by Emily Edmonson
Like many of my fellow students here at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center, I was in Austin, TX this past weekend at the annual March for Life. For those who don’t know, this event is a pro-life political demonstration in which those who are pro-life (in all aspects of the word – abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, unjust war etc.) walk peacefully to the Capitol building, some praying, some singing, most holding signs to display their pro-life messages. This event is specifically focused on abortion, though, as Catholics, our respect for the dignity of human life goes beyond the womb. As someone who is pro-life, I was among this group, holding a piece of orange cardstock that said simply “I am pro-life,” as I am of the opinion that anything more complicated than that is dismissive of dialogue between the pro-life and pro-choice groups in the U.S.
I walked with a good friend of mine. In front of us was a group singing songs with lyrics my friend and I didn’t know, though we certainly tried to join in. Around us was a group that was praying the Rosary, and, given we know those words, we joined them. When we were about 100 ft. away from the Capitol building my friend and I noticed that there were pro-choice protestors gathered outside of the Capitol gate in order to protest our protest. Most were decked in the burnt orange of the Texas Longhorns (probably not meant to imply association, but I don’t know for sure) and most, like us, carried signs or other sorts of demonstrations. When we got closer, I remember specifically a woman with a rosary around her neck which she had lifted up off her chest with her hands in order to make it stand out, as if to say, Look, I have a rosary too. I don’t remember the exact words of her sign, but it was something about how the Catholic Church hurts women.
Whenever I first saw the protesters from a distance, and heard them chanting something along the lines of “my body, my choice,” I began to sing. I was frightened, so I wasn’t exactly being liturgically appropriate, and the song I chose was “O Holy Night,” – my favorite Christmas hymn and an easy subconscious choice for me to jump to – and which was originally translated into English as a form of political protest via hymn. So, maybe my liturgical inappropriateness wasn’t so bad after all. Consider the lyrics:
“Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name, all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord!
Their name forever praise we” (emphasis mine)
The song was originally written in French and dubbed Cantique de Noël – Christmas Song – but it was translated in 1855 into English by John Sullivan Dwight, a Christian minister and abolitionist, who saw in the French lyrics occasion to communicate a political message. The original French and literal translation look something more along these lines:
“Le Rédempteur a brisé toute engrave:
La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave,
L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaînait le fer. »
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The earth is free, and Heaven is opened.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron enchained.
Dwight used his translation, the one that we know and sing in our churches and the one that I have quoted above, as a subversive political protest of the continued practice of slavery in the United States. Going into the March for Life, I knew the history of this song, but it wasn’t until I heard the last speaker that I realized the troubling coincidence of my choosing this song.
The speaker – whose speech at the Capitol was probably the least dissonant to my experience of living out the Catholic faith – mentioned in her address how slavery had been abolished, and then, comparing slavery to abortion, declared in a rallying effort, that abortion would too be abolished.
I have never really considered any sort of link between abortion and slavery. To my mind, the two were separated, and, to a certain extent, I don’t think that the two can be seen as mirror images of one another. But upon this rallying cry given by the speaker, I couldn’t help but notice the resonances of the rhetoric used by abolitionists and by the pro-life movement. Take for example, these images:
Notice any rhetorical similarities?
After all, some of the justifications used to perpetuate the practice of slavery was the racist attitude that slaves were somehow less than human, subhuman animals. Part of this was, unfortunately, wrapped up in Christianity. Consider, for example, this excerpt from the imperialist poem “White Man’s Burden,”:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child. (emphasis mine)
This rhetoric of human beings who just happen to have different dermal pigmentation (i.e. not white) being less than human we recognize today as racist; this rhetoric also has similarities to some of the rhetoric to describe unborn human beings. For example, the de-humanizing rhetoric of “fetus,” as opposed to “baby.” This type of rhetoric is employed in both instance to be psychologically persuasive: if slaves are less than human because of their skin color, then, to a certain extent, it is possible to justify their enslavement based on the perverse notion that owning them is beneficial to them because of the owner’s superior race, if a “fetus,” is not a “baby,” it can also carry the psychological import of benefit to the mother, usually cast as a scared, oppressed, impoverished person (after all, one of the largest and most valid argument’s for a pro-choice mentality is that it is cruel to give birth to a baby who will not have the resources needed to survive or express the dignity that persons carry as human beings).
So, after thinking about it, I could see the similar rhetorical employment between these two disparate things. While some may see the similarities between these two uses of language as something beneficial to the pro-life movement, I find it to be very troubling, especially to those of us who want to take our pro-life stances seriously.
Firstly, speaking historically, once slavery as an institution was abolished, it took over 100 years for a civil rights movement to take place that actually effectively treated these persons as citizens. With the example of abortion, this doesn’t seem to be a direct issue; babies born in the U.S. are being born into a society with a progressive sense of civil rights that respects the rights of humans regardless of race.
But it could take on an effect in a way that might not manifest in quite the same way as the civil rights movement. To exemplify this point, let me return to the analogue provided by the pro-life rally: that of the abolition of the institution of slavery. When slavery was abolished in the U.S. after the Civil War with the addition of the 13th amendment the social fare of blacks in the U.S. was the same if not worse than it had been before. Racism still existed as a deeply-rooted attitude in much of the south, and even though emancipation had occurred, there began the passing of laws known as the “Black Codes,” – laws intended to criminalize, in some way or another, being black. Restrictions on black land ownership were passed, and Jim Crow laws instituted. After a fleeting sense of freedom, blacks realized that their social situation had hardly changed, there were no structures to support them, there were no social programs available to ease them into the life of citizenship, there was no effective method to provide these people with the same social and communal privileges that whites enjoyed. They continued to work much the same as they had before, usually for their old owners – now embittered at having lost “property,” for which they had paid – owners who were not overjoyed by the ability to help these humans they had once owned. “Separate but equal,” did not look like equality.
This next part gets really racist. Our current, uneasy association of black with criminals, with gangs, and drugs lords, in addition to exemplifying our horrible generalization an entire race of individual human beings based on the criminality of others, is a direct result of the lack of social support that blacks experienced post-emancipation. MLK is our hero – but we often see him as an “exception.” The reality is that persons, regardless of race, who are suppressed by a social system that does not provide them with the same types of opportunity, especially when recovering from direct oppression (i.e. slavery) imposed by that very same social system, are not treated as equal. Thus, the ensuing cycle of poverty among minorities repeats itself. Much like the rhetoric of slaves being less than human, the rhetoric of society is that equality is granted by whimsy, and not by a social reality.
There is something certainly chilling when we can identify something true about the way our current social structures function when Chamillionaire’s “Ridin Dirty,” speaks to the reality of this type of discrimination:
“Turn on my blinker light and then I swang it slow
And they upset for sho’, cause they think they know
That they catching me with plenty of the drank and dro
So they get behind me, trying to check my tags
Look in my rear view and they smiling
Thinking they’ll catch me in the wrong, they keep trying
Steady denying that it’s racial profiling”
It’s no mystery that the largest racial sector of the U.S. public to procure abortions is black women. Black women and men in the U.S. still suffer the effects of this type of cyclic poverty and racism. But this has implications for the pro-life movement as well: the same types of social structures that failed the emancipated blacks are the same types of social structures that are failing to meet the needs of impoverished mothers. And we can never truly claim to be pro-life unless we consider the repercussions of these realities.
Because if we, as people who claim the moniker pro-life, if we, as persons who believe that those unborn fetuses or babies – or whatever rhetoric you would like to use – are truly human beings who have a right to be born and live with the dignity with which God the creator has created them, then we need to think very critically and carefully about our association of the pro-life movement with the abolition of slavery. After slavery was abolished, there were no social structures available to the human beings who had just been liberated. The promise of freedom and life and dignity was immediately experienced as an empty one, it was simply more rhetoric.
To associate the pro-life movement with the abolition of slavery means that we as people who believe in the dignity of human life need to take seriously the implications of what the abolition of abortion would entail. Are we prepared to sacrifice of our comforts and material goods for the benefit of the quality of the life of those for whom we have fought? Are we prepared to confront injustice in social realities for the sake of the babies whom we have saved? Are we prepared to acknowledge poverty, hunger, a lack of education and discrimination as actual causes implicit in the reality of abortion? If the abolition of abortion mirrors the abolition of slavery at all (and I’m not claiming that it is, I’m simply reflecting on the language used at March for Life) then we need to be prepared to answer the need to support our communities, especially the poor and disadvantaged. Certainly there is value to defining legally the dignity of human beings, but our pro-life movement must extend beyond this. To be pro-life we must fight poverty, and hunger, we must realize our place of privileged social heritage and be willing to share this with those who have not received it. Because, after all, to be pro-life means that we are not better than those for whom we are fighting, simply that we have the voice to do so. And this is not what occurred after the emancipation of the slaves. If the abolition of slavery is our model for the pro-life movement, let’s not make the same mistake again in refusing social support to the disadvantaged.
At the end of March for Life a sick feeling settled in my stomach. It’s an unquieting feeling to ask yourself if you’re ready to accept the responsibility for the beliefs you espouse.
And – never before in my life had I felt so racist.