Where Does Martin Luther King Jr. Fit into the Consistent Life Ethic?
by Rob Arner
First, if there’s anything we know, we know where Martin Luther King Jr. stood on racism and poverty – for all of his public life. We know that he came out strongly against war as well, toward the end of his public career. And we know that he saw the three as connected.
His stand on the death penalty wasn’t so prominent, but in his “Advice for Living” column in Ebony magazine, this from the November 1957 issue:
I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime—rape and murder included. God’s concern is to improve individuals and bring them to the point of conversion. Even criminology has repudiated the motive of punishment in favor of the reformation of the criminal. Shall a good God harbor resentment? Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution—improving him rather than paying him back for some crime that he has done—it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can he improve if his life is taken? Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.
But abortion? Because King was murdered in 1968, nearly five years before Roe v. Wade struck down all U.S. state laws banning abortions, he never lived in a post-Roe world. Whether King would have supported or opposed the legalization of abortion is a hotly debated question.
Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy for the NAACP, said that he believed King would have supported “a woman’s right to control her reproductive life . . . What I know of Dr. King’s vision is Dr. King held a very strong position that didn’t speak to the issue of abortion at all. You can try to read into it if you like, but his position was that women should have control of their reproductive lives” (August 25, 2010 interview on CNS News).
King’s family members fall on very different sides. King’s wife Coretta Scott King was well-known as a supporter of abortion in her later years, and says though they never discussed it explicitly, she believes King would have agreed with her. But another side of King’s family, led by King’s niece Alveda King, argues King’s profound words of respect for personhood and human dignity would place him within the pro-life movement had he lived to see its rise. Alveda argues that Coretta “knew that her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was pro-life” with respect to abortion, even though Coretta herself was not. MLK himself, according to Alveda, was pro-life, a stance she says was “supported fully by everything he always said” (the same August 25, 2010 interview on CNS News).
But what did King himself say? The facts are difficult to discern. He doesn’t use the word “abortion” in any of his published books or articles, nor in the six volumes of his published papers, or anywhere yet found by King scholars. Nor, according to my research, does he clearly discuss the subject at all. In all likelihood, he never had occasion to opine publically because, as far as researchers can tell, he was never asked. The public debate over the issue was still years in the future.
The one possible exception may be in his June 1958 “Advice for Living” column in Ebony. King was asked by a young man, “About two years ago, I was going with a young lady who became pregnant. I refused to marry her. As a result, I was directly responsible for a crime. It was not until a month later that I realized the awful thing I had done. I begged her to forgive me, to come back, but she has not answered my letters. The thing stays on my mind. What can I do? I have prayed for forgiveness.”
King’s pastoral reply makes no explicit mention of an abortion, instead speaking of forgiveness in general terms: “You have made a mistake. This you admit. Your admitting this fact is very wholesome, for it is the first step in the process of repentance and personality integration. . . . This sense of penitence and this creative living will do more to cause the young lady to forgive you than anything you can say in words.”
King is known to have had an affiliation with Planned Parenthood, which is known today as the largest abortion provider in the United States. But this doesn’t indicate support for abortion because for the duration of King’s affiliation, Planned Parenthood was itself opposed to abortion.
One related subject on which King definitely had an opinion was birth control, a topic increasing in the public eye, especially after the birth control pill was introduced in 1960. In his discussion of poverty, King was concerned, as were many thinkers in the mid-20th century, about excessive population, and the resulting competition for finite resources leading to violence and unnecessary human suffering. In his December 1957 “Advice for Living” column, he fielded a question from a woman who was pregnant with her eighth child and mentioned practicing birth control to her husband, but her husband told her artificial birth control is sinful— God would stop them from having children when they had enough. King replies:
I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life . . . A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than “breeding machines.” It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood— a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and to chance. And this means birth control in some form.
But King didn’t believe that just indiscriminately handing out condoms and birth control pills was the best answer. Rather, characteristically for the way King’s moral mind worked in seeing the big picture, he connected the issues of birth control with economic justice, maintaining that the underlying issues of poverty and lack of resources needed to be addressed before people would even consider having a smaller family.
The debate over King’s stance on abortion is therefore ultimately inconclusive, given the paucity of evidence. There’s too little evidence to conclude decisively what King’s attitude toward abortion would have been.
Though it makes the most sense to me after my study of King to think that rather than supporting easy access to abortions, he would have instead sought more community-based solutions, such as well-funded pregnancy resource centers, or advocating that government mandate free or reduced-cost childcare for poor working mothers and require that workplaces accommodate women’s maternity and their needs in raising children. These are methods that respect the inherent dignity of both born and unborn children and their mothers. I must ultimately admit that I don’t know for certain what King would have done, and that given the current state of available evidence, such knowledge is impossible.
However I do know that Martin Luther King, Jr. believed deeply in what he called “the sacredness of all human personality,” that all human lives have inestimable value. Given his absolute convictions about nonviolence, it stretches my imagination to believe that King ever would have been a supporter of abortion’s violence.
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