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Roe v. Waaaiiit a Minute! The Slavery Analogy in Anti-Abortion Rhetoric

February 25, 2011

We expect anti-abortion rhetoric on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. What we might not expect is the amount of this rhetoric likening abortion to, of all things, slavery. This analogy is nothing new, of course. As far back as 1983, Ronald Reagan published an article making extensive use of it. But it seems to have come back with a vengeance recently:

  • On January 22, the conservative blog Redstate, referring to the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War, stated that “once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the Supreme Court with mass bloodshed.”
  • On February 11, Catholic Online posted a document titled “An Open Letter to Our Government: Abolish the Slavery of Abortion.”
  • And finally, a Valentine’s Day speech by Mike Huckabee included the line “It was wrong to own a slave in Mississippi and Michigan. This is not a states issue.”

On the surface, the analogy makes sense. The abortion debate is polarizing, like slavery was. Moral questions about personhood are essential in both.

But the analogy has problems. For example, it is not hard to find examples of conservative leaders whitewashing the murderous history of slavery, or even referring to the Civil War as “the War of Northern (or Yankee) Aggression.” Why would predominantly conservative pro-lifers choose an analogy that could backfire?

Further, the analogy is intrinsically problematic. Who are the slave-owners in this analogy? Why, the mothers, of course.

So why is this problematic analogy so widespread and longstanding? I believe that the answer lies in Leah Ceccarelli’s notion of conceptual chiasmus. Ceccarelli developed this notion as a way to talk about interdisciplinary communication in science.

In conceptual chiasmus, “unusual linguistic choices force readers from one discipline to think about an issue in terms more appropriate to their counterparts in another discipline, and vice-versa.” (5)

The slavery analogy is a conceptual chiasmus that generates a shared mental space between two audiences. The first audience would be pro-choice advocates, who do not see embryos as persons but who also do not find the federal government inherently suspicious.. The second audience would be moderate pro-lifers, who are against abortion, but who either dislike interference by the federal government or who would accept compromises, such as allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest. The slavery analogy brings both audiences together in a shared conceptual space which might make a more extreme pro-life position more palatable to both groups.

The thing that allows this shared conceptual space to form is agreement by both audiences that slavery was morally unacceptable. Predominantly liberal pro-choice advocates are used to taking from slavery’s history the lesson that federal action is often needed to eliminate the evils of bigotry. This audience is thus accepting of federal-level solutions, especially where these relate to social justice. Pro-life advocates would reject the implicit statism of the analogy, but would accept the idea that embryos destroyed by abortion are victims of unacceptable tyranny, just as slaves were two centuries before.

The problems for the pro-choice audience are that (1) they don’t see embryos as persons, and (2) attempts to claim that embryos are persons, in their view, tend toward theocracy. But if slavery was predicated on unjustly denying personhood to slaves, the first problem is brought into question: many people were on the wrong side of history during the slavery era—might I not be on the wrong side of history now? Further, the analogy does not require the pro-lifer to explicitly defend the view that embryos are persons: all that s/he has to do is bring the question forward through the analogy. So there is no need to evoke God-guaranteed standards for deciding personhood or its consequences, moves likely to repel pro-choicers.

The moderate pro-life audience, by contrast, already sees embryos as persons, but senses that federal-level meddling is usually a cure worse than the disease. But according to the logic of the analogy, allowing any person to have an abortion under any circumstances is morally identical to having an abortion oneself. So a federal solution is the only morally acceptable one.

Thus, the shared consensus on the evils of slavery overcomes the pro-life audience’s reluctance to apply exceptionless, federal-level solutions to political issues even as it overcomes the pro-choice audience’s reluctance to at least consider the possibility of embryonic personhood.

Naturally, it is doubtful that pro-life rhetors have consciously developed this analogy as a conceptual chiasmus. Most of our rhetorical choices involve a combination of hunches and luck. But it’s interesting that this renaissance of the slavery analogy comes at a time when suspicions of the federal government are at a fever pitch. Perhaps further analysis of this analogy can revise or add nuance to the picture that I’ve briefly sketched here.

If you want to know more:

  • My understanding of analogy, as I have indicated before, is derived from Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s New Rhetoric and the writings of cognitive scientist Dedre Gentner and her colleagues.
  • My analysis of the slavery analogy has benefited considerably from Deborah Threedy’s essay “Slavery Rhetoric and the Abortion Debate” and also from blog entries like this one and this one by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  For further remarks on this analogy, see, in addition to these sources, Celeste Michelle Condit’s remarks in chapter three of Decoding Abortion Rhetoric.
  • Leah Ceccarelli’s notion of conceptual chiasmus appears in her book Shaping Science with Rhetoric. One of her examples is the 1944 book What is Life?, written by Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger was trying to get both biologists and physicists to look at the molecular aspects of living systems. To bridge the two disciplines, Schrödinger wrote about atoms and molecules in terms of intention and goals—word choices with which a biologist would be comfortable—but wrote about biological systems in purely non-intentional, physicist-friendly terms. By using the linguistic conventions of one discipline in discussing the subject matter of the other, Schrödinger could bring about a shared conceptual space. I argue here that a similar chiasmus, motivated by shared consensus rather than verb choices, is at play in the slavery analogy.
  • Thanks to Doug Cloud for the title of this post.
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