Racial Slavery and Abortion in America: How History Repeats Itself

One reason I became a historian is because I became convinced that knowledge of the past can help and guide us in the present. While history may not always repeat itself, it is accurate to say that there is nothing new under the sun. 

I am reminded of these things as we mark the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. What I am reminded of exactly is that the legalization of abortion is not the first time that America has denied the personhood of a certain segment of its population. Unfortunately, there are a number of instances in which America has been guilty of this injustice. But none is greater than the injustice of racial slavery. While abortion and racial slavery are not completely analogous, it is undeniable that there are very concrete and disturbing parallels between the two. 

Denying Personhood

Defenders of slavery in America justified it by asserting that African-Americans were not fully persons, particularly in comparison to other races. Likewise, abortion advocates assert that the unborn baby — the fetus, as they call it — is not fully a person, particularly in comparison to those living outside of the womb. It is in denying the personhood of the African-American and of the unborn that one finds the justification for enslaving the one and murdering the other. 

When one recognizes that the foundational argument for slavery is the same for abortion, one is better equipped to see through the reasoning used for the latter. For instance, the most common argument for legalized abortion is that women should have the choice to do with their body as they wish. But this is in essence no different than a pro-slavery partisan proclaiming in the 1850s that the slave-owner should have the freedom to do as he wishes with his “property” — a human slave.

One is free to do as he wishes with the unborn baby, and the slave, only when neither of them are deemed to be human. But the moment you recognize the humanity — the personhood — of the slave and of the unborn, you forfeit the right to treat (or rather, mistreat) either one any way you wish. 

The Backbone of Abolition

Christians were the first to proclaim the humanity of the slave, and according to historians such as Bertram Wyatt-Brown and James Brewer Stewart, evangelical Christians formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement. Few if any evangelical Christians today believe it was wrong or inappropriate for Americans to crusade against chattel slavery in antebellum America. So, if it was appropriate and right for Christians to denounce slavery and seeks its demise in the 1800s, then why is the same not true for abortion in the 2000s? 

History shows us that slavery, like abortion, was predicated on the assertion that certain persons were not fully persons. The same faulty reasoning, the same erroneous assertion, the same myth that fueled the enslavement of millions 160 years ago has reared its ugly head again to justify the murder of tens of millions of unborn babies. History has here repeated itself.

Will that indeed be the case when historians one day write the history of the abolition of abortion? Will evangelical Christians be identified as the backbone of the movement that abolished an evil, liberated millions, and reminded the world that we are all fully persons, made in the image of God?

Brent Aucoin is the Associate Professor of History and the Associate Dean at The College of Southeastern in Wake Forest, NC. He is the author of A Rift in the Clouds (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2007) and several journal articles and reviews.

Brent Aucoin is the Associate Professor of History and the Associate Dean at The College of Southeastern in Wake Forest, NC. He is the author of A Rift in the Clouds (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2007) and a forthcoming biography of Thomas Goode Jones.