Along with many other pro-lifers, I noticed the emergence of a group called “Abolish Human Abortion” (AHA) around the time of the 2012 election with some interest. Their graphic design was fantastic, their slogans catchy, and their focus on churches warranted. However, this group has increasingly attempted to make a number of outlandish historical claims, including that they are “abolitionists” while those of us in the pro-life movement are not.
Most of these claims are made by one T. Russell Hunter, who refers to himself as a historian and purports, in multiple lectures and online articles, to have defined what an “abolitionist” is, and is now attempting to “reignite abolitionism” in the US while simultaneously being the arbiter of who is and who is not an abolitionist, as evidenced by constant postings describing who is, and who is not, an abolitionist. This is nothing short of absurd, and seems to be based on a rather infantile understanding of the complexities of the long history of abolition across the globe, including an enormous variety of different abolitionist movements using different tactics and achieving different levels of success.
Their claims are historically inaccurate and, as Life Training Institute’s Clinton Wilcox has already pointed out, philosophically feeble. As a student of history myself, I’d like to draw attention to just two of their foundational errors. First, their definition of “abolitionist,” and their loud attempts to specifically distinguish this term from “pro-lifer,” is nonsense. Second, their claim that pro-lifers prefer gradualism to immediatism, and that an “abolitionist” cannot support incremental strategies, is a straw man and historically inaccurate.
1.Their claim to be exclusively in possession of the title of “abolitionist,” based on their own invented definition, is nonsense.
Now, I don’t have a problem with AHA calling themselves abolitionists. Abolitionists have, throughout history, comprised many different strategies (including incremental ones, as I’ll highlight in my next point) and a large diversity of different people. For example, AHA, just like the pro-life movement, condemns violence as a means towards the abolition of abortion. However, as a cursory glance at the history of abolition will tell you, not all abolitionists agreed, most notably John Brown. John Brown is not some insignificant, corollary figure, either—he was one of the most famous American abolitionists (alongside William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass), and his armed assault on Harper’s Ferry, an attempt to spark a slave revolt, is credited by many historians as being instrumental in hastening the beginning of the American Civil War. It was this Civil War, incidentally, which would result in the emancipation of America’s slaves, a lengthy political process brought about by Abraham Lincoln’s shrewd political incrementalism. (Abraham Lincoln, by the standards of AHA, would not be a politician worthy of support.) John Brown was obviously, by historical definition, an abolitionist. His tactics, of course, are to be rejected completely. AHA’s defintion is proven flimsy and subjective by just a cursory glance at history’s prominent abolitionists.
Here I could go on at length listing various abolitionists, their strategies, and their faith backgrounds, but I think it is transparently obvious to all that any attempt to apply a narrow definition to historical term “abolitionist” is an amusing exercise in futility. Are those who work with AHA abolitionists? Sure they are. Is anyone who works towards the abolition of an injustice such as abortion or slavery permitted, in the historical context, to claim that title? Absolutely. This point will be buffered further in my second point.
2.Their claim that “Pro-lifers prefer gradual, over immediate, abolition” is a straw man fallacy as well as a blatant slur.
I wouldn’t like to ascribe maliciousness to this claim, but it’s hard not to. The claim here isn’t just that pro-lifers work towards “gradual” abolition, but that they prefer it. AHA, once again using their historically fictitious and entirely subjective definition of “what an abolitionist is,” blatantly misrepresents the historical record by stating that, “Abolitionists reject the notion that you can ever commit evil in order that good may come. Abolitionists cry NO COMPROMISE!!”
Their specific (and unique) brand of “abolitionism,” which they have every right to, can say whatever it wants. But they do not, as the saying goes, have the right to their own facts. Did the abolitionists of times past prefer immediate abolition of slavery? Of course they did, just as pro-lifers prefer (and fight tirelessly for) the total abolition of the evil practice of abortion. But recognition of how the political system worked forced the abolitionists to take steps towards abolition, as distasteful as this was, rather than fighting for the total abolition of slavery all at once. In Great Britain, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade realized this almost immediately. As Adam Hochschild wrote in his seminal work Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to free an Empire’s Slaves:
“It was a universe that took slavery for granted, and so the committee members faced a central decision: What, exactly, were they taking on? Were they going to agitate only for the abolition of the slave trade, or for the emancipation of all slaves? On June 7, 1787, only two weeks after the committee’s formation, the issue was on the table. Granville Sharp alone spoke out in favor of demanding full emancipation, with, in [Thomas] Clarkson’s words, ‘a loud voice, a powerful emphasis, and both hands uplifted towards Heaven.’ The others prevailed, however, because abolishing the slave trade looked possible, while the immediate freeing of all slaves did not.”
Did these abolitionists (nine Quakers, three Anglicans) desire the immediate abolition of the entire abhorrent practice of the slavery? Of course! Did they recognize that since that was not achievable in the moment; they had to work for shorter term goals while agitating for total abolition? Again, of course. If, as AHA often foolishly and inaccurately claims, you cannot be a “true abolitionist” if you support any incremental legislation, they are retroactively downgrading the original abolitionists themselves.
Additionally, AHA has compared themselves to the abolitionists and pro-lifers to those who supported strategies such as setting up colonies for freed slaves in Africa, a strategy that ended up failing miserably. However, this strategy was specifically funded by men such as William Wilberforce, championed by abolitionists such as Granville Sharp (whose efforts led to the founding of the Province of Freedom and Freetown in Sierra Leone, resulting in Sharp being considered one of Sierra Leone’s founding fathers), and spearheaded on the ground by none other than Thomas Clarkson’s brother, John. Again, although many abolitionists later rejected the strategy as one that was not practically feasible (Sharp probably hanging on to the hope that they would succeed the longest), it is inaccurate and facetious to claim that such means were not “abolitionist” strategies.
In response to evidence like this, the alleged historian at AHA often quotes Wilberforce roundly condemning incremental legislation. Having read much of Wilberforce’s work, I know these quotes are accurate. Having examined the historical record, I also know it is undeniable to say that the abolitionists did, in spite of their distaste, use incremental steps that ultimately succeeded. To give another example, there was Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, the most prominent African abolitionist working alongside Thomas Clarkson. He had written an autobiography detailing his own experience with slavery and the slave trade, and traveled tirelessly promoting the work of abolition.
In late 1788, Wilberforce had fallen ill and could not put forward his bill to ban the slave trade. However, a friend of his, Sir William Dolben, “led a group of M.P.s to visit a slave ship being outfitted. Horrified by its cramped quarters, Dolben introduced a bill limiting, according to a ship’s tonnage, the number of slaves it could carry, and requiring every ship to have a doctor as well as to keep a register of slave and crew deaths.” Many of the abolitionists were wary of this bill, worried it would set bad precedent. However, Equiano supported it—he “evidently figured that a regulatory bill was better than none. He led a black delegation to Commons and was received by Dolben, Pitt, and other M.P.s.” (Hochschild, p 140.)
Now, by the fictitious standard laid out by the historian of AHA, Olaudah Equiano, the most prominent of African abolitionists, was not an abolitionist. This is not simply arrogant; this is arrogant historical revisionism and a direct insult to abolitionists of times past. One can only hope that the historian’s motives in making such claims are not as impaired as his research.
Can abolitionists oppose incremental strategies? Of course.
Abolitionists can also, history tells us, endorse and utilize them. AHA
also ignores the fact that among the abolitionists, there were differing
views on whether or not to use incrementalism—and unless, as he seems
to, the historian at AHA is attempting to retroactively downgrade all of
those abolitionists, his theories flap feebly against the evidence of
the historical record. Some abolitionists were in favor of incremental
strategies, some of absolutist strategies. Both were, unquestionably,
abolitionists in the historical sense of the word.
The reason I’ve taken the time to specifically rebut the historical claims of Abolish Human Abortion is that bad history makes for bad activism. Utilizing an invented and fictitious definition of historical abolitionism, they have attempted to divide the pro-life movement and direct insults towards many who have worked towards abolition tirelessly for years. They deliberately insult people’s motives, and when pro-lifers respond, they cry “Persecution!” and cite the response as yet more evidence that clearly, they are the incarnation of the original persecuted abolitionists. AHA is free to engage in anti-abortion work however it chooses. It is not, however, free to mangle the historical record at will and present it as fact.