Abortion activists have long claimed that to be pro-choice is not to be pro-abortion. But the gradual change in the rhetoric of the Democratic party in particular seems to belie that claim. Democrats have shifted their position on abortion from “safe, legal, and rare” to “on demand and without apology.” They are increasingly strident and wary of expressing any hesitancy about the morality of abortion.
Abortion-advocacy groups lambasted Democratic presidential candidate Representative Tulsi Gabbard for her endorsement of the “safe, legal, and rare” position. Other examples abound, from the “Shout Your Abortion” movement to celebrating abortion with “birthday” cakes. Even the former president of Planned Parenthood, Leana Wen, has fallen to activist ire. Wen recently wrote in the New York Times that part of the reason for her ouster from Planned Parenthood leadership was that she “did not prioritize abortion enough.” True to form, Planned Parenthood regularly tweets messages such as “Abortion is moral. It is important. It is health care.”
The Democratic party’s new defense of abortion on grounds of morality rather than necessity is eerily reminiscent of the transformation in Southern views on slavery between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Founding generation tolerated slavery as a “necessary evil,” mindful of the tension between chattel slavery and the Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of equal human dignity and God-given rights. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in 1774 that “the abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.” The Founders supposed slavery to be on the path toward extinction and employed circumlocution to avoid mentioning that “peculiar institution” in the Constitution itself.
The Spirit of ’76 quickly began to fade, however, as southerners argued that, “instead of an evil,” slavery was, in the words of as John C. Calhoun, “a good — a positive good.” Over the next several decades, culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the “positive good” school of thought became predominant. William Harper, who drafted South Carolina’s Nullification Ordinance of 1832, argued that slavery benefited both slave and master and that it constituted the essential basis for the formation of civilization. George Fitzhugh, a sociologist and lawyer, claimed that slavery was not only justifiable but actually economically superior to the Northern free-labor market. He predicted that slavery would eventually spread throughout the country. Responding to such facile defenses of slavery, Abraham Lincoln observed that “although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself!” (Perhaps President Ronald Reagan had these words in mind when he quipped, “I’ve noticed that everybody who is for abortion has already been born.”)
The tide reached a pinnacle in Alexander Stephens’s famous criticism of the Founders for establishing “all men are created equal” as the cornerstone of the American republic. The Confederacy would be “founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” he said. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” In Stephens’s warped view, declaring slavery a positive good meant reinventing the American creed.
That reinvention underlies the recent shift in abortion rhetoric as well. The radical position that abortion is actually a positive good is incompatible with the American creed. American republicanism presupposes the existence of natural and unalienable rights, which human beings possess simply by virtue of being human. Slavery could flourish only so long as blacks were considered outside the moral community of persons.
Abortion rejects the natural right to life in the same way. Declaring some members of the human species, by virtue of their age or degree of dependency, unworthy of the equal dignity and rights recognized in the proposition that “all men are Created equal” goes beyond the original sin of the American founding. It goes beyond “choice” and arguments about necessary evils. Instead, it follows a path trodden by southern slaveholders who rejected even the principle of equality and natural rights. Like the Civil War Democrats who sought to become second founders by rejecting the American commitment to natural rights for all persons, today’s Democrats make vice their principle, and demand that all join in the celebration.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.