The past four years of American public life have been marked by partisan tension between the pro-life movement and the racial justice cause. Politically, at least, the two have been cleft apart and set at odds. The pro-life campaign is viewed by some as a conservative “white men’s culture war,” while the anti-racism project is seen often as a solely progressive movement.
The last election hinged in part on these real and perceived tensions. Future elections will do the same. As philosopher Scott Coley notes, “We are forced to choose between the rights of the most vulnerable,” namely the unborn, “and the rights of all but the most vulnerable,” namely immigrants and people of color.
Although our politics pit these movements against each other, the two in fact share the same moral nucleus. The anti-abortion cause and the anti-racism cause are sibling abolition movements that protest two different cultures of exploitation and devaluation. What, then, can the pro-life campaign learn from the racial justice project?
Since the advent of Roe v. Wade 48 years ago, the “reproductive justice” movement has embraced a conditional view of human life. The worth of an unborn baby is contingent upon a mother’s preparedness, her consent, even her personal interest or desire. The child has value insofar as the mother says it does. Case in point: A recent Time essay by Stephanie Land suggests that you can name and love your “blastocyst,” even if you terminate the pregnancy.
By contrast, the largely Christian abolition project of the 19th century was built on the view that all human life has intrinsic value. Today’s antiracism movement reflects that same ethic by saying: Racial justice is not conditional. Black lives are valuable irrespective of circumstance, irrespective of personal bonds between blacks and whites, and irrespective of anyone’s interest or awareness (although those matter). As Dennis Edwards writes for CT, we “dismantle systems of injustice” precisely because all of us “have been created in the image of God.”
These principles are almost entirely absent from the pro-choice campaign. Arguably, the entire movement is heir to American slavery. Under the Dred Scott ruling of 1857, a slaveholder decided the value of a black person’s body. In a Roe v. Wade world, the mother determines the value of the unborn child. She is the legal “owner.”
The parallels here aren’t merely symbolic—they point us toward praxis.
First, pro-lifers are fighting for the abolition of abortion, nothing less. The abolitionists of the 19th century were calling for the total and complete end to slavery, not just the overturning of Dred Scott. Similarly, we are calling for the definitive end to abortion on demand. Overturning Roe is a necessary first step. But our cry for justice goes way beyond: We want our nation’s government to outlaw one human being owning another, and we want that ruling to extend to all 50 states.
Second, we are fighting to outlaw abortion in order to secure rights for the unborn. Frederick Douglass, the black Christian abolitionist, once asked, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us [blacks]?” We can pose that same question in the abortion debate. Like the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th, which promised citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” we need constitutional amendments that recognize unborn children.
As any critic will point out, American politics makes it difficult to bring about the comprehensive justice required to end abortion. In addition to laws, we also need parental leave legislation, poverty alleviation, and a culture of maternal support. We’re nowhere near any of those goals. Nonetheless, the persistent blindness of this nation doesn’t decrease the moral urgency of declaring the same truth over and over again: The child inside the womb has intrinsic value and deserves the same right to life as a child outside the womb.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet calls his people to “seek justice” and “defend the oppressed” (Isa. 1:17). That is our timeless mandate. As Tim Keller argues, biblical justice “is based on God’s character—a moral absolute,” while other philosophies are “based on the changing winds of human culture.” That moral absolute applies to black lives then and now, just as it applies to the unborn. And that moral absolute is what we carry into the public square, even as it defies the partisan logic of our day.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is online managing editor at CT.
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