I discovered a bizarre fringe wing of anti-abortion Christian Nationalists this week. Abortion “abolitionists.”
I’ve seen the phrase “abolish abortion” several times before, but when I started reading Derecka Purnell’s Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, about abolishing police and prisons, the use of abolition to refer to ending abortion started to nag in my mind. I’ve always thought of modern-day abolition as referring to police, prisons, or the death penalty, but I’ve known that there are people who think abortion is what needs to be “abolished.”
Comparing abortion to slavery
I want to share the “abortion abolition” movement with you because it fascinates me in a grotesque way. There are a handful of small groups proclaiming this message, but the one with with the most information is T. Russel Hunter’s group Abolish Human Abortion, which he started in 2011. The group’s 2013 conference videos are the only place where I see “abortion abolitionists” actually acknowledging and explaining why they use the term popularized by anti-slavery activists in the Antebellum South.
While abolition itself can refer to ending anything, the implication is that it is the end of some institutional form of forced work or bondage (like prison labor). Hunter knows this. I’ve seen viral, easily dismissed TikToks of people saying that abortion is worse than slavery, but Hunter actually spent over an hour explaining why he agrees.
Ironically, even while making blatant comparisons, no more clearly than in AHA’s (Abolish Human Abortion) slogan, “Every age has its evils, every age has its abolitionists,” Hunter claims that he is not trying to compare abortion and slavery at 5:11 in the video.
So you’ve got the evil of human slavery and we have the evil of human abortion. This is something I’m not doing. This is abolitionism 101. Forgive me if this is too simple, but I am not saying that abortion and slavery are the same thing. I’m not making an analogy: abortion, slavery, same thing, ergo, we should abolish it. That’s not what I’m making. Now abortion and slavery are in the same category: sin, national sin and individual. And they are in the same category as evil. And they are, to quote Harriet Beecher Stowe, “abomination[s] in the eyes of God.” That’s what abortion and slavery are. They’re both abominable, evil acts, and they both ought to be abolished. But the situation, even though we’re not making… the reason we call ourselves abolitionists is not because it’s neat, it’s not because slavery and abortion are the same thing. But let’s look at the situation that we face, because we face a similar situation.T. Russel Hunter, All On Fire: “Every Age Has Its Abolitionists” (Abolitionism 101, part 2) 5:11-6:27
Saying he’s not comparing abortion to slavery is how Hunter leads into the section in which he compares abortion and slavery. I can’t make this up.
More explicitly than his equivocation of abortion and slavery is his manufactured solidarity with the chattel slavery abolitionists. He sees himself as one of them, even saying when looking at a picture of an abolitionist group,
You’ve got abolitionist societies. I shouldn’t have to describe what these are because you’re all in them, and they don’t look any different.T. Russel Hunter, All On Fire: Defining Abolitionism (Abolitionism 101 part 1) 25:57-26:11
It is noteworthy that Hunter identifies so strongly with white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and William Wilberforce and not with the slaves themselves. Enslaved people rose up, revolted, escaped, and poisoned, attacked, and murdered their masters. Hunter idolizes the abolitionists as the white saviors of the dehumanized and voiceless Black slaves who needed someone to speak for them. He says,
These people [abolitionists] basically gave up their lives to do this. They were beaten, they were hung, they were spat upon, they were called sedition—Everything that Jesus said would happen to people who followed him happened to them.T. Russel Hunter, All On Fire: Defining Abolitionism (Abolitionism 101 part 1) 1:00:29-1:00:42
One white abolitionist, John Brown, was hung. How many enslaved people were hung, murdered on plantations, worked to death, or died on slave ships? How many “free” Black men were lynched after abolition “succeeded”? You can see how satisfied Hunter is in the video to say that his white abolitionist “forebears” were persecuted for following Jesus. (That is to say nothing of how people justified both abolishing and maintaining slavery using their Christian faith.) The implication is clear to me that Hunter sees enslaved people as equivalents of helpless fetuses, incomplete humans who are incapable of saving themselves.
“We will rip the country apart”
Hunter takes his methods of “abolishing” abortion directly from slavery abolitionists.
Hunter sees abortion as the modern-day equivalent of slavery, and he truly believes that he is carrying the torch of abolition. Being a designer and an artist (and not a bad one at that), Hunter aims to spread his message with his AHA logo (he calls it a symbol) in the same way that abolitionists used the famous “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” symbol. He really thinks he is doing the same thing.
“We are not pro-life”
Hunter and Abolish Human Abortion try to take the concept of immediatism, as opposed to gradualism, from slave emancipation to the anti-abortion movement. They claim that they “are not pro-life” because there are stark differences between their movements.
|How to end abortion?||Pass abortion bans, often allowing for early termination (“gradualism”)||End all abortion immediately (“immediatism”)|
|Exceptions?||Exceptions for health reasons are common||Absolutely no exceptions, even for the life of the pregnant person|
|Why “protect” fetuses?||Fetuses feel pain, have bodyparts, etc||Fetuses/embryos etc are “fellow image-bearers” whether or not they have developed|
|Who can participate?||Anyone can be “pro-life”||Only Christians are truly “abolitionists”|
|Crisis pregnancy centers?||Lure people into crisis pregnancy centers||Don’t want to even appear to provide abortions|
|What about related practices?||IVF, contraception sometimes allowed, sterilization sometimes allowed or forced||Absolutely no IVF, contraception, sterilization, or stem cell research|
|Is it Christian Nationalist?||Implicitly||Explicitly|
The irony is that “abolitionists” like Hunter see the “pro-life” movement as having mere beliefs and not action, because they aren’t advocating for total, unapologetic, immediate, violent abolition of abortion like the “abolitionists” are. But since “abolitionists” don’t see any actions as good (or extreme) enough, they don’t actually really do anything. Fine by me.
Perverting the abolitionist message
The thing is, abortion “abolition” does not honor the abolition message, it perverts it.
Hunter seemed to think that abortion simply did not exist in the 1800s. After reading a passage from Thomas Clarkson’s Introduction to the History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, he says,
The abolitionists of slavery, British or American, had no idea that we would be aborting children. That was beyond them. Slavery was as bad as it could get. Abortion wasn’t on there. But Clarkson, every age has its evils. Every age has its abolitionists.T. Russel Hunter, All On Fire: “Every Age Has Its Abolitionists” (Abolitionism 101, part 2) 3:59-4:35
The basis of the problem with Hunter’s logic is that he sees history as a clean timeline in which Slavery Happened Then Abortion Happened. It’s as if the two things took place in different universes. He would probably not be so comfortable comparing them if he realized that abortion was happening in the Victorian era and that slavery is happening today. As in, it has not even been abolished. But he thinks it has been, so the term abolition is up for grabs, and we’re free to move on and use it for something entirely unrelated (besides the fact that he thinks they are both evil).
Does abortion rip families apart?
Hunter says that abortion rips apart families today just as slavery ripped apart families “then.” Abortion does not rip apart families today. (Adoption is another matter entirely, though.) And “back then,” as now, abortion is sometimes the only way for parents to control their family’s situation. Abortion can prevent families from being ripped apart when parents or potential parents know that they do not have the resources for the family to survive with more children. And during slavery, enslaved women even used abortion as a way to fight back and prevent their children from becoming slaves.
Critically, and obviously, an enslaved woman’s greatest duty was to produce more slaves. In Dorothy Roberts’ words, “The essence of Black women’s experience during slavery was the brutal denial of autonomy over reproduction.” She and her fellow male slave might be forced to have sex with one another, or her enslaver would rape her. She did not have a choice if and when she had babies, with whom, or what happened to those babies. She was also often forced to nurse and raise her enslaver’s children. Infertile women were treated as damaged goods.
Hunter claims to be against slavery and against what I and others call reproductive justice today, but slavery was a complete and utter assault on reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is antithetical to slavery and the way that slavery ripped families apart. Foreshadowing the state of things today, pregnancy and delivery were part of the forced labor that enslaved people endured.
Slave masters’ control of Black women’s reproduction illustrates better than any other example I know the importance of reproductive liberty to women’s equality. Every indignity that comes from the denial of reproductive autonomy can be found in slave women’s lives—the harms of treating women’s wombs as procreative vessels, of policies that pit a mother’s welfare against that of her unborn child, and of government attempts to manipulate women’s childbearing decisions through threats and bribes. Studying the control of slave women’s reproduction, then, not only discloses the origins of Black people’s subjugation in America; it also bears witness to the horrible potential threatened by official denial of reproductive liberty.Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body, p. 23
In a slide I shared above, T. Russel Hunter had said that abortion and slavery share the fact that they are both “dominion of man over man.” Tellingly, he does not see himself, an anti-abortion activist, as someone who is attempting to take dominion over pregnancy-capable people. However, he made it clear that they must unwillingly die for his cause on his newer “abolitionist” website called Free The States:
Regarding situations where the life of the mother is in jeopardy, there is no circumstance where the baby must be intentionally murdered. There are cases where the child must be delivered early, and in those cases, the child may have a lower probability of survival than a child born at full-term, but intentional murder must not be allowed as an option. Doctors must be healers, not killers.T. Russel Hunter, FreeTheStates.org
Hunter’s implication that even a blastocyst is equivalent to an enslaved Black person is sickening. A pregnant person having an abortion is not “taking dominion over man.” An embryo or fetus is not a man. And abortion is not dominion. Pregnant people usually get abortions with love for their potential children, knowing that they would not be able to provide for a child or give it a good life. And if someone gets an abortion because they absolutely despise a potential child (and it’s happened; read The Turnaway Study), then they probably wouldn’t be a good parent anyway and shouldn’t have kids.
In an MSNBC article published after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision last year, Ja’han Jones wrote,
What is slavery if not claiming dominion over a body that isn’t yours?Ja’han Jones, We need to call abortion bans what they are: Slavery
Jones quotes what Carrie N. Baker perfectly said in a Ms. Magazine article after the decision was leaked:
Even though largely uncompensated in the United States, pregnancy, labor and childbirth are still work. Surrogates receive tens of thousands of dollars for this work. Regardless of compensation or not, the work of gestating and birthing a child is an intimate, invasive, grueling form of labor. When undertaken willingly, childbearing can be a labor of love. But when states force this labor on a woman, the government is imposing a form of involuntary servitude prohibited by the 13th Amendment.Carrie N. Baker, Forced Pregnancy Is Involuntary Servitude, Violates the 13th Amendment
Jones emphasizes that “The 13th Amendment bars slavery or indentured servitude ‘except as punishment for a crime,’ and states are clearly violating it by forcing women into unwanted pregnancies.”
Is having sex a crime?
Or more specifically, is having unprotected sex a crime? Is forgetting to take your birth control a crime? Is using a broken condom a crime? Is being raped a crime?
Actually, back to abolition, slavery and indentured servitude ought to be abolished no matter whether someone is believed to have committed a crime or not. Hunter goes on and on about immediatism, when it’s 200 years later and we still have not seen slavery fully abolished. The word is not up for grabs.
The vital difference between using the word abolition to describe abortion and using it to describe police, prisons, and the death penalty is that the latter institutions are literally vestiges of slavery. Abortion its not. (Abortion and slavery are likely two of the oldest practices of humanity.) Hunter wants to replace the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” symbol with his AHA logo, but he needs to pump the breaks. We are not done with it yet.
Were they men and brothers?
Abortion does not rip families apart, but police and prisons do. A fetus is not a man or a brother, but Tyre Nichols was. George Floyd was. Troy Davis was. Walter Scott was. They had lives, families, hobbies, children, partners, dreams. They had heartbeats, and fingers and toes and feelings and thoughts and lives. They were “image-bearers,” if you believe in that.
Do you think that the “abortion abolitionists” care? If they cared, they would not appropriate the word used to describe ending police violence and the death penalty by debasing the entire meaning of abolition.
They are adamantly against slavery in the abstract, because we as a society have decided that chattel slavery was bad. I find it hard to believe, however, that these violently anti-abortion Christian Nationalists are the kind of people who have really reflected on how they benefit from slavery’s lasting effects on our society, or that they ought to actually pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. I’m sure that they would dismiss that all as CRT. It’s much easier to say slavery was wrong than it is to actually confront and wrestle with the fact that they would not have the lives they have or live in the wealthy country they do if it were not for Black bodies that built it.
10 thoughts on “Of Abortion and Abolition”
Seems like even more of that weird dichotomy, accuse others of doing what what you are doing. They are taking ideas of freedom and autonomy and forcing it over ideas where it makes no sense but twisting enough words to live in a delusion. That is if they really believe in anything but white nationalism.
I wish these ‘abolitionists’ would be honest. Their aim is power over women, control of women’s bodies, it has nothing to do with respect for life.
I think the fact that they want no exceptions for the life of the pregnant person is where they make that really clear. Terrifying.
If you don’t mind, your post has inspired me to write one of my own, and I’d love to link to your article?
Of course! Please do.
Thanks 🙂 My post is here: meerkatmusings.co.uk/an-open-letter-to-pro-lifers-cw-abortion-child-abuse/
Pingback:An Open Letter to Pro-Lifers (CW: Abortion, Child Abuse) - Meerkat Musings
Thanks for shedding light on this fanatical fascist group and their spurious claims. As to calling their use of a word in general use in the English language “appropriating”: I wonder whether this is useful? The word abolition has been and is being used in the world in different contexts that have nothing to do with slavery. It seems to me problematic to say that a specific group should not use a specific word that has a general meaning, no matter how destructive their message. For me, your other arguments and insights are strong enough to carry the point without the questionable semantic one.
You’re right, and I’m definitely wrestling with that. I think the biggest reason I included it is because that’s where the post began was realizing that it felt inappropriate for them to use the same word as police abolitionists. But even looking at the Wikipedia disambiguation of the word, I realized it’s historically been used for several other causes as well (like nuclear weapons, monarchies, and borders). And I don’t know if what Hunter believes is what most “abortion abolitionists” believe because they just use the word and don’t specify. So they might be using it earnestly, but I’m suspicious of him and his followers for making the direct ties to slavery abolitionists. What do you think?
Oh, yes, I share the suspicion that the word was chosen with intent to parallel their message with those of people seeking social justice.