Ta-Nehisi has pushed once again into the abortion and slavery debate, this time following the invocation of that analogy by Rick Santorum and Joe Klein’s subsequent defense of Santorum’s rhetoric.
Now, I’ve admitted in the past two things about the fetus-as-slave analogy: first, that it is not a very good analogy – and indeed I agree with essentially every one of Ta-Nehisi’s critiques of it – and second, that I can understand why pro-lifers use it nonetheless.
I’ve mulled it over a bit in light of this latest controversy and it struck me that we’ve all made this issue much more complex than it needs to be. Here is why this wrong-headed analogy is made time and time again: people have nothing else to compare it to, no other episode in our national history that they can conjure up that is in their minds as horrible as abortion. So the analogy is a stretch to be sure, but I think it’s made because those making it need to find something as terrible as abortion to liken it to. The gaps are filled in with talk of personhood – the fetus denied their full rights as the slave was denied theirs and so forth.
As I said previously, my empathy for those making the comparison does not extend to the point of agreeing that it is a good one. Similar analogies are made to the Holocaust, and again we could go point by point and illustrate how logically the two are simply not the same thing at all, but it would skirt the real point of the comparison to begin with. Abortion is seen by many as a great evil, a calamity of truly epic scope, and they look to the past to find other calamities, other moments of crisis within our history and culture.
I think that the fundamental flaw in this analogy is not really how accurate or inaccurate it is, but rather that it muddies up how we talk about both the abortion debate and how we talk about slavery and that time in our collective history that was so defined by slavery. My point in trying to write these pieces is not to defend the use of this analogy or give a pass to those invoking it; rather, I am pointing out that this is for many people a highly charged, highly emotional issue and the use of the analogy is not necessarily at all racist but rather an attempt to tie one emotional issue to another. I agree with Rufus’s point that using history in this manner does great damage to how we understand the past and how we grapple with the present. Abortion should be discussed on its own terms, not on the terms of a wholly separate and unique tragedy. But I do see why in a debate as emotional and controversial as the abortion debate this sort of analogy would bubble to the surface from time to time.