Long before I knew that my primary spirit guide had once been Thomas Jefferson, I loved the man. My 1993 Doubleday novel, My Thomas, was written from the adoring viewpoint of his wife. And before I could write so tenderly about someone who had been a slaveholder, I had to do research and satisfy myself that Thomas Jefferson had not been a monster. Like you and me today, he only had had the misfortune of being born into a perverted culture.
Jefferson and his wife inherited hundreds of slaves. He couldn’t legally free them in Virginia, nor could he free them anywhere on the North American continent without dooming them to lives of misery. He came to feel that he couldn’t do anything but try to keep them safe and happy, and this he did, always hoping that a solution would be found to what he saw as a monstrous institution. There is evidence that if Martha Jefferson had lived, her husband would have retired from politics after the American Revolution and devoted his life to the cause of abolition. But Martha died in 1782. The rest, as they say, is history. And despite all the good that Thomas Jefferson did for this country in a lifetime of service, the single fact that he inherited slaves and he never found a way to end slavery is sufficient reason for the Democratic Parties of many states to decide this year, nearly a quarter-millennium later, to ban him from their annual dinners.
For Thomas Jefferson, slavery was roughly akin to what abortion is for you and me. Whether we are for it or against it, the legal right to abortion on demand is a part of our culture. As a culture, we accept the belief that a woman’s right to use her own body is more important than is a lesser life-form’s right to continue to exist. Just as, two hundred years ago, slaveholders’ property rights came before whatever rights their property might have wanted to claim. The analogy may not be perfect. But it is good enough to make me wince. How will our accepting easy abortion as a fact of life today make you and me appear to our distant descendants?
What we now think of as just the afterlife, a side niche perhaps, not very important, will soon be as much of a concrete but distant presence in each of our lives as Newark. Within a decade or two, there will be easy electronic communication with those we used to think were dead. Then living researchers will be able to quiz the dead about a lot of things, the whole topic of abortion among them. Even knowing what we already know, I shudder to think what more the dead might tell us. So far, this is what we can demonstrate is true:
As was true of slavery, the question of abortion requires that we balance the rights of the strong against the rights of the weak. In Thomas Jefferson’s day it was obvious that protecting property rights was a core social good. Today it is just as obvious that women have the right to destroy their sub-viable fetuses. But what is acceptable in any culture always is a moving target. A wealthy Minneapolis dentist has long enjoyed the until-now-acceptable sport of big-game hunting. But in July he unwittingly killed a beloved lion, and thereby he destroyed his own life. Dr. Palmer’s travails are less about Cecil the Lion than they are about the fact that our culture had been shifting, and he had paid insufficient attention. What always has been acceptable – the brisk and manly sport of big-game hunting – is coming to seem to most of us now to be an outright barbarity.
This is what so often happens! Eventually it comes to be seen that the rights of the strong – whether property, sport, or avoiding nine months of inconvenience – when they are put on a balance scale are not as valuable to the strong as are the rights of the weak to their very lives. When eventually that balance scale is used, favoring the rights of the strong over those of the weak is seen by everyone to always have been such an obvious barbarity that those who hundreds of years ago were unable to see its barbarism must even then have been morally bankrupt. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I am taking no political position here. I still think that allowing first-trimester abortion is preferable to driving desperate women into back-alleys. But I also am becoming uncomfortably certain that two hundred years into the future I will join everyone who reads these words in being condemned for our having been alive in the United States at a time when at least a million abortions occur every year. Fifty-eight million abortions since Roe v. Wade. And almost 17.5 million of the babies aborted since Roe v. Wade were African-American.
I don’t know how to square this circle. I only know that history shows that Dr. King was exactly right. And forcing ourselves to look at this problem, recognizing it for the problem that it is, is our first step toward coming together in love and beginning to build a more just world.
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