Bleeding Kansas

2009 June 3
by Ellen Noonan

The murder of Dr. George Tiller in the lobby of his Wichita church was, as many have noted, an act of domestic terrorism. Tiller was, in the words of his colleague and friend Amy Hagstrom Miller, “a man of profound spiritual depth and grace” who “understood that abortion was not about science. And not about religion; it is about the heart of a woman.”

Perhaps inevitably, a rightwing radio host described Tiller’s alleged killer, Scott Roeder, as a man “who in very John Brown-like fashion, illegally took matters into his own hands.” Setting aside the incongruity of hard-line conservatives managing to simulataneously align themselves with Brown’s vision of radical equality between the races and tar Sonia Sotomayor as a “reverse racist” who should anglicize the pronounciation of her name, anti-abortion activists have long compared themselves to the radical abolitionists of the nineteenth century, willing to challenge what they view as unjust and inhumane laws. As recently as March 24th, former Arkansas governor and Republican Party presidential candidate Mike Huckabee addressed an audience of anti-abortion supporters:

“What are we saying to the generation coming after us when we tell them that it is perfectly OK for one person to own another human being? I thought we dealt with that 150 years ago when the issue of slavery was finally settled in this country”

Ta-Nehisi Coates does an effective job dismantling this analogy, by taking on the notion of “personhood” at its center. He notes the crucial difference between slaves, who were both understood at the time to be persons (if not equal to non-slave persons) and who acted to achieve their own self-determination:

Unlike embryos, black people were very capable of expressing their thoughts about their own personhood, and never held it in much doubt. Whereas the fight against abortion begins with pro-lifers asserting the rights of embryos, the fight against slavery doesn’t begin with the abolitionists, but with the Africans themselves who resisted.

I think people who equate the fight miss that crucial distinction. I think that’s why they’re more likely to invoke John Brown than, say, Nat Turner–it clouds the analogy. That said even in accepting  John Brown as a stand-in for to pro-life vigilantes, you must also say that  pro-life vigilantes generally don’t have armed embryos raiding with them.

I would add to Coates’ first point, about whether the majority society viewed slaves as people or not, that racist ideas about African inferiority during the antebellum era—pervasive, dehumanizing, and cloaked in pseudo-scientific rationales—were not age-old truths but rather an elaborate construction intended to justify a highly profitable labor system. Defining embryos and fetuses as “persons” is an equally elaborate construction (albeit one that has gained far less traction) designed to disregard “the heart of a woman” and  lower her personhood down a notch.

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