The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, is prompting allusions to slavery and the antebellum United States. There’s talk of a new “Underground Railroad” that conjures clandestine networks helping people to flee their home states in search of the freedom to end a pregnancy. And some predict Dobbs will result in conflicts among the states of a magnitude not seen since before the Civil War.
Any historical comparison requires considerable care, with attention to differences as well as similarities. The inability to access abortion, however degrading and oppressive, is quite unlike the horrors of chattel slavery, in which enslavers tortured and murdered enslaved people with impunity, sold children and adults away from loving families and required enslaved status to be passed from one generation to the next.
Yet, like antebellum slavery, abortion is a question of fundamental individual rights, an issue of critical national importance and a matter of great moral significance, marked by bitter divisions in public opinion. And like the battle over slavery, the fight over reproductive freedom raises questions about federal and state authority — in other words, who gets to make the rules.
The Dobbs decision, which gives states complete control over abortion laws, has unleashed conflicts that resemble the battles that arose when enslaved people fled slave states for free states, and enslavers, in turn, mobilized state and federal power to get them back.
This history doesn’t provide a blueprint for action in our own time, but it does remind us of the corrosive impact of interstate conflict and of the importance of federal protections for freedom and individual rights.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, northern states abolished slavery, and a long border emerged within the United States, between free states and slave states. It also became clear that some Americans were strongly committed to enslaving people while others found the practice morally abhorrent. Enslaved people themselves brought the clashing views into relief as they regularly escaped bondage and fled to states where slavery was outlawed.