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Monday, January 21, 2008

Reflection on Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday Part Two

There is no telling what King would have thought of a consistent life ethic (CLE). But the feminist CLE is (dare I say) borne of the same impulse to embrace all, nonviolently.

In addition to expressing frank racism against him, some antiabortionists deride King as a "liar" and a womanizer who had extramarital affairs, even for hiring white prostitutes and beating them. Snopes.com does a good job of sifting through such criticisms and pointing out the high level of scurrilous urban legend in them. Especially the myth about hiring and beating white prostitutes--that sounds like a white segregationist's fantasy towards black women flipped around for the purpose of discrediting a black man!

Such antiabortionists, like P. Leslie Riley in his "Myths of Martin Luther King", excoriate the civil rights martyr for receiving the 1966 Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood. Riley overlooks certain facts here.

--In his acceptance speech, King advocated family planning. Voluntary family planning is quite distinct from abortion and in fact is an actual human right and a nifty tool for preventing abortion. He said nothing here about advocating abortion.

--In 1966, Planned Parenthood itself was divided on abortion and still held an official public stance against abortion. It did so until the early 1970s.

--As documented in the book ProLife Feminism Yesterday and Today, Second Expanded Edition, Margaret Sanger was not exactly the all-out babykiller of antiabortionist stereotype. She regarded abortion as a taking of unborn life caused by such atrocities as the denial of sex education and contraception to women. She want to prevent, not promote abortions, and therein lay her passion for family planning.

--Of course she--like many privileged or social-climbing whites of her day--held deplorable racist, ableist, and classist prejudices that contaminated her good work for family planning. King may not have known about these; in 1966 these were, as far as I know, were not a matter yet of widescale public knowedlege and scrutiny. And an article from the Fall 2001 issue of the Margaret Sanger Papers Projects Newsletter presents the complex and not entirely Sanger-damning evidence regarding the charge that she was out to exterminate the black race.

Fortunately prolifers, those inclined to expand their concern beyond the fetus, regard King as an ever-fresh source of inspiration and wish to build on his legacy. Even a group like Priests for Life, which is not keen on contraception, reprints his Letter From Birmingham Jail. Although King took an assiduously interfaith, inclusive perspective, the Letter recalls the example of Christians in early Rome who challenged the powers that be and "by their effort and example...brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests."

Clearly King can be termed prolife on the matters of infanticide and killing for public entertainment, just as he was obviously prolife on so much else. His position on family planning was, I believe, prolife, too. But he is not here any more to ask "What precisely did you mean by infanticide? Did you mean taking the lives of children before birth, too?" The term "infanticide" once had that double meaning, and in ancient Rome, Christians--like Jews, incidentally--were quite countercultural in rejecting abortion as well, as I discuss in the new anthology book Consistently Opposing Killing.

Aside from this, we have no evidence today of what King might have thought about abortion. But I feel it is a respectful building upon his legacy to affirm all lives, including the lives of vulnerable unborn children--and of course their mothers.

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