders’ ultimate and final authority over their human chattel. In the same way, modern abortion advocates have viewed any obstacle to abortion-on-demand—including waiting periods and parental consent for minors—as an entirely unwarranted invasion of women’s totalitarian authority over their unborn children.
Ignoring Religion, Philosophy, and Science
Once the cancer of individual autonomy metastasizes in a society, the moral corpus of the populace turns into a grotesque and sickly version of its former self. Bereft of religion or a transcendent understanding of the rule of law, individuals co-opt the state, attempting to conform reality to their individual vision of how reality should be. In the case of abortionists, they must willfully disregard demonstrable and overwhelming scientific evidence as well as two millennia of Judeo-Christian revelation and natural law philosophy in order to dehumanize the unborn. They cannot allow any of this evidence to interfere with their belief that, far from being a gross violation of human and natural rights, abortion is in fact a positive good not just for women but for society at large. Rather than a person with human dignity made in the image and likeness of God, the unborn child becomes a clump of cells or, at best, a “potential person” who does not yet have any constitutional rights.
Likewise, slavery extremists ignored centuries of Christian teaching. They embraced repugnant theories espousing the abhorrent notion that African-Americans were of a different species, the result of a separate act of creation. This allowed them to justify relegating slaves to subhuman status. Josiah Nott, an early racial theorist and eugenicist who supported American slavery, believed that superior races must eventually subjugate and eradicate inferior species for the good of the human race. Nott argued that his world had advanced “in civilization more rapidly than in former times, and mainly for the substantial reason that the higher types of mankind have so increased in power that they can no longer be molested by the inferior.” Modern American abortion advocates espouse the same idea. Society has advanced to the point that we are able to remove the weak and helpless who might disrupt the higher type of life enjoyed by the strong and healthy.
As crowds cheered abortion as a positive good in Philadelphia, they emulated those who cheered human bondage as a positive good in the antebellum South. They would do well to heed the august warning of George Mason, a revolutionary-era patriot. Slavery, Mason warned, is a
slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentlemen [sic] here is born a petty Tyrant. Practiced in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity, & all the finer feelings of the Soul. Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man, which the Hand of Nature had implanted in us, for great & useful purposes. Habituated from our Infancy to trample upon the Rights of Human Nature, every generous, every liberal Sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our Minds. And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers.
In the same way, modern Americans are being educated in an infernal school of thought that licenses raw individual will and desires over the lives of human beings bearing the image of the divine. Reflecting on slavery in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” As we reflect on our country’s embrace of abortion, we too should tremble.