On Oct. 18, 1859, John Brown’s ragtag band of fanatical anti-slavery activists, with the blood of several slavery supporters already on their hands, attacked the U.S. government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. John Brown was insane in that special way that all fanatics are – he held his cause above the lives of those who got in his way.

The abolition of slavery was not achieved by terrorists. Others did the real work – a slow and painful process of debate, impassioned rhetoric, and endless appeals to conscience and fairness. Finally, aided by political and economic changes as much as moral progress, they put an end to treating blacks as the objects of their convenience.

One hundred and fifty years is only long enough to change the victims, not the bad logic in an issue which mirrors slavery in fascinating ways. That issue is abortion.

In John Brown’s day, slavery was justified by “States’ Rights,” the right of the people to “choose” the advantages of slave ownership, and the conviction that a black slave could be the absolute property of his or her owner. Now we hear the claim that abortion is the centrepiece of women’s rights, that it is the choice above all choices, and that the unborn child is simply the property of his or her owner.

In the days of slavery, the aspirations of the slave owner were seen as more important than the slave’s very life. Today we recoil from that, only to hang the baby’s life from the same well-worn spot on that balance of convenience.

Last October, someone with John Brown’s kind of craziness murdered Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, New York. A hapless government soldier like Brown’s victims 150 years ago, Slepian fell prey to a conflict much bigger than himself, a conflict which brushed off his life as easily as he had scraped away the lives of his patients’ unwanted children.

A normal mind gasps at the monstrous arrogance of the deliberate, planned cancellation of someone else’s life. Adding insult to lethal injury, Slepian died knowing that support for abortion inside his own profession is a mile wide but an inch deep. Why? Fewer and fewer doctors are willing to provide abortions, a trend that was firmly in place long before crazies started shooting abortionists.

In the words of a Vancouver gynaecologist who continues to carry out the operation, “Abortion has always been viewed as a kind of subterranean thing. Children don’t walk around saying ‘my father is an abortionist.’ It’s boring, it’s repetitious …” Hardly recruitment-poster material.

Some young Southerners, raised in the fading glories of the plantation era, must have railed at the passing of slavery. On Dec. 2, 1859, John Brown was executed, and the song “John Brown’s Body” was taken up as a dirge to his unlikely martyrdom. We see now that, no thanks to him, his cause was just – and so, ultimately, unstoppable.

Dr. Will Johnston is a Vancouver family physician and secretary-treasurer of Canadian Physicians For Life.