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Containing abortion

Property in men, property in babies

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Jan. 22 is the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Ten days later, Black History Month begins. We should think about the connection.

In 1855 Frederick Douglass titled his great autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. Ten years later, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, which he could have titled “Our Bondage and Our Freedom.”

Lincoln spoke of the deaths on both sides in what had become a war to end not Southern slavery but “American slavery”: Both North and South had culpability. Northern shipowners had profited from slavery. Northern states had acquiesced in constitutional compromises by which a human being could be seen both as property—owners had the right to recapture future slaves and return them to a hellish existence—and as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of giving white Southerners more representation in Congress.

Even Virginian James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” had said as he was drafting the document in 1787 that it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men”—but he established that wrong as a right. How to get rid of it became a 75-year debate in which abolitionists gained insufficient traction until war gave them a bloody win. When abolition wasn’t politically possible, the fallback position was a policy of containment rather than abolition: Congressman Abraham Lincoln from 1847 to 1849 voted to keep slavery from expanding into Western territories and to appropriate funds to purchase the freedom of slaves in the District of Columbia.

Historian James Oakes described that fallback strategy this way: “The federal government would surround the South with free states, free territories, and free waters, building what they called a ‘cordon of freedom’ around slavery, hemming it in until the system’s own internal weaknesses forced the slave states one by one to abandon slavery.”

Jump to 1970 when the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, in the city that had years before been an abolitionist stronghold, declared in Our Bodies, Ourselves that unborn children were essentially the property of their mothers, to be disposed of as they saw fit. Three years later Justice Harry Blackmun declared inRoe that the government has an interest in the survival of an unborn child only when he or she becomes two-thirds of a person.

Blackmun apparently thought he was offering a moderate compromise in recognizing a child’s humanity in the last trimester of development. Some editorial writers after Roe wiped off their crystal balls and predicted an end to “emotion-charged hearings” on abortion (Des Moines Register) and the “distractive issue [for] politicians and policemen and judges” (Milwaukee Journal). The New York Times praised Blackmun for providing “a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution [of the] emotional and divisive public argument” concerning abortion. They were as accurate as Sen. Stephen Douglas and some Southern journalists were when they said the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed for slavery expansion, would quiet the debate over treating persons as property.

Jump to 2021, when more states with conservative majorities are likely to join those that already have heartbeat laws that protect unborn children starting at six weeks of gestation—if the Supreme Court will allow those laws. Abortion strongholds like New York, Illinois, and California could be hemmed in by life-affirming states until liberalism’s internal contradictions—standing for the weak and vulnerable but killing the most vulnerable—eventually kill the abortion regime.

But abortion advocates are already pushing their new Kansas-Nebraska Act to break out of containment: Mail-order abortions, with home-delivered baby-killing chemicals. The first line of defense against that is the Food and Drug Administration; but pro-abortion judges have already circumvented it, and a Biden FDA is likely to open wide the gates. Ultrasound pictures of their unborn babies give women (and men) much to think about, but the pro-abortion response is Don’t see! Don’t think! Just do it!

The pro-life movement will need creativity in responding. This year WORLD will report on several new initiatives.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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