Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Racism, Slavery and Abortion

Critics of abortion sometimes claim that their position on abortion is similar to what they claim is their position on racism and slavery: all are wrongful discrimination and so all are profoundly wrong.

The claim is also sometimes presented in terms of "equality": just as advocates of racism and slavery deny the equality of human beings, people who think abortion is not wrong also reject "equality" for human fetuses.

So the suggestion is that people who are willing to routinely allow abortions would, andif they were consistent, shouldsupport racism and slavery: anyone OK with abortions might as well be OK with racism and slavery since they are all the same type of wrongdoing, discrimination, and denial of equality, they claim. 

Here I want to briefly respond to this type of claim or argument. I don't have a whole lot to say about it other than this, which is a profound understatement: the comparison here is absurd. 

To begin, we should notice that there are many reasons or explanations of why racism is wrong:
  • racism and its consequences, such as slavery, negatively affects, in profound ways, the experience of living, experiencing people
  • racism negatively affects people by displaying profound disrespect that impacts the victims' lived, experienced world, in many ways; 
  • racism makes people's lives and quality of life and sense of self profoundly worse, in so many ways. 
We must also recall that one of the most influential arguments in favor of the permissibility of abortion relates to bodily autonomy and the right to one's own body: racism and slavery, of course, involve denying people's rights to their lives and bodies. 

And, finally, in terms of "equality," equality is often understood in the abstract ways of as equal consideration or respect for similar interests, or equal respect of rights from harm or rights to certain benefits; these considerations clearly explain why racism is wrong, but they do not seem to apply to non-conscious fetuses, who arguably lack interests and so things can't take a turn for the worse for them, and so they can't be harmed

All this says too little and in too limited of ways. Here is a song with video footage that can help convey the evil and wrongness of racism better than my words here can:

Now, do any of the best reasons to think that racism is profoundly wrong apply to non-conscious, non-experiencing fetuses? (Most abortions affect early fetuses that are not developed enough for consciousness and feeling).


None of the good reasons to object to racism apply to early fetuses: they can't experience anything, they can't feel anything, they can't experience any kind of disrespect. There's just no relevant comparison to be made.

(For rare, later abortions of potentially conscious fetuses, there are not the kinds of negative attitudes towards and about those fetuses that are present in racism, and there are other important differences also).

Some would respond, "But they are all human beings, and so they are all the same!"

What this response fails to engage, however, is the question of why human beings are wrong to treat disrespectfully, why human beings are wrong to harm in ways like how racism harms people.

My experience is that many people who oppose abortion (as well as many who support abortion) don't realize that this is a "live" and relevant question: they've never thought about why it's typically wrong to kill someone or harm someone: they haven't surveyed the range of answers here and evaluated them.

One set of answers to these "why?" questions here relate to lived experience: obligations to human beings (and anyone else) depends on their being conscious, their having feelings, and their having a subjective point of view which can go well for them, from their own point of view, or go poorly for them, from their own point of view. Someone can be disrespected also only when they have a point of view, a perspective, that can be denigrated and its value denied. Racism is, of course disrespectful, and it makes someone's life go worse, for them, which contributes to its wrongness.

In sum, to compare abortion to racism is just a bad analogy: they are not relevantly similar. The best reasons to think that racism are wrong, the best explanations why racism is wrong, just don't apply to fetuses: it's as simple as that. 

(If you know of any attempts to rigorously make the argument here that I am critiquing, instead of just throwing it out as a soundbite or an undeveloped idea [such as here or here], please let me know).

A relevant ad hominem observationthat is, an observation about the personalities and characters of the people who make these comparisons, not the comparison or argument itselfis that it seems that people who tend to enthusiastically oppose abortion tend to not vigorously oppose racism and racist social and legal practices. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, but, in general, it appears that most people who strongly oppose abortion do not also present themselves as committed anti-racists or are strongly supportive of anti-racist efforts and policies. If this is correct, why is that?

Update: see Imani Gandy's "Abortion Is Not Like Slavery, So Stop Comparing the Two," Nov 12, 2013. 

Update again:

Thursday, June 1, 2023


 Many anti- #abortion (" #prolife") people claim that (biologically human!) embryos and fetuses can be "#dehumanized." They should search here on Amazon, and this author's earlier book on dehumanization, for the term "abortion" and review the explanation for why that term usually doesn't apply:

#prochoice #dehumanization

Making Monsters: 

The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization  


Follow the Author


1 comment:

  1. I highly recommend adding "Permissible Progeny? The Morality of Procreation and Parenting", 2015, Oxford University Press to your list for further reading.