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Abortion, Slavery, and the Image of God

March 20, 2024


Some activists who lobby for abortion “rights” have attempted to draw an analogy between slavery and the restriction of abortion. The general argument has been that denying abortion “rights” to women and “compelling” them to carry a pregnancy to term is tantamount to the “forced labor” to which slaves were subjected in the southern states. According to this argument, today’s so-called “patriarchy” is analogous to the slave system that was in place in the antebellum South, and pro-life legislators are analogous to slaveholders in that system.1 Other pro-abortion activists have drawn more specific analogies between slavery and abortion. For instance, Halley Townsend has focused on what she sees as the particular impact of anti-abortion laws on black women, claiming that “anti-abortion laws in the former slaveholding states perpetuate structures of slavery in the form of state control over the Black female body.”

Interestingly, however, some abortion advocates have made arguments (presumably unwittingly) in favor of abortion rights that are identical to arguments that were made in defense of slavery in the nineteenth century in the United States. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example is that of Paxton Smith, the student who chose to use her valedictory speech at Lake Highlands High School in 2021 to advocate for abortion rights. In her speech, which she delivered in place of her pre-approved speech, Smith included the following statements: “I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does, and we have spent our entire lives working towards our future. . . . I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.”

Essentially, Smith argued that abortion “rights” are necessary for her empowerment and flourishing as a woman, and for the empowerment and flourishing of other women as well. Darel E. Paul notes that Smith’s speech was applauded by such prominent feminists as Hilary Clinton, Carolyn Maloney, Wendy Davis, and Gloria Allred, despite the fact that Smith’s argument actually echoed the argument in favor of slavery that was expressed by South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun as far back as the 1830s. Calhoun claimed that slavery was necessary for the flourishing of white men in the South, freeing white people from labor that was “unsuited to the spirit of a freeman.” Paul distills the morally repugnant nature of the arguments made by Smith and Calhoun by observing that “[Smith’s] message is as frank as it is depraved: The death of unborn children is a necessary condition of female equality and success” and that “[Calhoun’s] message was as frank as it was depraved: (Black) slavery is a necessary condition of (white) social equality and free institutions.”

Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.

Paul claims, and rightly so, that arguments in favor of abortion “rights” have undergone an evolution in the past thirty years that parallels an evolution that took place in the arguments in favor of slavery prior to the Civil War. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many slave-owners viewed slavery as an evil institution, albeit a necessary one. But under the influence of people like Senator Calhoun, many slave-owners came to view slavery as a positive good rather than an evil. Similarly, many abortion advocates have switched their views on abortion “rights” from a position that treated abortion as a necessary evil that should be “safe, legal, and rare” to one that treats abortion as a positive good, even something that is holy or sacred.

Indeed, if you compare two maps of the United States to each other, with one map showing “free states” and “slave states” at the time of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War and the other map categorizing states based on their current legislative stance toward abortion, you cannot help but be struck by the moral and geographical inversion that has taken place with regard to these issues. A majority of the states that permitted the human and moral abomination that was slavery are states that now are leading the way in efforts to protect the lives of the unborn, whereas many of the “free” states which not only outlawed slavery in their own jurisdiction but also fought (both literally and figuratively) to outlaw slavery in the South as well, are leading the current assault on the lives of the unborn. The inversion does not hold across the entire board, but there is enough of a pattern to warrant some further reflection.

Why are some of the states that were formerly among the most rabidly pro-slavery states (e.g., Alabama and Mississippi) now enacting legislation that is among the most protective of unborn life in the country, and why are some of the states that outlawed slavery (e.g., California, Illinois, and New York) enacting legislation that condones the killing of unborn children up to the point of birth? Of course, many factors tend to influence such sweeping social changes, but it seems likely that one of the key factors here has been religious belief in the former case and the relative loss thereof in the latter case. 

Religiosity has declined all over the United States in recent decades, but the decline has been more extreme in states like California, Illinois, and New York than it has been in Alabama and Mississippi. In 2016, the Pew Research Center ranked all fifty states by the “religiosity” of their residents, with religiosity being assessed using an index that incorporated four aspects of religious faith: attendance at worship services, frequency of prayer, belief in God, and the self-reported importance of religion in one’s life. Alabama and Mississippi tied for first in the United States, with 77% of the residents in each of those states being rated as “highly religious.” In contrast, Illinois ranked 33rd (51% of residents rated as highly religious), California 35th (49%), and New York 43rd (46%). In light of those statistics, it does not seem surprising that the pro-life law that provided the grounds for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade originated in Mississippi, or that it was the Supreme Court of Alabama that recently judged, in LePage v. Center for Reproductive Medicine, P.C., that human embryos produced by the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be recognized and protected as unborn children. Southern states like Alabama and Mississippi got it horribly wrong when it came to the issue of slavery, but to their immense credit, they are at the forefront of efforts to protect the lives of the unborn in our country.  

Religious belief played a significant role in helping to turn the tide against slavery in the United States, with many abolitionists deriving their motivation for their anti-slavery work, and some of their arguments opposing slavery, from their religious beliefs. Charles K. Whipple, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, commented in the late 1850s that “the Anti-Slavery movement . . . was at its commencement, and has ever since been, thoroughly and emphatically a religious enterprise.”2 Religion has, of course, also played a key role in the fight to protect the lives of the unborn in the United States, and it will continue to play such a role, but in some ways we have a much tougher audience to convince than did the abolitionists, given the considerable secularization that has taken place in our country over the last several decades.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you.”

One of the anti-slavery arguments that some of the abolitionists used was to contrast the dehumanizing aspects of slavery with the religious claim that all human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Hannah Moore, an English poet and playwright, penned the following lines in 1788 in a poem she entitled simply “Slavery”:

“What wrongs, what injuries does Oppression plead
To smooth the horror of th’ unnatural deed?
What strange offence, what aggravated sin?
They stand convicted—of a darker skin!
Barbarians, hold! th’ opprobrious commerce spare,
Respect his sacred image which they bear.”

Frederick Douglass is believed to be the author of “Letter to the American Slaves” (1850), in which he wrote that “there can no more be a law for the enslavement of man, made in the image of God than for the enslavement of God himself.”

Pro-life advocates have made a similar argument, pointing out that our country is dehumanizing unborn children who, like all human beings, are made in the image and likeness of God, just as our country dehumanized slaves during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. To borrow some of Hannah Moore’s words, “what wrongs, what injuries, what offense, what sin” have unborn children committed that they should be condemned to death? Being unplanned, being inconvenient, being costly to raise, being unwanted, being an obstacle to the achievement of the mother’s and/or father’s hopes and dreams . . . 

Slavery degraded human beings, and it tended to taint, in one way or another, everyone who had any sort of involvement in that horrendous institution. The same can be said for abortion. In contrast, viewing all people as being made in the image of God tends to elevate our attitudes toward, and our treatment of, all human beings, including unborn children.  

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Admittedly, the “image of God” argument might not carry much weight with secular advocates of abortion, but it could touch the hearts and minds of at least some of them, particularly at a time like the present when many people are so utterly confused about what it even means to be human (see Carl R. Trueman’s insights on this latter topic, here and here). Plus, the “image of God” argument has an even greater chance of persuading the many people in our country who are pro-abortion but who still self-identify as “religious” or “spiritual” that we need to protect the lives of the unborn. We must continue to make that argument as frequently, as eloquently, and as persuasively as we possibly can.

Tom Parker, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, provides an excellent example of the effective use of the “image of God” argument in his concurring opinion in the LePage IVF case. His opinion bears reading in its entirety, drawing as it does on various Bible passages, thinkers (including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin), and legal precedents, but here are some of the most relevant passages:

The theologically based view of the sanctity of life adopted by the People of Alabama [in the Alabama Constitution] encompasses the following: (1) God made every person in His image; (2) each person therefore has a value that far exceeds the ability of human beings to calculate; and (3) human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.

Section 36.06 [the Sanctity of Unborn Life Amendment to the Alabama Constitution3] recognizes that this is true of unborn human life no less than it is of all other human life—that even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.

. . . 

The People of Alabama have declared the public policy of this State to be that unborn human life is sacred. We believe that each human being, from the moment of conception, is made in the image of God, created by Him to reflect His likeness. It is as if the People of Alabama took what was spoken of the prophet Jeremiah and applied it to every unborn person in this state: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you.” Jeremiah 1:5 (NKJV 1982). All three branches of government are subject to a constitutional mandate to treat each unborn human life with reverence. Carving out an exception for the people in this case, small as they were, would be unacceptable to the People of this State, who have required us to treat every human being in accordance with the fear of a holy God who made them in His image.”

God created all human beings in his own image, and God wills that all human beings might flourish (e.g., Jer. 29:11; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9), but that flourishing should not, and does not, necessitate the killing of innocent human beings who are viewed as nothing more than obstacles to such flourishing. Human beings should never have been enslaved in order to facilitate the flourishing of other human beings, nor should unborn children be killed in order to facilitate such “flourishing.”

1 This argument is summarized by Debora Threedy in “Slavery Rhetoric and the Abortion Debate,” p. 6.
2 Cited in John R. McKivigan, The War against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865
3 Article 1, § 36.06 of the Constitution of Alabama (adopted Nov. 6, 2018) includes the following statements: “(a) This state acknowledges, declares, and affirms that it is the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life”; “(b) This state further acknowledges, declares, and affirms that it is the public policy of this state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child in all manners and measures lawful and appropriate”; “(c) Nothing in this constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”