Commentary Race

Abortion Is Not Like Slavery, So Stop Comparing the Two

Imani Gandy

If abortion is like slavery—indeed, if abortion is the most divisive issue since slavery—then what of the women who suffered under slavery? What of the women who performed self-abortions in order to resist slavery? They cease to exist.

Anti-choice comparisons between slavery and abortion are nothing new. It is a canard so common that whenever I see it, my eye starts to twitch, because it is nonsense, devoid of fact and logic, stripping women of agency and co-opting this country’s brutal racial history to score a political point against ideological foes.

Abortion is not slavery, nor is it comparable to slavery. An abortion is a medical procedure that results in the termination of a pregnancy. People who seek abortions do so for myriad reasons: because a wanted pregnancy presents a danger to the health of the pregnant person, or simply because a person has decided, as is her right, when and whether to have children. Abortion, quite simply, allows women the freedom to live full and free lives and to retain control over their bodies.

Slavery, on the other hand, was the centuries-long system under which Black men and women were treated not as human beings, with attendant freedom and liberty, but as chattel—human property owned by other humans, stripped of their freedom and cruelly forced to work under inhumane conditions. During slavery, Black human beings were murdered, raped, and treated like animals simply for the economic benefit of white aristocracy and to further white supremacy.

Comparisons between abortion and slavery are popular among the anti-choice crowd because most people agree that slavery is morally wrong. If anti-choice forces can equate slavery and abortion, and draw parallels between an “unborn” person and an enslaved person, then surely no morally righteous person could continue to defend abortion as a medical procedure that enables women to retain some modicum of control over the physical selves and their economic realities.

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The comparisons are often tailored for the Black community and lobbed at Black women by the same forces who erect billboards in Black communities that scream “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb,” blissfully ignorant of the bitter irony of feigning concern for Black children even as they appropriate images of Black girls to spread their anti-choice propagandistic messages, and wage war against social programs—public assistance, food benefits, health care, sex education, fair pay—that would permit Black women to not only choose motherhood, but to raise healthy children.

These messages are tailored for Black women in an effort to exploit Black history and to shame Black women into signing on to the anti-abortion crusade. Our ancestors suffered under the yoke of slavery, so we understand, don’t we? We understand how horrible it is to deny freedom to the innocent. Surely we would agree that abortion is worse than slavery, right? After all, under slavery, we were permitted to live. Abortion denies innocent lives even a single breath, they argue.

Such arguments are the bread and butter of the rabid anti-choice crowd—who ignore any discussion of the hostile birthing environment that exists for women of color and low-income women to this day. Moreover, such arguments ignore the horror that slavery was for Black people, and the unique ways in which Black women in particular suffered under slavery.

Among the less rabid anti-choice crowd, attempts to elide the differences between abortion and slavery lead to commentary like that from federal Judge Lee Yeakel who, in his recent opinion striking down the admitting privileges provision of Texas’ HB 2 as unconstitutional, and upholding the medication abortion restrictions as constitutional, essentially claimed that abortion is a divisive issue about which reasonable people could disagree. Almost as if he were apologizing to the anti-choice forces that worked so hard to ram HB 2 through the Texas legislature, he wrote (emphasis added):

Today there is no issue that divides the people of this country more than abortion. It is the most divisive issue to face this country since slavery. When compared with the intensity, emotion, and depth of feeling expressed with regard to abortion, the recent arguments on affordable healthcare, increasing the debt ceiling, and closing the government retreat to near oblivion. Sincere and caring persons of good will are found on both sides of the issue, but neither side will ever change the position of the other.

We are talking about the same slavery, right? The slavery that saw millions of Africans snatched from their homes and crammed by the hundreds onto slave ships, where many of them died, either due to unsanitary conditions, brutal beatings and assault by slavers, or by throwing themselves overboard to avoid the fate that awaited them in the United States? The slavery that saw human beings beaten into submission so that by the time they reached the shores of this country, the prospect of forced labor in the hot sun seemed like paradise compared to the conditions they suffered during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when they were shipped like animals? The slavery that saw families ripped apart—mothers taken from sons and husbands taken from wives? The slavery that saw Black female slaves exploited as breeding mares and sexual objects ripe for rape? The slavery that made any children born to a Black woman automatically the property of whomever owned that woman?

The slavery under which, as Loretta Ross pointed out in her article “African-American Women and Abortion: A Neglected History” (referencing a 1989 brochure published by African American Women for Reproductive Freedom), “Somebody owned our flesh, and decided if and when and with whom and how our bodies were to be used. Somebody said that Black women could be raped, held in concubinage, forced to bear children year in and year out, but often not raise them.”

That is the slavery supported by “sincere and caring persons of good will”?

No.

To put it bluntly, Black women weren’t seen as human, and there certainly were no “sincere and caring individuals” on the side of slavery who gave a moment’s thought to the ways in which Black women were systematically stripped of their reproductive rights and their humanity. Black women were simply pawns in a cruel game, the goal of which was to increase the economic viability of this nascent country, at least until the point that fear of Black mass reproduction led to forced mass sterilization when slavery ended.

I understand what Judge Yeakel was trying to do—or at least I think I do. He was trying to soothe anti-choice anger as he ruled unconstitutional the latest anti-choice effort to squeeze abortion access out of existence, so that even if Roe v. Wade is never overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, it won’t matter; it will be so impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion that the right to abortion will be meaningless.

I get it. But that doesn’t make Judge Yeakel’s commentary any better than that of the “abortion is just like slavery” crowd. His characterization of slavery, well-meaning though it may be—is based on a romanticized notion of slavery that simply never existed. In Judge Yeakel’s hagiographic version of slavery, well-meaning white folks were to be found on both sides of the issue. This is simply not true. Such comments attempt to absolve white people, some of whom call themselves good Christians, of the horrible deeds that were done in the name of Christianity, and lead to ahistorical claims that credit Christianity and Christians with the downfall of slavery without ever mentioning that Christianity was used to promulgate slavery and to oppose those who wished to end it.

The fact of the matter is slavery was not all that divisive an issue during the period leading up to the Civil War. The number of people who outwardly opposed slavery were few and far between, and abolitionists were not popular in antebellum America. And those who did sign on to the abolitionist cause usually had already succumbed to the racism that slavery fomented, believing that Black abolitionists were inferior to white abolitionists, thus silencing the voices of Black abolitionists in favor of white ones.

In Texas, Judge Yeakel’s home state, abolitionism was wildly unpopular. According to the Texas State Historical Association, only a few people dared criticize the institution of slavery, and even fewer were outright abolitionists. Texas was as much a Southern pro-slavery state as any other Southern state at the time. The revised version of slavery urged by Judge Yeakel, therefore, is a vulgar recasting of history, as is “abortion is like slavery” rhetoric.

What I find most troubling about this rhetoric is the profound ways in which it erases the history and experiences of Black women who, as slaves, sat at the intersection of abortion and slavery. During slavery, Black female slaves used contraceptive and abortion methods learned in their native land to resist slavery—to avoid bringing into the world children who would suffer under the yoke of oppression with no chance of living a free and healthy life, and to deprive their masters of property born from their own bodies.

If abortion is like slavery—indeed, if abortion is the most divisive issue since slavery—then what of the women who suffered under slavery? What of the women who performed self-abortions in order to resist slavery? They cease to exist.

The point is this: Abortion is not like slavery. And while it is true that abortion is a divisive issue, it is incumbent upon legislators, politicians, and judges to make that argument without leveraging slavery to do so.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Clarifies Position on Federal Funding for Abortion, Is ‘for the Hyde Amendment’

Ally Boguhn

The Democratic Party voiced its support for rolling back the restriction on federal funding for abortion care in its platform, which was voted through this week.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Hillary Clinton’s running mate, clarified during an interview with CNN on Friday that he still supports the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

During Kaine’s appearance on New Day, host Alisyn Camerota asked the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee whether he was “for or against” the ban on funding for abortion. Kaine replied that he had “been for the Hyde Amendment,” adding “I haven’t changed my position on that.”

Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told CNN on Sunday that Kaine had “said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment.” Another Clinton spokesperson later clarified to the network that Kaine’s commitment had been “made privately.”

The Democratic Party voiced its support for rolling back the restriction on federal funding for abortion care in its platform, which was voted through this week.

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“We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment,” reads the platform.

Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard that he was not aware that the party had put language outlining support for repealing Hyde into the platform, noting that he had “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Clinton has repeatedly said that she supports Hyde’s repeal, calling the abortion care restriction “hard to justify.”

Abortion rights advocates say that Hyde presents a major obstacle to abortion access in the United States.

“The Hyde amendment is a violent piece of legislation that keeps anyone on Medicaid from accessing healthcare and denies them full control over their lives,” Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said in a statement. “Whether or not folks believe in the broken U.S. political system, we are all impacted by the policies that it produces. … Abortion access issues go well beyond insurance and the ability to pay, but removing the Hyde Amendment will take us light years closer to where we need to be.”

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.