Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: For the Slave and the Unborn

The tragedy of slavery hangs over the American story like an overcast sky.  It’s unimaginable now that a whole class of people were once denied personhood and stripped of foundational human rights.  But then again, maybe not.  There is another whole class of people who are denied personhood and stripped of more than foundational human rights.  They are deprived of life itself.  

This difficult parallel is not original with me.  It is from the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose anniversary we also celebrate in January as well.  

The slave without freedom certainly had a difficult life, but at least he was allowed to be born and have a life.  But an aborted infant is denied both freedom and life.  If the Dred Scott decision was a legal tragedy, what should we think of Rowe v. Wade? It’s an honest question at another anniversary of this troubling decision of the Supreme Court.

We no longer accept what were once compelling arguments for chattel slavery:  the slaveowner’s right to choose to have slaves or to decide what to do with the bodies of his slaves.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so powerfully enunciated in the Declaration, are now recognized as unalienable rights given by the Creator to all so that slavery is abolished and its history is reviled.  Yet for those in favor of abortion, a woman’s right to choose and to decide about the destiny of her unborn child as though it were her own body are persuasive arguments in support of abortion.  The parallel with slavery is ignored or strenuously denied.

Consider the order the Founders wrote: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Life came first.  It was paramount since if it were lost, there was no remedy.  Liberty came next since life’s potential could not be realized without liberty.  Based upon these two unalienable rights, the third, the pursuit of happiness, became possible.  One who was living and possessed of liberty could pursue happiness.

Yet in our culture of self-interest, the three seem to have been redefined to mean, “Since I have life, I want to be free to do whatever makes me happy.”  And so the value of the life of the unborn is determined by one’s self-interest, by what one wants to do.  Similarly, the freedom of the slave was determined by the slave owner’s self-interest, by what he wanted to do with his slave.

Whatever the Supreme Court may decide with respect to abortion in some future case, those who cherish the American founding should reclaim the wisdom of this trilogy of transcendent values imparted to humanity by the Creator.  If we do, we will not prioritize personal liberty before life.  We will affirm the right to life to others whether in the womb or in the world.  And if we do, we should recognize that the unborn child has a right not only to life and liberty but also to the pursuit of happiness.  If an unborn child is allowed to make a choice regarding life, they always strive to choose life.  How can we take their birthright by silencing a beating heart and their quest for life?

What does the pursuit of happiness mean for a child in the womb?  Simply put, it is the pursuit of life for the unborn child.  A child in the womb and a child that has been born both long for life.  They long to be cared for as they pursue their destiny to grow and to learn.  Should not this this happiness they seek be the happiness that we seek for them as well? Do we ask what is best for them or for what is best for ourselves? When a birth parent is sure she/he/they cannot give the child the best of lives, they must remember they have done well to give them life.  Moreover, there are those waiting who long to pursue the happiness of caring for a child.  They will give their best to love a newborn who has been given life but whose mother and father cannot provide beyond the miracle of birth.

Let us not forget Dr. King’s declaration of universal justice:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—not only in the slave quarters but also in the womb.


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