Slavery: Removing the Exception
See our Peace & Life Referendums website.
by Rachel MacNair
State constitutions from the late 1800s often followed the example of the times by prohibiting slavery except for those convicted of a crime.
Measures to remove this exception were placed on the ballot by the legislature in Nebraska and Utah for the November 3, 2020 ballot. Both passed resoundingly. Colorado had already passed such a measure in 2018, which also passed resoundingly.
The Alabama legislature has put a recompiled state constitution on their ballot, in which the section on slavery and involuntary servitude makes the prohibition complete.
The Louisiana legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Oregon legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Tennessee legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Vermont legislature has put removing the exception for indentured servitude on their ballot. In Vermont, the exception isn’t for crime but for debt.
As of early 2022, the states that still have the exception for slavery in their state constitutions are:
Arkansas, Article II, Section 27
Indiana, Article I, Section 37
Kentucky, Article I, Section 25
Minnesota, Article I, Section 2
Mississippi, Article III, Section 15
Nevada, Article I, Section 17
North Dakota, Article I, Section 6
Oregon, Article I, Section 34 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Tennessee, Article I, Section 33 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Wisconsin, Article I, Section 2
In addition, these states prohibit “involuntary servitude” with an exception for those convicted of a crime:
Alabama, Article I, Section 32 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
California, Article I, Section 6
Georgia, Article I, Paragraph XX
Iowa, Article I, Section 23
Kansas, Bill of Rights, Section 6
Louisiana, Article I, Section 3 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Michigan, Article I, Section 9
North Carolina, Article I, Section 17
Ohio, Article I, Section 6
This all follows what’s said in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On June 18, 2021, in anticipation of Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday, an Abolition Amendment was introduced.
There’s been a long-standing tradition of pro-lifers comparing abortion to the way slavery was practiced in the United States, on the grounds that both require dehumanizing. The dehumanization is so extreme that killing human beings – unborn children and enslaved people — is legally allowed. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in both the Roe v. Wade and the Dred Scott decisions that certain classes of human beings were outside legal protection.
While abortion defenders object to the analogy, they do so by defending abortion, not by defending slavery. Naturally – they share the understanding that holding people in slavery is appalling. Nowadays, that’s the common attitude in the United States.
People generally understand that the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. Several state constitutions, drafted in the years soon thereafter, did the same. These were well after the principle was established nationally. They simply added such a provision to the state constitution.
But neither the nation nor many of these states abolished slavery entirely. They had an exception: people duly convicted of a crime.
The immediate impact in the U.S. was that slavery was able to continue. African Americans would be arrested for “vagrancy,” which means essentially being arrested for being unemployed. If that’s the “crime” that got a person into prison, and someone in prison could be enslaved, then slavery hadn’t really ended.
More recently, the use of cheap prison labor for manufactured goods used by government and nonprofits has meant that prisoners are slaves. In some states, they’re paid nothing; in most states, they get a few cents per hour, and the highest is $2 an hour.
There was a prisoners’ strike against these conditions in 2018.
While their lives are legally protected, they’re still being exploited. The working conditions can include physical harm and even avoidable deaths. Such is the nature of treating people as slaves. People in prison should be treated as people in prison.
Kinds of harm are all connected when dehumanizing is done. If prisoners must do involuntary servitude, they have little pay for themselves, and no pay to send their families. They haven’t always developed the kind of working skills that will help them get employment once out of prison.
Anything that harms families this way will harm a spirit of welcoming new members to the family. That is, these conditions increase the danger of abortions being done in an atmosphere where they’re so readily available.
For more of our comment on the Dred Scott decision, see
Our Experience with Overturning Terrible Court Decisions
For more of our posts on referendums, see:
Referendums to Reduce Poverty and Their Impact on Abortion & Euthanasia
What History Shows: The Consistent Life Ethic Works for the Pro-life Side in Referendums
For more extensive information and updates on referendums involving consistent-life issues for upcoming elections, see our website:
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