The Jefferson Myth: On the topic of Abortion

This has been inspired by Conservative blogger Tom Quiner’s post: Obama’s War on Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

I’ve been hearing and reading recently about Republican rhetoric that is depicting Thomas Jefferson as against abortion, or using his name to argue against it, along with the argument it’s granted by God. Why? His statement in the United States Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

(Emphases are mine.)

Now, let’s first visit the reason this doesn’t hold much water by visiting our Founding Father’s religious beliefs, as it seems often misunderstood or otherwise ignored (if mentioned at all). I think we should touch on these, and clarify them.

First, he wasn’t a Christian in the typical sense, and while would admit to being one in part, he didn’t prescribe himself fully to the beliefs. In fact, he generally would state he was a Unitarian, and his views related more closely with Deism. To my understanding however, it’s always been a minor matter of debate. So, the argument that he is a man of God, on its own, will fall flat before any real research. Let’s keep his faith unquestioned and personal, something he preferred.

Another note to make is that he never mentioned abortion as something he was opposed to. Actually, if anything, he favored it, though his notes of it was mostly in understanding the need for it (thus neither opposing nor favoring). In a fascinating observation, a university professor Jim Groom notes in his personal blog:

During these strange political times I have found myself returning in thought to Thomas Jefferson‘s Notes on the State of Virginia for some reason. Don’t ask me why, for I am not entirely sure, but I do have to say that this work continually blows my mind. This might by the third or fourth time I have read it through, and there are a number of passages that truly leave me in awe thinking about just how nuts Jefferson was for better and for worse, which I think is the true mark of genius.

Anyway, this is post is neither an apology nor an indictment of Jefferson, just a reflection on one of his observations about the custom of naturally inducing abortions and contraception amongst Native American women in Query 6: “Minerals”:

They [Native Americans] raise fewer children than we do. The causes of this are to be found, not in a difference of nature, but of circumstance. The women very frequently attending the men in their parties of war and of hunting, child-bearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them. It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable; and that it even extends to prevent conception for a considerable time after.

What strikes me about this passage is just how sanguinely Jefferson remarks on this practice, which today is one of the hallmark issue that divides the US along “conservative” and “liberal” lines (I put these terms in quotes because I really don’t know what they mean in our moment anymore). Yet, for Jefferson it is a practice that is both naturalized and contextualized within a particular cultures relationship to “circumstance” and necessity. This passage does not highlight this as a savage practice of the other, nor is the explanation for this practice to be understood as ” a difference of nature.” In fact, I think the Notes is fascinating in that Jefferson is trying to reclaim the humanity of the Native Americans (despite the fact they have been al but decimated and removed from the 13 colonies) while at the same time struggling with that of the African American slave. […]

I recommend reading the rest of the blog post, it’s quite interesting.

Anyway, it seems that in direct opposition to the arguments and rhetoric made by using Thomas Jefferson’s name and stances, Mr. Jefferson himself had never opposed abortion nor endorsed the idea. What does this say about those people who choose to use him then, to make arguments about being pro-life?

Let’s look at this another way.

When Thomas Jefferson had authored the Declaration of Independence, he was referring to living people. As most of us should know, it was originally drafted in opposition to British rule in the 13 Colonies, and had acted as a stepping stone that would lead to the American Revolutionary War. The purpose of the stating our inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was meant to be applied to living and and born individuals. Whether YOU think a fetus (also called ‘the pre-born’) is a person deserving of these rights is another issue altogether, because then you hold this fetus has rights to the woman’s body over her will and consent.

In this light, it would come across as rather contradictory to the belief of a woman’s right to Liberty as well. That’s not Thomas’s vision for a self-evident right, would it?

So, my question comes as thus: When it comes to the rights of a person‘s autonomy versus the need to us another’s to live, who takes priority in that right? The fetus, whom would die without any known pain or consciousness, or the woman who doesn’t wish to be pregnant?

In another post, I’m going to explore the subject of abortion in the political and personal spotlight, touch on the debate, and my personal views in the matter.


5 Comments on “The Jefferson Myth: On the topic of Abortion”

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  4. kywrite says:

    Er, Jefferson (whether willing or no) also excluded both liberty and the pursuit of happiness from slaves and, in part, from women. I don’t think you’ve made as good a point as you might think. The flaw with quoting the founding fathers – on both sides of the political fence – is that so many of the finer and grosser points have changed over the last 250 years.

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