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What the Pro-Life Movement Needs Next

How closely should historical parallels be drawn with abolitionism?

Looking,Up,At,Column,Of,Lord,Wilbeforce,Anti,Slavery,Campaigner
Credit: Paul Wishart

I recently visited an Anglican church in Atlanta where the rector recounted how his preparation that morning had been interrupted by a piercing scream. Out in the church parking lot, a local woman of some troubled history was crying out like one who had lost her mind. After overcoming his initial agitation, the rector’s heart was pierced by the woman’s scream to see what he could do for his distressed sister. 

Perhaps because I am a mother, and cries of every sort interrupt my work frequently, I immediately thought of the screams of the unborn. If there is any political cause which should ring in our ears in such a way, surely this is it. Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the language of the pro-life movement has centered on compromise. But compromise is only possible where there is a modicum of justice already. A scream speaks of justice deprived. It is devastating, loud, and impossible to ignore. 

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The British abolitionist William Wilberforce heard the scream. Portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace, Wilberforce is seen waking in a sweaty panic after dreaming of the tortured slaves in the West Indies. Wilberforce’s friend and fellow abolitionist, the Anglican preacher and former slave trader John Newton, presents another striking visual: He speaks of being haunted by “20,000 ghosts,” the slaves whom he personally shipped for sale before his conversion to Christianity in 1748. It becomes clear that Newton’s ghosts have begun to haunt Wilberforce himself, the longer he is in the fight. In the course of his decades-long campaign to end the shipment of African slaves to and from England, the real Wilberforce developed a chronic, stress-induced gastrointestinal issue now believed to have been colitis. His devotion to the cause meant he would bear physical effects for it, as well as emotional ones, until his death.  

In the life of Wilberforce can be seen a gravitas almost never found in politics today: Here was a man who fought for abolition with deadly seriousness. Today, the true believers are almost always behind closed doors, while the stuffed suits and practiced rhetoricians play the role, often unconvincingly, of the political champion. This inversion is explained easily enough by the incentive structures of modern American politics: No man of serious intelligence wants to run for political office. But the image of an earnest Christian politician, to whom a cause is not just an interest group or a voting bloc but the piercing cry for justice, is a striking foil. 

Zealotry is now most often treated with distrust. That is either a reflection on the poverty of our art (a nation becomes what it beholds), or an explanation for our politics, or both. It is also one clear reason why the pro-life movement is still waiting for its Wilberforce, notwithstanding Chief Justice Tom Parker and his pro-life ruling on IVF this week. Like slavery, the evidence against abortion is overwhelming: The logic of life is damning to the practice, and the screams of the innocent should be enough to curdle one’s blood. But perhaps the cause is too just: To win would require a level of seriousness in politics that is uncomfortable. Waging an effective optics campaign like the abolitionists did, too, would require ruffling the feathers of more than just the pink hat–wearers. 

The scale of abortion is incomparable to slavery, of course. To Newton’s own 20,000 ghosts, or those of the 12 million African slaves traded between 1640 and 1807, the pro-life movement is haunted by 57 million ghosts. One has to wonder if even the pro-life movement is now wearing earplugs, or has learned some other way to quiet those screams in everyday life. 

Two hundred and seventeen years ago today, Wilberforce finally triumphed over the British slave trade in Parliament, achieving the object of his lifetime of political effort. At the moment of the bill’s passage, Solicitor General Samuel Romilly was said to have remarked on Wilberforce’s victory by contrasting it with Napoleon’s. Napoleon would have been honored with magnificent celebrations, yet would be tormented by his conscience (England had just been at war with France). Wilberforce, meanwhile, would return to “‘the bosom of his happy and delighted family,’ able to lie down in peace because he had ‘preserved so many millions of his fellow creatures,’” records historian Kevin Belmonte. 

For his own commemoration of the day, Wilberforce chose manful humility:

I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business.

It took Wilberforce nearly three decades to silence those screams. What has America done in her five?

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