Throughout the history of the pro-life movement, an analogy can be drawn between the movements to end abortion and slavery. The most notable work is Dr. Willke’s book Abortion and Slavery History Repeats. This analysis bears repeating here with added updates. Though space only permits a basic list of comparisons without some of the rich history behind it.
During its peak, there were approximately four-million slaves in the United States. In the slave states, roughly one in four owned slaves.,1 Today in America, about one in four pregnancies end in abortion.
When drafted in 1787, the US Constitution embedded slavery into the fabric of society. Article I, Section 2, stated for the purpose of determining congressional representation that slaves constituted only “three fifths of all other Persons.” This essentially guaranteed that pro-slavery forces would control Congress and the presidency until the Civil War.
Of course pro-abortion forces don’t have the Constitution on their side, but they do control the media, academia and much of the government bureaucracy, which gives them power beyond their numbers.
Another constitutional blow to the abolitionists was the US Supreme Court Dred Scott decision. Like Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, it superseded all state laws on the matter. In several ways Dred Scott mirrors Roe in the way it affected its victims. Dred Scott of 1857 was a 7-2 decision. Roe v. Wade of 1973 was a 7-2 decision. Dred Scott said Blacks were nonpersons. Roe said unborn babies were nonpersons. Dred Scott declared Blacks were the property of their owner. Roe declared the unborn were the property of their mother. Under Dred Scott, owners could choose to buy, sell or under most circumstances kill their property. Roe gave the same right to mothers to keep or under most circumstances kill (abort) their unborn babies. Dred Scott told the abolitionists they could not impose their morality on the slave owner. Roe said the same thing to pro-lifers—don’t impose your morality on the mothers. Under Dred Scott, slavery was legal. Under Roe and its companion case, Bolton, abortion is legal.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, pro-slavery activists declared their right to “choose” to own slaves. Pro-abortion activists, after Roe, declared their right to “choose” to abort the baby.
“Human rights,” said a slavery advocate, “in society are relative, not absolute, and every living creature should be entrusted with just so much liberty as is for the general good and no more.”2 Today liberals say the Constitution is a “living document” that evolves to be relevant for the “common good.”
Dehumanizing the slaves was necessary so that society would not sympathize with them. They were “treated as ‘livestock,’ their children called ‘increase,’ their mothers ‘breeders,’ the men ‘drivers.’”3 Abortion advocates did the same to unborn children, calling them a “fetus, glob of tissue or product of pregnancy.”
Not only were slaves whipped, beaten or imprisoned for the least or imagined infraction, they were branded and their ears clipped for identification of their “property.” Unborn babies also suffered inhumane acts. They have been dismembered, had their brains suctioned out or were left alone to slowly die if they survived the abortion because their
mother no longer wanted her “property.”
Slavery advocates promoted the idea that slavery was good because it was sanctioned by the nation’s highest court. A counter argument from David Barrow lamented the “strange doctrine of the Christian church that forbids ministers to condemn sin simply because it is authorized by the government.”4 Millions of Americans tragically believe abortion is okay just because it is legal.
In spite of Dred Scott, nearly all abolitionist leaders “never denied the authority of the Supreme Court. They…flatly and totally denounced the correctness of the decision. As Gerrit Smith said, ‘I deny that decisions of any, even the highest earthly tribunal, against fundamental unchangeable, internal human rights are ever, even for a moment, to be regarded as final and unalterable.’”5 A vast majority of the pro-life movement is following the same respectful posture.
The abolitionist movement began to gain ground in the early part of the 19th century, but the invention of the cotton gin greatly expanded cotton production and the demand for slaves. Money replaced morality as the key influence on those passing laws, and slavery expanded. Money is the motivating factor in the abortion industry. Planned Parenthood sets abortion quotas for each facility and reprimands those who fall short of the goal. Blood money is blood money.
Regarding the radical nature of those who promote slavery, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The question recurs, what will satisfy them? This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly—done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Holding as they do, that slavery is morally right and socially elevating…”6 How similar this is to describing those who advocate for abortion-on-demand. Even our right to not participate in or fund abortion is now in question.
Theodore Weld from Ohio was recognized as one of the most effective public speakers in America on the evils of slavery. The pro-life movement fared well with another Ohioan who was a gifted speaker. Dr. Willke, along with his wife Barbara, became the most popular and sought after speakers on abortion.
Some of the most effective speakers were former slave owners like James Birney who provided added credibility to the abolitionists’ message. In the same way, women and men who have in the past chosen abortion are often the babies’ most effective ambassadors. Their stories of pain and regret cannot be denied and they add a greater level of credibility to the need to end abortion.
It’s no surprise that churches in the time of slavery had opposing views, some even took strong stands on both sides, depending upon the prevailing political climate. The Charleston Baptist Association, in 1835, told the South Carolina legislature that they “do not consider that the Holy Scriptures have made the fact of slavery a question of morals at all…The question, it is believed, is purely one of the political economy.”7 The Quakers were the only church body that totally and consistently opposed slavery. Sadly, while many church bodies today voice strong opposition to legal abortion, the Quakers have remained silent. Churches were then and are now effective forums for spreading the message. Just like slavery, the issue of abortion is far bigger than any single church or denomination.
The Anti-Slavery Society was the major abolition organization. It had individual chapters that retained a large degree of autonomy. Both the Society and its chapters published, lectured and trained others. In the day, Ohio was the epicenter for anti-slavery activities. The same can be said about Ohio and the abortion issue.
The grassroots anti-slavery movement increased pressure on state and local officials in both political parties. They aided fugitive slaves and were participants in an endless battle for civil rights. Early in the pro-life movement, National Right to Life was the prominent grassroots pro-life organization, structured in a nearly identical fashion like the Society. As with the abolitionist movement, other pro-life organizations formed to create a massive, mostly all volunteer force for human justice.
Education was perhaps the most powerful tool of the abolitionists. Theodore Weld, in May of 1838, married Angelina Grimke—a well-known abolitionist in her own right. Together, they wrote what became a great classic of the anti-slavery movement, American Slavery, As It Is. It was a well-written and solidly-documented “encyclopedia of facts.” It presented slavery to the reader with all its horrors and indignities. One of the things that made this publication stand out was the authors understood the power and persuasion of images. They included drawings and pictures that graphically depicted why slavery was such a scourge on society.
The pro-life counterpart is strikingly similar. Written by the “parents” of the pro-life movement, Jack Willke, MD and his wife Barbara Willke, RN, the book titled, Handbook on Abortion, became a classic educational tool and was called the “bible” on abortion. Its question and answer format with documentation has equipped millions of pro-lifers to advocate for innocent human life. Dr. and Mrs. Willke pioneered the idea of showing graphic images of what abortion does to babies, as well as beautiful pictures of babies within the womb. The Willkes knew that the audience may not remember what they told them, but they would remember the pictures.
One of the common phrases used by abolitionists was taken from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Sound familiar?
Petitions were a consistent and popular tool for the masses to urge Congress to end slavery. During the historic 1990 Rally for Life in Washington, DC, I presented a larger-than-life-sized petition to Congressman Henry Hyde, representing well over one- million signatures of Americans asking Congress to end the slaughter of babies through abortion.
The political landscape was eerily similar during both times in history. Back then it was the Republicans who campaigned on and worked to end slavery. Now again the Republican Party is on the side of human justice and against abortion. This is a radical contradiction to the National Democrat Party’s platform of abortion-on-demand throughout pregnancy, funded by the government. And of course today like yesteryear we have politicians who are personally opposed to abortion, but would not interfere with “a woman’s right to choose.” During the 1858 Lincoln/Douglas presidential debate, Douglas reiterated he was not pro-slavery, but supported the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision allowing slavery.
Like today, single issue advocacy and voting was alive and well in the 1800s. Theodore Weld wrote, “The sin of slavery in this country…overshadows all others, but involves all others, and absorbs them into itself. It is my deliberate conviction that revivals, moral reforms, etc., must and will remain stationary until the temple is cleansed.”
During society’s great debate over slavery, there were those who passionately defended it. Robert E Lee wrote in 1856, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically and socially.”8 Obviously, General Lee and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both suffer from an appalling lack of moral compass. Referring to late-term abortion she said, “As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me.”9
The abolitionists had their own internal problems. “In 1840, William Lloyd Garrison stacked a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Boston and succeeded in gaining control of the Society. The core group of leaders resigned as a body from the old group, immediately moved to New York and organized the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.”10 Ironically, Dr. Willke was to face a similar situation in his efforts to end abortion. As the number of pro-life organizations proliferated, turf battles and professional jealousies generated their own infighting.
Black abolitionist leaders provided an invaluable contribution to ending slavery. “A partial list would include David Walker, who wrote Appeal; the poet, George Moses Horton; the insurrectionist, Nat Turner; the prominent lecturer, Sojourner Truth; lecturers and writers, Fredrick Douglas and Henry Garnet; and the great Harriet Tubman, who helped so many escape through the underground railway.”11
Today Life Issues Institute’s staff includes Rev. Arnold Culbreath, director of Protecting Black Life. He and Dr. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., have joined with other talented black leaders to form the National Black Pro-Life Coalition. Their collective contribution in its relatively early stages has already been substantial.
It’s shocking but true that there were actually black slaveholders. In 1830 there were 3,775 in southern states who collectively owned over 12,000 slaves.12 A dark parallel can be made with Planned Parenthood that targets minorities for extermination through abortion and was once led by Faye Wattleton, a black woman.
Lowell Dumond authored a book called Anti-Slavery. In it he wrote, “Slavery was a deadly virus which twisted and distorted intellectual processes, social attitudes and religious philosophy. It contaminated everything it touched.” Great minds possibly? At the close of my lectures and speeches I often compare abortion with cancer, saying it maims and kills everything and everyone it touches. It’s time to end the civil injustice of abortion. May history look back and call us faithful until victory.
- 1860 Census Results, http://www.civil-war.net/pages/1860_census.html
- WPN Fitzgerald, A Scriptural View of Slavery and Abolition, New Haven, 1839.
- Abortion and Slavery, Willke, Hayes Pub. 1992, p. 21.
- David Barrow, Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Heredity, Slavery Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy and Scripture, Lexington, 1808, p. 23.
- Gerrit Smith, Abstract of the Arguments on the Fugitive Slave Law, Made by Gerrit Smith in Syracuse, June 1852, on the Trial of Henry W. Allen…, p.26.
- RR Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 547-49.
- James G. Birney, The American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery, London 1840, p. 32.
- Robert E Lee, letter to president Franklin Pierce, Dec. 27, 1856.
- Life Site News, Catholic Nancy Pelosi: Issue of late-term abortion is ‘sacred ground’, June 13, 2013.
- Abortion and Slavery, Willke, Hayes Pub. 1992, p. 45.
- Abortion and Slavery, Willke, Hayes Pub. 1992, p.46.
- Joseph Conlin, The American Past: A Survey of American History, Cengage Learning 2011, p.370