An academic colleague of mine has carved out considerable expertise for himself in the area of slavery. I roused his ire once by asking if, two centuries from now, people might regard abortion the way we now do slavery. This was at a meeting of Enlightenment-period scholars. There is in all of us a tendency to see the past through the eyes of the present, what is called “provincialism of the present,” and this tendency extends to academics, perhaps especially so. Still, it always surprises me when I encounter it among those in my own discipline of eighteenth-century studies.
On this occasion, the paper that was read concerned a Frenchman, a friend of philosophes and in all other respects apparently a very enlightened person but who, as a man of considerable wealth, owned several ships on which Africans were transported to the New World to be sold as slaves. In the Q&A, one of those present shook his head and, with bewilderment, remarked that the acceptance of slavery, especially in one who was otherwise so enlightened, was beyond his comprehension. At which point I piped up with my question, to the ire of the colleague who had made the presentation and, I think, of several others present.
The slaves were in time freed, which certainly makes a huge difference in evaluating the similarities between abortion and slavery. In addition, the evil of the latter is, in a real sense, always present to us, since the descendants of slaves live on, whereas the aborted have no legacy. In the long run, however, abortion may achieve, like slavery, its own political and moral turn, simply because those who most favor abortion rights are leaving behind fewer children who share and will transmit their values.
There is an enormous personal investment in having and raising children, and it’s a wonder that anyone makes the sacrifice anymore. Right after September 11, however, while reading the small capsule biographies in the New York Times of the victims of the terrorist attacks, I was struck by how many children they left behind. I refer not simply to firefighters, who have legendarily large numbers of children, but to men and women in white-collar jobs. And not just two or three children but five or six even. About the same time I began to notice how many young children there were on the Upper West Side where I live. Children are indeed coming back, even among the very well off, which you must be to live on the Upper West Side with children. It is becoming a far-different place from when I first moved here in 1980.
Another feature of the Upper West Side is immigrant labor: construction, restaurants, laundries, housecleaning, childcare. At a Senate Judiciary hearing on the issue of immigration held in Philadelphia this past summer, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, claimed that the city’s economy would be a “shell of itself” if illegal immigrants were deported. Since our mayor appears to be angling to be a presidential candidate, it is worth placing his comments within the framework of the debate over slavery. As a prominent liberal, Mr. Bloomberg no doubt finds the idea of slavery abhorrent. Though his comment on the collapse of the city’s economy might be a bit hyperbolic for the normally sober mayor, our way of life, like that of plantation owners in the pre¯Civil War South, would be compromised without the cheap labor provided by illegals who are underpaid, exploited, and doubtless without health insurance. It is interesting how liberals go on about the uninsured employees of Wal-Mart, but ignore the health woes of the more than one million illegals in this city, including the nannies they employ.
I will concede an important difference between slavery and the exploitation of cheap labor: Like my own Irish ancestors, the current crop of foreign workers are more or less willingly exploited, earning here more than they would back home. The same goes for those laboring in sweatshops in China, Bangladesh, and Peru. In this connection, I recall an anecdote of a man who taught English a few years back in a small college in the backwoods of China. He was impressed with how readily his Chinese students, in contrast to American students, took to studying sonnets, until he realized their alternative: slaving away in rice fields in water up to their ankles for the rest of their lives. In their own way, all these people are shaping their own future.
Mr. Bloomberg, also an active supporter of abortion, made another comment at the hearing in Philadelphia that sheds some light on the approach of the enlightened to social issues. On border control, he said: “You might as well sit on the beach and tell the tide not to come in.” To Mr. Bloomberg, this was no doubt the voice of reason speaking. It reminds me of the voice of reason of abortion advocates: “You can’t stop kids from having sex, but you can teach them to have it responsibly,” as if having sex at fifteen could be considered responsible. Responding to that voice of reason, the country has spent untold millions of dollars on sex education and, in the process, produced ludicrously opposite consequences. Since Roe v. Wade , we have had more than forty million abortions in America, a disproportionate number of them by black women. That’s the loss of a lot of jobs for schoolteachers (empty classrooms), not to mention the loss of workers who would be filling the jobs for which illegals are now competing. For those who say our citizens wouldn’t work for low wages, uncontrolled immigration (like “free” sex) has driven down the value of labor (of sex).
The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a continuation of the present and that the deceased would be required to fulfill the duties expected of them while alive, including regular labor for government projects. A magical solution, so to speak, to this onerous eternal burden was the shawabti , a figurine inscribed with spells from the Book of the Dead , which would be animated when required to perform the labor. Over time, the numbers of shawabtis in the tomb grew, “until there was a figurine provided for every day of the year, to insure an eternity of relaxation for the owner of the tomb.”
Many Americans are happy with the proliferation of contemporary shawabtis , so long as they deliver sushi, iron shirts, and mow lawns. Unlike the fabricated Egyptian variety, however, they are real people who also propagate. What will their lives be like? What will their effect on us be? I use the future tense, because, whatever the benefits or burdens of immigration (terrorism? political radicalization?), it is future generations who will most feel its impact. There is a correlation between advocacy of abortion and uncontrolled immigration, which comes down to an unwillingness to make sacrifices for the weal of future generations.
Elizabeth Powers is currently completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s.