Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Slavery and abortion

Once upon a time, most of the world's people, even in the West, looked upon slavery as a normal, if not fully desirable, feature of society. After all, it had been part of every society in every place in history. Yet there did come a time when it was recognized for what it is, a monstrous evil which was worth the cost in blood and treasure required to (mostly) eliminate it from not just the West but the world. Now, of course, we read the accounts of slavery from the American south, or of the trade in southern Europeans in North Africa with a mixture of horror and wonder. We are horrified by the machinery and even the facts of slavery itself-the shackles, the whips, the cargo ships, the whole commodification of humanity. We are simultaneously awed by the idea that such a thing could even happen. We wonder, "What kind of people, what kind of society, allowed and even at times encouraged such an obvious evil?"

Yet real opposition was slow to develop. It took decades for Wilberforce to gain the votes in Parliament to outlaw the British slave trade, decades longer to outlaw it in all the British colonies. In the U.S., it took the Civil War's 600,000 dead and over a million wounded, plus federal control of the South and the passage of the 13th Amendment to eradicate it completely, and a century longer for blacks to achieve full civil rights. Surely the road was long, but no one now desires whatever "social goods" were achieved by slave labor. The moral cost far outweighed any economic benefits.

When, I wonder, will we come to the same conclusion about abortion? Far more millions have died here in the U.S. in the last 36 years under its legalized regime than perished in centuries of the notorious Middle Passage. Moreover, the machinery of human commodification is equally terrible, if more sanitary. Why then, are we still so slow to awaken? Here in the 21st century, much of our society is as morally obtuse about this as the nastiest slavemaster of the antebellum plantations. "None of your business what I do with my body," we are told, and many of us accept that with resignation if not equanimity. Yet who will stand on the right side of history this time if not us?

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