Rep. Trent Franks established his credentials as a civil-rights leader last year when the Arizona Republican argued that, because of high abortion rates in black communities, African Americans were better off under slavery.

But the congressman doesn't just talk the talk. On Tuesday, he chaired a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on legislation he is introducing that would protect African American women from themselves - by making it harder for them to have abortions.

"In 1847, Frederick Douglass said, 'Right is of no sex, truth is of no color, God is the father of us all and all are brethren,' " Franks said as he announced the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011.

Drawing a line from the Civil War to the suffragist movement to defeating Hitler to the civil-rights era, Franks determined that "there is one glaring exception" in the march toward equality.

"Between 40 and 50 percent of all African American babies, virtually one in two, are killed before they are born," he said.

Franks called the antiabortion fight the "civil rights struggle that will define our generation."

Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), who, unlike Franks, is African American and a veteran of the civil-rights movement, took a different view. "I've studied Frederick Douglass more than you," said Conyers. "I've never heard or read about him saying anything about prenatal nondiscrimination."

The House Republicans' civil-rights gambit (which follows passage of a similar bill in Franks' Arizona and marks an attempt to get an abortion bill to the House floor before year's end) points to an interesting tactic among conservatives:

They have taken on a new, and somewhat suspect, interest in the poor and in the nonwhite. To justify their social policies, they have stolen the language of victimization from the left. In other words, they are practicing the same identity politics they have long decried.

Newt Gingrich tried a similar approach when he argued for the elimination of "truly stupid" child-labor laws and suggested that students could replace the janitors in their schools. He further explained that he was trying to help children in poor neighborhoods who have "no habits of working."

Developer Donald Trump, who owns a Virginia country club that counts Gingrich as a member, announced last week that he would join with Gingrich to help "kids in very, very poor schools" - by extending his Apprentice TV reality-show concept to all of 10 lucky kids. "We're going to be picking 10 young wonderful children, and we're going to make them apprenti," Trump said. "We're going to have a little fun with it."

This "fun" might sound less patronizing if these conservatives displayed a similar concern for the well-being of the poor and the nonwhite during debates over budget cuts. But, whatever the motives, lawmakers and conservative activists were not bashful when they held a prehearing news conference Tuesday, standing beside posters directed at Latinos and African Americans ("black children are an endangered species").

"It is horrific that in America today, babies are being killed based on their race and based on their sex," protested Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America. Other participants in the news conference suggested that Planned Parenthood is "excited to take money specifically earmarked to kill a black baby" and linked abortion-rights advocates to eugenics, euthanasia, and the Holocaust.

These conservatives raise a good point about the troubling implications of abortion based on gender selection - although the problem exists mostly in places such as China, beyond the reach of the House Judiciary Committee. Harder to follow is the logic behind the argument that African American women are discriminating against their own unborn children.

"As John Quincy Adams so eloquently stated," Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), said, "how can we expect God to keep blessing America when we're treating brothers and sisters this way simply because of their race?"

"This morning, you can walk into a clinic and get an abortion if you find out your child is African American," said Patrick Mahoney, a conservative activist.

So a black woman would have an abortion because she discovers - surprise! - that her fetus is also black?

Before the audience had a chance to digest that, Mahoney began shouting about how abortion is "lynching" - frightening a child in the front row, who cried out and hugged his mother.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. E-mail him at danamilbank@washpost.com.