Equating Slavery and Abortion: Where are the Women in this story?

[UPDATED on Jan. 2, 2012: Since I wrote this post, the way I talk about reproductive rights has evolved. More than people who identify as “women” can and do get pregnant, they also want and need access to pre-natal, abortion, labor and delivery, and post-partum care.]

This weekend I wrote a post about RedState’s messed up take on abortion.  It calls for violence, it calls women “locations”, and it equates the institution of slavery with the right to choose.  I wrote about the final thing in the original post but I feel like it deserves its own longer post.

[NB: I am a PhD candidate currently writing my dissertation about slavery in the early modern world.  I write about enslaved females as they come up in my primary sources but I am no authority on the subject.  Clearly, I tried to do my research and provide evidence as best I could.  But if you know more about this topic, please let me know.  I’m always happy to learn about the history of slavery, the history of women, and the history of enslaved women.  Cheers!]

______________

RedState took up the argument that the enslaved in antebellum America are equivalent to fetuses in the womb:

Twice in our nation’s history, arrogant and power-mad Supreme Court Justices have declared that certain humans are exempt from the promise of the Declaration and the guarantees of the Constitution.

In the first instance, in Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court drew a line and declared that those on the “slave” side of the line were entitled to no protection from the law, and could be treated with impunity by their masters.  That slaves were human was beyond dispute; instead, the Court found solace in an artificial and tortured distinction which treated those humans belonging to the category of “slave” as a special kind of human that was not to be treated like the rest of humanity.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court repeated the same exercise, this time engaging in spectacular mental gymnastics with the word “person”….  And thus the Supreme Court drew a line and declared that those humans on the “person” side were entitled to the right to life, and those on the “non-person” side (as defined by the Court) were not. The combined effect of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton was that a line was drawn at physical location within a woman’s womb.

Earlier this week, Rick Santorum said that Obama should be anti-choice because he is a black man and so had family in the slave trade or something (though, of course, Obama’s father was Kenyan, not African-American so…).  Glenn Beck, of course, said this about slavery and abortion back in Sept and you can find these ideas on blog posts around the interwebs.  Andrew Sullivan responds,

I’d add, however, that there is an obvious difference in as much as slave-owners did not own those “slaves” within their own bodies. Women do. And the defense of the freedom of that woman to do with her body as she sees fit is far more complicated than ending plantations.

Agreed.  It is much more complicated.  But what happened on those plantations is complicated, too.

This reading of history removes the enslaved female all together (which is, incidentally, how much of the history of the enslaved is written – “the enslaved” is assumed to be male unless otherwise noted.  As corkingiron pointed out in the comments on a related post, the numbers don’t make sense for this as the number of women versus men who were enslaved in the Americas was nearly equal.  The gender bias of the people who wrote about slavery at the time is a big reason we know less about enslaved women than men, though we can’t discount the gendered biases of historians nowadays, too).  Santorum, Beck, and the editors at RedState are talking about an institution of slavery that would not have had a place for abortion, that wasn’t full of sexual assault, that didn’t explicitly and coercively exploit women’s bodies for both production and re-production.  What about those female slaves who used abortion to make sure that no child of theirs was born into an enslaved state, to destroy the property of their masters, to get rid of the result of a rape (an act that was completely and totally legal), to stop their already strained bodies from one more, very possibly deadly labor?

According to Stephanie Camp,

[Enslaved] women employed their bodies in a wide variety of ways, from seizing control over the visual representation of their physical selves in narrative and photographic forms (both of which were in enormous demand among nineteenth-century northerners) to abortion. (The Journal of Southern History, v. 68, n. 3, Aug 2002, p. 541)

In 1981, Michael Johnson, while trying to refute the idea that slave infants were smothered, provided primary source evidence that enslaved women were known to abort their children.  [NB: Of course, as with all sources about enslaved peoples, we should assume exaggeration and even creation of information to fit a select narrative, especially since these sources were not written by the enslaved but rather people who were or could have been slave owners.  In this case, that slave owners, needing their enslaved women to reproduce in order to help build their supply of slaves, might have believed that women were punishing them and taking away their property through abortion.  Assuming the worst of the enslaved, as they almost always did, they could have and probably did use hyperbole when they discussed the rates of abortion among the enslaved.  Of course, women probably did abort their fetuses for the reasons about which the slaveholders were worried – it’s like the slaveholders understood that they were participating in a messed up system, one that would lead women to abortion rather than birthing.  Even if these primary sources exaggerated the amount of times women aborted, it is enough to know that white slaveholders were aware that enslaved women were having abortions at all, that abortions were part of life on the plantation for women.]:

Several antebellum medical writers commented on the dangers of hard work for pregnant slave women.  A Tennessee physician, John H. Morgan, wrote that “the exposure to which negro women are subjected as field hands during menstruation and pregnancy,” along with “The promiscuous and excessive intercourse of the sexes” were “among the principal causes of sterility and abortion.”  “And many diseases to which they are incident arise from the same cause,” he added.  In particular, he argued that “The functions of menstruation and pregnancy being so peculiarly delicate, negroes suffer during those periods from hard labor and exposure in bad weather, frequently being badly fed and badly clothed…” (The Journal of Southern History, v. 47, n. 4, Nov 1981, p. 511)

This source was written by a Southern doctor in 1860.  It was titled, “An Essay on the Causes of the Production of Abortion Among Our Negro Population.” It was published in the Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery.  The above quote came from the medical establishment attempting to reconcile what they saw as the problem of abortion in the enslaved population.  And, according to Johnson, the doctor tied abortion not only to promiscuity (a stereotype of enslaved peoples) but also the the labor of the enslaved, to the brutality of the system.

Johnson continues,

A Georgia physician, Edmund Monroe Pendleton, wrote that the much greater incidence of abortion and miscarriage among slaves “either teaches that slave labor is inimical to the procreation of the species from exposure, violent exercise, &c., or, as the planters believe, the blacks are possessed of a secret by which they destroy the foetus at an early stage of gestation.”  Pendleton did not doubt the existence of abortifacients, but he considered it a “question for the philosopher and philanthropist” whether slave women “were acquainted with them…and whether the natural instinct of the mother to love and protect her offspring should be overruled so frequently by the moral obtundity of this class of people.” (ibid, p. 511 – 512)

Pendelton wrote that in 1850, clearly under the assumption that enslaved women “frequently”, against better moral judgment, aborted fetuses.  The high number of cases of abortion was either attributed to the harsh labor conditions that would cause abortion and miscarriage OR black magic.  While Pendleton and the slave holders could have seriously believed it was black magic (as the slaves might have, too), we can probably assert with confidence that between those two possible causes, the more persistent one would have been the “violent exercise” of slave life.

Jennifer Morgan, in attempting to explain the realities of the (sex) lives of enslaved women in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, wrote this:

The possibility of successful fertility control must coexist with a recognition of all that would make a woman physically or psychologically unwilling or unable to bear a child.  Nutritionally inadequate diets lowered fertility, and the labor regime rendered many women unable to conceive or to carry fetuses to term.  But in addition to external suppressors of fertility, many women may have taken steps to avoid conception.  At the very least, the extreme contrast in fertility rates among enslaved women in the Caribbean and those of the American South suggests that the question of fertility control must be taken seriously.  Women enslaved on plantations where planters’ regimes negatively affected their fertility may have seen the absence of pregnancy as proof of an emmenagogues‘ effectiveness or evidence that the deities too were reluctant to bring another life into such a place.  Moreover, when an attempt to control fertility failed, an unwanted or unstoppable pregnancy might have illustrated one’s powerlessness as much as one’s agency.  I would like to avoid romanticizing these women who, like Bessie, come into focus at least in part because of their children.  Presuming that Bessie loved and nurtured these children is dangerous, for ambivalence toward and distance from her ‘pickininies’ would have been as logical an emotion as any for Bessie and the other mothers with whom she was enslaved.  It becomes difficult, if not impossible, given the realities of disease, overwork, and fertility control, to accurately situate enslaved women’s experience of childbirth and parenting.  Mechanisms for interrupting the violation of enslavement could certainly have included a withdrawal from voluntary intimate contact, from the extension of self in community.  In that context, the birth of a child would have done nothing to alleviate sorrow; indeed, it would only have made the load heavier.  (Laboring Women, p. 114 – 115)

When people talk about slavery and abortion as if they existed in two separate realities, they are ignoring so much and giving enslaved women very little credit and no agency.  At the same time, as Morgan so beautifully writes it, having a child as an enslaved woman was not the wonderful thing we like to imagine motherhood and childhood to be.  I think that is really important when we think of the institution of slavery, abortion nowadays, and the history of enslaved women.

Anti-choice advocates often assume that the world will be better if abortion was illegal, that forcing women to have children that they don’t want for whatever reason (they can’t afford them, they can’t take on the emotional burden, they just don’t want them) would be solved by the mystical happy powers that motherhood brings to a person’s life and that the childhood of the fetus, by definition, would be great, carefree, wonderful, and worth living.  But looking back through the lens of history and the eyes of enslaved women, the intersection of slavery and abortion doesn’t teach us that abortion is wrong and evil and inhumane.  Instead, it teaches us that the lives of women are complicated, often dependent on resources and support beyond themselves, dictated by people whose interest in their bodies are divergent from their own and callously so.  Also, it shows us that the moral arguments around abortion often exist in direct relationship to larger ideas about economics and who has the right to a woman’s body.

If you do take the time to understand the intertwined history of abortion and slavery, it becomes painfully difficult to assert that abortion is wrong.  Because then you must defend the slaveholder who wanted the enslaved woman to birth that child so that he could enslave them both (even as he probably used religion and morality, rather than economics and labor, as his excuse and defense for why one shouldn’t turn to abortion).  Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she didn’t want that child to be a slave?  Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she physically could not bear the burden of labor and pregnancy?  Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus as a punishment to the man who raped her, barely fed her, barely clothed her, denied her religion, denied her liberty, and whipped her when she worked too slowly, made a mistake, or attempted to flee?  Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus to protect her life and to save the evils of her life from those of her child?  To include the history of enslaved women in the history of slavery and then compare that history to abortion is not easy.

When conservative anti-choice advocates make that comparison, they actively erase the enslaved woman from that past, from her own history.  This is similar to their larger approach on the issue: erasing women from the discussion.

In today’s debate about abortion, women are not part of the narrative.  RedState has declared us “locations.”  We are described only as wombs, vessels for the children that are to be.  Our jobs as mothers are not considered.  In fact, if anything, single mothers are painted as part of the problem in today’s society, even as our society decides more and more to not help them, to turn a blind eye to their struggles.  The realities of our lives – sexual, economic, emotional, etc. – are glossed over as unimportant in the larger discussion of whether fetuses should be forcefully carried to term even when women think or know it is better that they are not.  The problem is not that women have abortions, it is that women are not even considered.  They are not agents in the anti-choice rhetoric except as either “locations” or murderers.  They are either inhumane vessels or inhumane killers.  As Leanne at Blue Wave News has written:

I don’t see anyone declaring that attempts to control a woman’s reproductive choices – her reproductive freedom – is akin to slavery. No, somehow, in the minds of the anti-choice crowd, granting the woman autonomy over her own life and body is more like slavery for a fetus than is forcing that woman to undergo an unwanted pregnancy, to deliver an unwanted baby, and to deal with the subsequent changes to her body for the rest of her life. Ending an unwanted pregnancy is supposedly slavery, while requiring a woman to carry an unwanted fetus to term is not.

Everybody is more worried about the fetus, which is at best a potential human being, than they are about the woman, who is a fully-realized and viable human being already.

The struggle for pro-choice advocates is to reinsert women into the narrative, which is a struggle when you are battling opponents who refuse to see us, recognize us, acknowledge us in the past as much as in the present.

_____________

Also, just found this post from August 24, 2010 by Ta-Nehisi Coates about the rhetorical act of equating of slavery and abortion titled, “You Are Not Harriet Tubman”:

This is not a matter of being pro-choice or pro-life. This is a matter of living in a country that is more fascinated with the machinations of Stonewall Jackson, than Sojourner Truth. One reason that black people grimace at invocations of their history to justify the struggle du jour, is because, very often, the invokers really don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. Put bluntly they have no deep knowledge of the black struggle, and are not seeking any. For them, black history is a rhetorical device, employed to pummel their ideological foes, and then promptly discarded for more appropriate instruments.

If you’re going to compare abortion and slavery, then, by God, understand that whereas mothers choose every day whether to bring children to term, no slave-master ever chose to have his slave escape. (To say nothing of comparing mothers with slave-masters!! Fuck, my brain is hurting.)

In response to the Santorum remark and its aftermath, Coates tweeted this: “Spent 30 minutes writing up a post on Santorum and abortion=slavery. Decided it wasn’t worth it. You can’t blog the stupid into extinction.”  And then followed up with a link to the blog post above.

And I appreciate the blog post above.  I really appreciate Coates, who uses his platform to draw attention to history of slavery (normally antebellum, 19th-century slavery and the Civil War) through posts about primary sources (for example).  And I also like that the above post drew on the images of Tubman and Truth. Of course, these are the enslaved women that we are familiar with, whose history we are taught and whose history is not hidden from us.  We also know them as free women and abolitionists.  They were women who escaped an entire life of being enslaved.  They were the exception of the experience of enslaved women in the United States.

So, I am sad that when it came time for someone to point out that this work that conservative anti-choicers are doing to position slavery and abortion as equals leads to the erasure of enslaved women and their difficult, real, and exploited lives, Coates didn’t step up to the plate.

It’s not just that conservatives who say such things are stupid (which they are) but they have this unending need and incredible power to re-tell history at the expense of people whose histories make them uncomfortable.  Since the moment Lee surrendered, proud Southerners have been re-writing history, attempting to paint a much brighter portrait of antebellum America, of slavery, of the Confederacy, of the Civil War (and THIS is something Coates takes to task weekly, sometimes daily on his blog at The Atlantic).  This is yet another moment when we are supposed to conventionally forget about the horrors of the slave trade in order for conservatives to co-opt the history of the enslaved for their own purposes.  Except this time, no one is talking about what horrors are being left out in order for them to make these arguments.  It isn’t enough to say that they don’t know what they are talking about.  They don’t.  Even if they did, I don’t believe their message would change.  It’s simply TOO easy to talk about the history of slavery without talking about enslaved women.  And so, that allows them the space to make these arguments about slavery and abortion.  That needs to change.  Why didn’t Coates take the opportunity to talk about this?

Now, I know from experience that writing about enslaved women is hard to do because there just aren’t that many sources that can provide us with “accurate” narratives about their lives.  But in the little that we know, we know that enslaved women had abortions.  We know that enslaved women, upon giving birth, were sent back to the fields almost immediately with their newborns in tow.  We know that enslaved women gave birth to their masters’ children and that often those children were the result of rape.  We know these things about enslaved women because the people who recorded their lives, the people who owned them, cared about them because they had complete sexual access to them, because these women gave birth to the next generations of enslaved laborers (this was especially true in the 19th-century after the international slave trade ended and the domestic one became the primary operator), because they were sexually exploited in every way possible by the people who needed to demean them and dehumanize them in order to exploit them for their labor.

For conservatives then to use the analogy of slavery and abortion without taking into account how these two things worked together in the past, especially in the lives of enslaved women, is disgusting.  And I wish Coates had said so.

_______________

WOW. I just added that bit at the end and wouldn’t you know it?  Coates came through.  He admits at the end of his post that he doesn’t have a gendered analysis of this argument.  Maybe he will read my post [he did!].  Who knows?  Hopefully he will read something by someone who writes on this and will post it to his blog.  That would be great.  Here’s a bit from what he has to say about this conflation of the history of slavery and abortion (go read it, though.  It’s good.):

In other words, slaves did not simply have “the right to exist”; it was essential to the society that they exist. In this sense, abortion and American chattel slavery could not be more opposite. According to Klein, Santorum believes that “abortion is murder.” Santorum is factually wrong. Murder is a legal term that refers to the unlawful taking of a life. Abortion is very much legal. Even a broad reading of murder takes us nowhere. If abortion is murder, then it follows that the thousands of American women who each year get abortions–as a class–are murderers. Slave-holders were investors in a deeply evil scheme. They were not–as a class–murderers. […]

In terms economic, cultural and political, slavery made America possible.  Reducing this grand, indefensible and complicated institution to the simple act of slave-holding is like reducing the Holocaust to mass murder–and then proceeding with the egregious and erroneous comparisons we so often hear about. But that reduction is essential to the abortion/slavery analogy. It’s employment is not just wrong, it is a lie.

That the lie is employed by dishonest men like Rick Santorum, who feign knowledge in order to push an agenda, is unsurprising. That the same lie is defended by men (and it is men) who make their living constantly dispensing answers but rarely asking questions is equally unsurprising–but it must be called out. Joe Klein’s merits as a writer and thinker are considerable. But it must be said that in this business he is wrong, and that his knowledge of this specific and essential thread of American history is wanting. He is not just wrong on the logic–he is wrong on the information.

_____________

In the comments of Coates’ article, jr828 had this great addition to the discussion:

For a very long time black women in America have been faced with coercion in reproductive matters. In slavery this included rapes by slaveowners resulting in pregnancy and confiscation of their children to sell; in this century it has included forced and uninformed sterilization, confiscation of children for unproven offenses (ranging from being in an abusive relationship to drug use), lack of access to gynecological care, and inaccessible abortion care resulting in forced childbearing. […]

So back to Rick Santorum and Barack Obama: Santorum tapped into this long history, perhaps more than he knew, when he questioned the right of “a black man” to pronounce a verdict on abortion. But Obama had the best answer of all: when he was asked during the presidential campaign what his position on reproductive rights was, he answered “I trust women. Period.” And to me, at the end of the day, that’s absolutely what it’s all about.

As jr828 says right after the comment, see their blog for more (I encourage you to click through and read the whole piece).

Also, Amanda Marcotte, over at Pandagon responded to Coates’ call for a gendered analysis of this issue.  Here is part of what she wrote:

One is the most obvious—it’s a rationalization for a pre-existing belief that sexually active women should pay for their sinfulness with forced childbirth, and particularly that unmarried ones are obligated to pay for their naughty behavior by shotgun marriages or giving their babies up to worthy married couples who want babies.  That anti-abortion views are usually held (with some exceptions that only developed after decades of anti-choice propaganda) alongside support for abstinence-only education, depriving single mothers of access to a social safety net, hysteria over the “hook-up culture”, general anti-feminist views, and a willingness to cut funding for contraception services that could reduce abortion rates is proof of this.  That most anti-choice energies are focused on restricting access for young women women and poor women shores this up.

The other reason is more of a philosophical one, about the credit we give to women and their work.  The patriarchy has, above all other things, functioned throughout history by denying women’s agency, authority, and the value of their labor.  A huge part of this project is denying that women are the ones who make babies.

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33 thoughts on “Equating Slavery and Abortion: Where are the Women in this story?

  1. Pingback: Fetuses are people, women are places « Speaker's Corner

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  3. A brief hello to show you I’m as good as my word! This article is excellent. I remember reading a few things in my years teaching history in high school. I read about a discovery of a medicine pouch in the grave of a woman from before the bronze age – it contained a herb whose only known modern use was as an abortificant. That started me to thinking about “Women’s Ways of Knowing” (to steal a good book’s title) – I’m pretty sure that methods of inducing an abortion – good, bad, useless – have been a part of women’s knowledge for millenia.
    I also read a long article about the sources of slaves in Rome – and the claim that there was a thriving market in reclaiming abandoned infants “from the dungheap” – infanticide being a common enough habit that only the more modern “cult of Motherhood” has suppressed. Looking forward to reading your stuff! Oh, and BTW – what’s your dissertation on? (none of my damn business is an acceptable answer…..)

  4. I found you through TNC. There are just layers and layers here to sift through. This was so well written that I read it twice, printed it and bookmarked you.

  5. This is great, and exactly what is needed: actual facts, histories, and the experiences of women themselves.

    I absolutely support the use of rights-based “choice” language in defense of women, but I believe that, today, we have to buttress this defense with what pregnancy involves, for women past and present.

    And that it’ll help smack down weak-a** and offensive analogies like Santorum makes, well, all the better.

  6. Pingback: Equating Slavery and Abortion: Where are the Women in this story?

  7. Pingback: BlackPride » Blog Archive » Equating Slavery and Abortion: Where are the Women in this story?

  8. Pingback: Researching Slavery « Speaker's Corner

  9. Wow. This is what needed to be said, that — that comparing abortion to slavery demonstrates an almost criminal obliviousness to the history and reality of both. It’s just so *blatant* that women’s lives and the choices they face are not a part of the story in these people’s minds.

  10. Thanks. I appreciate you reading and commenting. I agree that it is blatant – I hate that people don’t seem to care about the women and the realities of their lives.

  11. i came across this post via feministe. it’s dense but also loaded for me. the passage about what birthing might have meant for wimmin under slavery and how this might have infused/created a distant relationship between them and the idea of childbirth or of children themselves, who might at any moment be sold away can also be understood in the context of present day on a variety of different levels. fascinatingly…painful. yup.

  12. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I think your last bit there speaks for almost everything in the history of slavery: “fascinatingly…painful.”

  13. As an avid TNC follower, I took his advice and checked out this post. It is phenomenal. I applaud the depth and rigor–and the philosophical conclusions that emerge from the facts you described. It’s a beautiful piece of research-based analysis. Thank you. We need more like you (and TNC, too) who bring little known historical narrative to the fore in order to correct commonly held mischaracterizations.

    Good luck on the dissertation–I finished mine (in a completely unrelated field to your own) about 2 years ago. Given this evidence of your thought-patterns, I doubt you’ll have any trouble at your defense!

  14. This is all very good, but oblivious. You remind me of people who explain in great detail to their cats why they ought not to crap in the bathtub.

    You are going into all the Liberal facts, the people, their feelings, what actually happened.

    The Conservative position is far simpler.

    * Slavery: bad but legal, those who fought it, heroes.
    * Abortion: bad but legal, those who fight it, heroes.

    Similarly, my cat:

    * Cat box: convenient place to crap.
    * Bathtub: convenient place to crap.

    The minor detail that history puts the criminalize-abortion side and the pro-slavery side together is just another example of how history, like pretty much every other piece of reality, has an unfair Liberal bias.

    The difference: I know my cat doesn’t listen to me, so instead of writing a brilliant article, I just turn on the shower if I happen to walk in at exactly the right moment.

    The similarity: Conservatives and bathtub-crapping cats.

  15. Pingback: Balloon Juice » The Abortion=Slavery meme debunked

  16. Oblivious of what? That the conservative side would like me to not notice that they know nothing about the history of which they speak? That the conservative side would like me to not pay attention to the way in which they are erasing women in order to make an argument that they are somehow heroes?

    I get what the conseratives think about the comparison of slavery and abortion. I know it’s simple. That’s my entire point. It’s not. At all. Hence the long blog post.

    How does history have an unfair Liberal bias? I don’t understand what you mean by this. That historians who write history are unfairly biased toward a liberal political analysis? Or that history itself is somehow unfairly liberal? And how is it unfair?

    I will never think that telling the truth about what actually happened in history, especially during slavery, is oblivious of anything, even if the people I am arguing with really, really, really want to deny it.

    For me, there is nothing about this that is futile. On that point, I suppose, we will have to disagree.

  17. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. Like all long projects, parts of the diss are good, parts are very rough. But your kind words are helping propel me forward right now. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  18. Thanks so much for this comment. You don’t know how grateful I am for it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  19. Pingback: Abortion, Slavery, and Women

  20. Pingback: They deal in answers, but ask no questions «

  21. Pingback: Abortion And Slavery: An Analogy Of Ignorance That Ignores History | wrightandleftreport.com

  22. Pingback: Body Impolitic - Blog Archive - » (Some of the Reasons) Why Slavery Has No Place in the Abortion Debate - Laurie Toby Edison: Photographer

  23. Pingback: Balloon Juice » Again with the Zombie Lie…

  24. Pingback: Again with the Zombie Lies… | Daringminds.com

  25. Pingback: Analogy fail: abortion and slavery « Ideologically Impure

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