Libby Ashton: King's ideological nightmare

BY LIBBY ASHTON

Published October 11, 2010

This past Thursday, the pro-life campus group “Students for Life” hosted Dr. Alveda King — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece and a prominent spokesperson for the pro-life movement — to answer the question “How Will The Dream Survive?”

When I first saw the event advertised in my classroom in Angell Hall, I didn’t notice the “Hosted by Students for Life” tag and thought King was coming to speak about race relations in the 21st century. Then I made the connection and realized the event was on behalf of the pro-life position. I felt angry.

I resented Students for Life for what seemed like a strategy to attract people to the event who may want to know how the dream — MLK Jr.’s dream — will survive without the implicit antecedent, “if we murder our children,” which King stated in her speech Thursday. I resented King for standing in the national light of her uncle and his work while advocating for a position that cannot — without rigorous justification — be blanketed under the moral rightness that besets his Civil Rights Movement.

Leaders of the debate — assuming their objective is to win a truth, not an argument — have a duty to make progress in our collective understanding of the reasons behind each side’s position. I assumed King would walk the audience through her understanding of the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-abortion movement, beyond simply stating that there is one. I assumed that, as a leader in the movement and as someone who flaunts her relation to one of the most powerful orators in the last century, she would tell me something I hadn’t heard before.

But she didn’t. She told stories of her family history and religious awakening while walking us through a PowerPoint presentation that included statements like, “Satan hates … homosexual same sex … yuck!” She retold the story of Dred Scott, the African American who was told he couldn’t sue in federal court because he wasn’t a citizen, and paralleled it to the status of the fetus as a slave inside the woman’s womb. Her presentation was disheveled and her logic was unsophisticated at best — criticisms I make not because I want to paint the opposition in a bad light but because my expectations for their arguments are high.

I don’t believe that supporters of the pro-life movement are too stupid or too close-minded to understand my position. And I hope they don’t believe that I’m too stupid or too sinful to understand theirs. King apparently believes that I, as an advocate for choice, am in support of mass murder that carries the same moral weight as the Holocaust and the slave trade. I, on the other hand, believe she is in support of the mass oppression of the rights of people on behalf of a fundamentally religious conviction that Satan loves non-procreative sexuality. I can’t simply accept our difference of opinions when the moral stakes are so high. I feel a responsibility to probe further to find the point at which our convictions diverge.

I walked into King’s event with a strong sense as to the difference between slavery and abortion. I walked in thinking she would acknowledge that members of her audience had considered the parallel before and may have come up with some valuable reasons as to why the parallel between civil rights and abortion doesn't hold. As I left King’s talk, I resented her for failing to acknowledge that her opposition’s argument is at least worthy of consideration and a response — if for no other reason than to strengthen her own argument.

I think my resentment stems from the dissonance I experience between what I’ve been able to reason (which is that abortion is not morally reprehensible) and the convictions of many people for whom I have personal and intellectual respect. I feel frustrated by the debate because it seems that highly intelligent and capable people continue to throw around the same arguments and maintain the same misconceptions about the worldviews of the opposing side without getting any closer to the crux of the debate.

I know supporters of the pro-life movement can do better than the talk King gave Thursday night because I’ve seen them do better. I hope that the pro-life supporters who attended the talk don’t excuse King’s flawed and blatantly religiously and personally biased assertions simply because she and MLK Jr. stand in the same family portrait. Leaders of this debate — and others like it — shouldn’t get away with resting their arguments on unqualified clichés and bigoted references to scripture. So let’s hope the rest of us understand the importance of uncovering the fundamental truth at the core of this argument, which will require a higher standard of debate than that which King displayed.

Libby Ashton can be reached at eashton@umich.edu.