WHO CARES WHAT ANTHONY WOULD DO? Amanda Marcotte calls our attention to this excellent piece by Stacy Schiff, who debunks claims that Susan B. Anthony was a supporter of abortion bans. I find it particularly interesting because Anthony was able to ask questions about whether abortion bans actually accomplish anything even if you agree with the end of inhibiting abortions, a distinction which eludes most contemporary opponents of abortion rights.

Still, there's another question here: what difference would it make if Anthony had supported abortion laws? With respect to Lincoln, Mark Graber recently pointed out:

Many American political and constitutional arguments have something close to the following structure. 1) The following political action/constitutional understanding is wise, benevolent, and prudent. 2) Abraham Lincoln must have favored that political action/constitutional understanding because Abraham Lincoln was a wise, benevolent, and prudent leader. 3) We ought to adopt that policy because Abraham Lincoln favored that policy. I take it that premise 1) does all the work in this argument and that 2) and 3) are just window dressing, accoutrements of American political rhetoric.

The conclusion is obviously correct, as the example of Anthony further demonstrates. Will a single pro-lifer change their position even if made aware that Anthony really didn't agree with them? I rather doubt it. Would hearing that Anthony supported abortion laws 150 years ago convince a pro-choicer that state-coerced pregnancy was a good idea? It certainly shouldn't. We see this through 20th century political leaders as well. The greatest progressive president from the standpoint of domestic policy was Lyndon Johnson, who also presided over the Vietnam catastrophe. His only serious contender for the title, FDR, not only put people in concentration camps based on their race but was in general probably indifferent about civil rights above and beyond his debts to the segregationists in the Democratic coalition. Even the best public figures, for various reasons, get things horribly wrong, and using the accomplishments to provide an independent justification for the mistakes is silly. Even if Anthony had opposed legal abortion (in a context in which abortion was an extremely dangerous procedure, women were second-class legal citizens and third-class economic citizens, etc. etc.), that wouldn't be a good reason to support abortion laws now, any more than Lincoln justifies political corruption or FDR justifies racist internment policies or LBJ justifies disastrous wars. Invoking beloved political figures may be useful rhetoric, but as an argument on the merits it's neither here nor there.

--Scott Lemieux

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