In the practice of slavery the human dignity, economic opportunity, and personal liberty of the powerful was counted as more important than the human dignity of the vulnerable.
by Neal Patel
This November 8, the people of Vermont will be asked to approve two different changes to our State Constitution. Both ballot measures involve the fundamental matter of human dignity, but when compared side-by-side, they reveal muddled ethics and hypocrisy of the highest order. To see why this is so, let’s compare the two proposed changes.
The first proposal is to amend Article 1, clarifying that slavery in any form is prohibited in our state. The precise wording of the proposed change reads:
Article 1. All persons born free; their natural rights; slavery and indentured servitude prohibited
That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety; therefore
no person born in this country, or brought from oversea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
The old language left open the possibility for voluntary, indentured servitude – an old practice by which people in desperate circumstances voluntarily and temporarily promised their labor to a patron to pay a significant debt. I do not wish to dispute the ethics of voluntary indentured servitude here. It is enough to say that modern objections to this practice are based on the moral convictions that all men are created equal and that the right of every human being to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be protected by the law and not infringed. Therefore, no human being ought to be owned by any other human being, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, whether temporarily or permanently.
Whether indentured servitude exists today anywhere in the State of Vermont is beyond my purview. However, the impetus for this change in 2022 seems born out of a desire to clarify our laws in the present to wash our hands of historic injustice and to disallow the potential for any such practice in the future. Despite lingering questions about the need for such a change today, the desire of legislators to protect the human dignity and freedom of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable is something that all Vermonters ought to support wholeheartedly.
However, when we turn to the second proposed constitutional change, the moral hypocrisy is immediately evident. The second proposed change to our constitution concerns reproductive liberty. The proposed text of Article 22 reads:
Article 22. [Personal reproductive liberty] That an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.
The purpose of Article 22 is to permanently protect the right to “personal reproductive autonomy.” This is certainly a measure specifically designed to protect abortion (even up to the point of birth) as a fundamental and inalienable right of all Vermonters. On the surface, this amendment may seem morally identical to the first proposal. After all, it is designed to protect the rights of persons to freedom, autonomy, and liberty to “determine one’s own life course.”
But when we dig deeper, it is immediately apparent that the cherished value of human dignity is only selectively applied. In the case of abortion, there are always two human lives in the balance. The human life of the mother and the human life of the child in the womb. Or we might rightly say, the life of the powerful and the life of the vulnerable – the life of the human being with rights under the law and the human being without rights under the law. In fact, it has been said that abortion is the slavery of our time. Why make such an inflammatory comparison? Because in the practice of slavery the human dignity, economic opportunity, and personal liberty of the powerful was counted as more important than the human dignity of the vulnerable. Some human beings had rights under the law and others did not, and the rights of the vulnerable human beings were infringed to prefer the rights and privileges of the powerful, protected class. Rightly, the purpose for anti-slavery laws is to uphold the human rights of all persons equally, and especially to protect the human dignity and personal autonomy of the vulnerable from being infringed by the powerful. In short, the equal rights of all human beings, whether powerful or vulnerable, ought to be protected by the laws of our State.
Although the march toward unrestricted “reproductive autonomy” is viewed as a matter of human rights, it is clearly a defense of the human rights of the mother against the human rights of the child. Do you see the hypocrisy on display in these two proposed constitutional changes? One seeks to protect the human dignity and autonomy of all persons, while the other seeks to protect the human dignity and autonomy of some persons over other persons.
For this reason, I plead with all Vermonters to defend the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Vermonters, whether powerful or vulnerable, whether rich or poor, whether born or unborn, and to strike down Article 22 in the name of human rights. If we do not strike down Article 22, even while we seek to cleanse our left hand from the historic stain of slavery, we will be soiling our right hand in the injustice of our own day.
In our age of fierce political polarization, I don’t expect to change everyone’s minds. But I do call on every Vermonter who truly cherishes the human dignity of all persons to strike down Article 22. For those who plan to support Article 22, I hope you will consider that your support of this article is based on something other than the equality of all persons under the law.
The author is Senior Pastor at Valley Bible Church in White River Junction.