I have been meaning to write for some time on what has become a staple of pro-life discourse – the comparison of legalized abortion to both antebellum slavery in the Southern United States and the systematic extermination of six million Jews and millions of others deemed unworthy of life by the Nazis, the Holocaust.
I am conflicted about this comparison because on some levels it does make sense, it is accurate, and it can be used to great effect. On the most important level, however, the comparison to the Holocaust makes no sense at all, and so any comparison we make between these phenomena must not be done hastily or casually, as if it can simply be taken for granted. I myself have been guilty of this, but I have tried to correct course.
There are good reasons to compare abortion to slavery and the Holocaust. Like slave owners did explicitly, the partisans of legal abortion implicitly declare that a whole group of human beings are chattel property.
The slave-owner and the feminist both premise their own freedom on the denial of any whatsoever to another group. While both may at times have become a bit squeamish considering the full reality of the system they defended, both are willing to say that it is essential to a certain ‘way of life’. That initial moral unease is always washed away with certain knowledge that the group being exploited – or done away with – is something less than human, beings that are less valuable, or of no value at all, than the group doing the exploiting. And in the end, when even those arguments fail, both succumb to the moral sloth of declaring “the law is on our side”, as if that were the only consideration that mattered.
The comparison to the Holocaust is also fitting in many ways. The proponents of abortion, and now I am no longer referring merely of ‘pro-choice’ feminists, but rather more powerful and influential groups that push for population control/reduction on a global scale through international bodies, justify abortion on the grounds that there are “lives unworthy of life”. As pro-lifers often point out, the Nazis did not exterminate the Jews first, or even the Communists or other political opponents – they began with the mentally handicapped, sterilizing them and later murdering them. A person need not share the Nazi fear of “Judeo-Bolshevism”, and all that might entail, to subscribe to the more general idea of state-sponsored eugenics. The comparison also strikes home because of the industrialization of abortion, which makes it possible for well over a million to take place in the United States alone each year.
Supporters of abortion ‘rights’ are often appalled and dismayed when they come across such comparisons. They are typically of a leftist persuasion, hailing from a tradition that has long regarded the Civil War as a progressive historical event and racism, especially Nazism, as a terrible social evil (and so do most, I might add, who are conservatives). If anyone resembles the Nazis, they might say, it is the pro-life movement, because it wants to take away a hard won freedom from women and ‘put them back in their place’.
Ultimately, however, they can only overlook the similarities between their own cause and those they disdain, and think as they do about the pro-life movement, by either ignoring or denying the humanity or the moral value of the unborn human being. More often than not, it is simply ignored as a topic unworthy of consideration. The law has spoken. It has declared that an unborn human being is not a ‘person’, therefore it must not be. Logic that they would reject out of hand when applied to groups they deem worthy of existence, they employ without hesitation to groups that threaten a status quo that they have some sort of investment or interest in. If that doesn’t resemble the slavocracy of the antebellum South, I don’t know what does.
But there are only similarities in logic, not in practice, and this must never be forgotten. There are very important differences between slavery and the Holocaust on the one hand, and legalized abortion on the other. The differences are important enough to warrant a little more caution and care when making comparisons of this sort.
I will note first that the difference between abortion and slavery is not as great as the difference between abortion and the Holocaust. The primary difference is that slavery was the systematic exploitation of a large group of people by a small group of owners. Only a small percentage of Southerners actually owned slaves, and an even smaller percentage owned many slaves. Meanwhile abortion is sought out and obtained by millions of Americans, men and women (yes men – they must always be included as customers of the abortion industry).
This is not to diminish the nature of slavery, but to point out its concentrated character. Had it not been for the ‘states rights’ dimension of the slavery debate unique to America, I question how many people would have marched off to their deaths for another man’s right to own another man. It didn’t happen in any other country I am aware of, at least in the modern era.
Being limited to such a small and obviously outmoded social caste, and losing the historical battle to a new socio-economic system, slavery was doomed to pass away. Abortion, by contrast, is practically made-to-order for the civilization of consumerism and materialism we inhabit today. I’ll have more to say on that below.
There is a greater difference between abortion and the Holocaust. The Holocaust was organized and carried out by the Nazi state. People were taken to camps against their will and murdered. Abortion, on the other hand, is something imposed upon no one in America by the state (though many abortions are indeed coerced, as I have pointed out elsewhere). Though legalized abortion itself was foisted upon Americans by a Supreme Court that went well outside its proper boundaries, it has come to gain broad acceptance in many parts of the country. A majority of Americans support greater restrictions on abortion but not an outright ban, nothing that would officially recognize the humanity of the unborn child.
I find it misguided, therefore, when pro-life conservatives make causal use of the Holocaust, especially in conjunction with rage-fueled attacks on Obama (or Clinton before him). Both focus on the state, and the state is not the proper target of our righteous anger. The state is an enabler, a facilitator, but it is not the cause. Obama has never ordered any woman to obtain an abortion. I believe him when he says he wants to reduce abortions, I just don’t think he has yet proposed any reasonable means of doing so.
The moral responsibility for abortion lies with the people themselves. In the many cases where there are coerced abortions, much of the responsibility falls not upon the woman who gets the abortion, but upon people in her life – boyfriends, husbands, parents, employers, even other children – who have a stake in her obtaining one. In my view, it falls also upon a socio-economic system that is rooted in a materialist and hedonistic philosophy, that has made it more difficult for a woman to function effectively as a mother, placing greater demands upon her as a worker and a consumer. As John Paul II argued (and I argued), the modern consumerist culture and economy plays a large role in the Culture of Death.
It is not the fault of women alone, or men alone, but a collective social failure and responsibility. To approach the state as the primary culprit is simply to do in a peculiar way what conservatives routinely accuse the liberals of, ascribing all-powerful status to the state and its power to affect society.
I do believe that it is essential that we continue to fight for the legal rights of the unborn, for restrictions on abortion, and for public assistance to needy pregnant women. But we can and ought to do so without forgetting why abortion happens. It doesn’t happen because it is legal. It is legal because the economic, social and cultural forces that make it happen became strong enough to assert themselves as law. The Supreme Court was responding to a case brought before it by radical feminists, who themselves were the spearhead of a much larger ‘sexual revolution’, which had its own more fundamental causes. There is little we can do about the fallen nature of humanity, but there is plenty we can do to reshape the socio-economic structures that serve as a foundation for the Culture of Death. That, unfortunately, is a topic for another post.