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New York’s New Law Is Abortion’s John C. Calhoun Moment


New York’s legislature last week passed a bill that drastically expanded access to late-term abortion in that state. Although ghoulish, it was unsurprising. It fits neatly within the mainstream opinion of the 21st-century Democratic Party. Neither was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature a surprise, since the governor has followed the well-worn path of fake-Catholic Democrats on the subject.

Vermont and Virginia are considering similar laws. The shift has been building for some time. The radical fringe that pushes abortion rights has dropped all pretense that abortion has any downsides.

From the “safe, legal, and rare” formulation Hillary Clinton famously pronounced during her husband’s presidency and again offered as recently as 2008, we have somehow arrived at a point where abortion advocates want women to “shout your abortion.” Cuomo decreed that the lights of the state-owned One World Trade Center (née the Freedom Tower) be lit in pink to exclaim the triumph of “women’s rights.”

It has become common to compare the fight over abortion to the fight over slavery, and rightly so. Like abortion advocates, slavery supporters based their position on denying the basic human rights of a certain subset of humans. Even when they recognized such people as fully human, they subordinated their human rights to the rights of other, more powerful people. We can learn from the 19th century’s fight for freedom, especially as the fight for life in our own time parallels it in so many ways.

Moving from Moderate to Principled

As with the debate over abortion, the debate over slavery began in America mostly among moderates. Partly this was because, then as now, the people most deeply harmed by the institution were not consulted. Among the voices that were allowed to be heard, most wanted gradual changes if they wanted changes at all.

By the time the Constitution was written, slavery had already declined in the Northern states. Partially this was because their climate and terrain did not lend themselves to the South’s large-scale plantation economies, but there was more to it than that.

Slave owners could still benefit from slavery on a small scale: anyone who had servants could certainly save money by not paying them. But the moral case against slavery was beginning to take hold. Beginning with the 1688 address from the Germantown Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia, there slowly grew a sentiment that enslaving our fellow humans was wrong.

This sentiment was not restricted to the North. Much as they enjoyed the fruits of other people’s involuntary labor, the owners of the great estates of the South could not help but see the problem. As Americans fought for their freedom and the natural rights of mankind in the Revolution, only through willful blindness could anyone fail to see that their slaves could turn the same arguments back on them.

As in the North, many Southerners favored a gradual emancipation. No drastic changes, as the Quakers and other abolitionists proposed (and as the slaves would certainly have preferred), only a smooth transition away from an economy that nearly all of the Founding Fathers understood was a relic of the past. George Washington typified this view in planning to free his slaves, but only after his and his wife’s death.

More typical were slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson who, paraphrasing Suetonius, famously said of slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Despite limited action by the remaining slaveholders, the general sentiment even among its supporters was that slavery was a necessary evil that someday would disappear.

From Necessary Evil to ‘Positive Good’

That trajectory toward freedom was not maintained. Part of the reason was economic. Historians used to point to the invention of the cotton gin as the change that made slavery so profitable that slaveowners never again considered giving it up. That is partly true, and other economic changes added to the problem. The closing of the international slave trade in 1808 made existing slaves more valuable, meaning their owners were even more reluctant to let them go free.

What would happen after slavery began to concern slaveowners, too. The bloody revolution in Haiti and smaller slave revolts in the United States weighed heavily on their minds. If the people held in bondage were freed and granted equal rights, what would be the fate of those who had unjustly held them in chains for so many generations?

At the same time, the traditional justifications for slavery began to wear thin. At one time, Christian slaveholders considered owning Africans to be moral because the slaves were heathens, but by the 1800s most slaves worshiped the same God—often in the same Christian denomination—as their masters, and even had slave preachers spreading the Word.

Likewise, claims of Africans’ inherent inferiority could not be taken seriously as black slaves learned trades and performed them at the same level as white tradesmen. By mid-century, the literary and rhetorical accomplishments of ex-slave Frederick Douglass showed that a black man’s mind could be every bit as lively as a white’s.

As these justifications faded away, some might have taken it as a reason to end the practice altogether. Instead, a new generation of slavery advocates arose that supported the institution even more than their fathers and grandfathers had. Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was foremost among these. In 1837, Calhoun gave a speech in the Senate that marked the transition to a new, more aggressive pro-slavery ideology:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good. … I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

A Turning Point in History

That phrase—“a positive good”—signaled that Calhoun and others like him were committed to their cause, and no reason, science, or moral suasion would divert them from their chosen path. Slavery advocates now proclaimed the institution as actually superior to any other sort of labor arrangement. They still had Jefferson’s wolf by the ears, but now they liked it just fine and had no intention of letting the wretched thing go.

The speech was an inflection point of history. From then on, the debate was irrevocably changed. Advocates of a managed decline of slavery diminished, and pro-slavery fire-eaters gained in prominence. Increased attention to the issue made Northerners more extreme, too.

Where many had opposed slavery but been content to ignore it now that it was gone from their backyards, increasing debate and popular literature—including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—forced them to confront the hateful thing directly. Once their eyes were opened, many did not like what they saw. The two sides soon had no common ground, and only war would resolve the issue.

The parallels to the abortion debate are unmistakable. Although Cuomo lacks Calhoun’s rhetorical skill, his devotion to an unjust cause matches the South Carolinian’s. The #ShoutYourAbortion campaign began in 2015, and in 2019 it has only increased in reach. Abortion’s defenders now see that unholy act as a positive good in the world, not just a necessary evil. The lights of the World Trade Center were a burnt offering to Moloch, a pledge of allegiance to the cause of infanticide. This is abortion’s Calhoun moment.

What Now?

Comparing abortion to slavery is only meaningful if we can learn something from it. Sadly, the course of the 19th century’s great debate does not foreshadow a simple end to our current dispute. It is a mistake to say that our Civil War was inevitable, but once the Slave Power began to embrace slavery as a positive good, once they began to see it as an end in itself and not merely the means to achieve financial comfort, the two sides were no longer aiming at the same eventual result. A negotiated solution became a lot less likely.

With the ancient right to life on one side and the right to abortion invented in the 1970s on the other, there can be no compromise.

So it is with the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act. That act and the jollification that followed it mark a turning point, just as Calhoun’s speech did. No representative of the Abortion Power anymore wishes to portray their actions as necessary evils. You don’t “shout” something you wish you hadn’t done. You shout in jubilation.

At the same time, the pro-life side is not weakening in its resolve. Just as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” made abolitionists out of the slavery debate’s bystanders, films like “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer” force moderates to see the true horror of the thing they desperately wish to be indifferent about.

Modern science likewise demolishes the dismissive “clump of cells” justification that abortion advocates of the 1970s told themselves to soothe tender consciences. We know now, more than we ever have, that the unborn are living human beings. As they did in Calhoun’s time, the moral workarounds needed to accept injustice are becoming threadbare.

Does this mean an armed conflict is inevitable? No, but it does mean that now that the two sides are aiming at different goals, and now that erstwhile moderates are being force to think through their positions and join a side, the idea of a negotiated compromise is unlikely.

Many European countries have struck the balance by allowing first-trimester abortions and banning all others, but that is a solution that is more difficult in America because of our rights-based jurisprudence. With the ancient right to life on one side and the right to abortion invented in the 1970s on the other, there can be no compromise.

Cuomo’s light show in New York is a signal that the battle is joined. It will not end until one side prevails.