“… I assure you of my spiritual closeness and my sharing in your concern for the continuing holocaust of innocent human lives…” wrote John Paul II to Cardinal Bernard Law, in a December, 1997 letter.
The word “holocaust,” has clear and somber implications, especially for anyone in the Jewish community. Even when used with a small “h” it carries connotations of the Shoah: and thus the burden of the intolerable and unspeakable in human history – recent human history, as both survivors and perpetrators of the horror live, yet, today. Did John Paul II intend his word to be taken in this way? Having seen first-hand the horrors of the Nazi regime in Poland, he could not be indifferent to the implication, even across the boundaries of different languages.
Later, in 2005, he appeared to make the same connection in his book, Memory and Identity, in which he pointed out that the legal enactments of a democratic government are not necessarily in conformity to the laws of God. He made reference to the murders committed by the Nazi regime and by the Soviet Union, and stated: “We have to question the legal regulations that have been decided in the parliaments of present day democracies. The most direct association which comes to mind is the abortion laws.”
This was taken by many to be a clear comparison of abortion to the Holocaust, and provoked dismay among many of Jewish faith and heritage. The comparison was quickly picked up by pro-life activists, however, and is used blithely by many, to this day.
I won’t make this comparison, however, and never have felt comfortable with it. This is partially because, identifying as I do with the Jewish tradition of my foremothers, I am sensitive to the singularity with which the Shoah must be regarded, as it troubles our most fundamental hopes and beliefs, posing a challenge greater than the challenge of Job to Yahweh, a cry that resounds through the darkest places in our fears. The senselessness, and yet the brutal efficiency of it. The ultimate nihilism, pure destruction for destruction’s sake, and in a civilization renowned for its art, philosophy, and religious tradition. It happened among Christians, and many Christians not only turned a blind eye but abetted it. “Good Catholics” enabled it. And it was not the violence of the hopeless, of the trapped seeking a way out, but of the powerful, the secure, the self-titled “superior” race.
While the loss of human life to abortion is of great and tragic material magnitude, the comparison of abortion to the Holocaust is inaccurate and misleading, and not only because it is offensive to the Jewish community.
First of all, it is an act of rhetorical cruelty to women who have had abortions, who will easily draw from this the conclusion that they, personally, are being compared with genocidal Nazis. If we are serious about being “pro-life and pro-woman” we should avoid, across the board, statements like this that revile women as murderers, or imply that they are motivated by malice or evil.
And I’m not just saying “don’t make such statements publicly.” I’m not saying that we should speak kindly about women when others are listening, and reserve holocaust comparisons for our private in-house discussions. We should not make such statements at all, ever, because they are cruelly inaccurate, and demonstrate a radical ignorance of the root causes of abortion. Women don’t have abortion because they hate babies and think they should be eradicated – as the Nazis regarded Jews. Many women who have abortions have children already, children whom they love and care for, children they are struggling to feed. If not in poverty, they reside on its knife-edge, and the slightest change to income or expenses could have them facing homelessness. And as the Republican powers that be succeed in dismantling programs intended to protect the most vulnerable, this will be happening more and more. Women choose abortion – and it’s often barely a choice, because they are offered no real alternative – because they live in societies that do not look kindly on pregnant women and mothers, especially low-income or immigrant or racially Other women. Motherhood and babies are framed as beautiful – as long as they are white, healthy, thin, and middle-class. Poorer women are told “keep your knees together” or “get sterilized.” They’re regarded as parasites. They are mocked as ignorant: “does she even know where all those babies come from?” This is true in liberal as well as conservative societies, and in conservative societies it can be even worse, as unmarried pregnant women are shamed as “sluts,” kicked out of homes and schools. Low income women are shamed as “welfare queens” by the champions of the right-wing pro-life ethic.
Abortion happens because pre-existing injustices force women into intolerable situations. It is tragic. In an ideal world, it would never happen. But if we are going to prevent it from happening, if we are going to protect human life from conception to death, we need to look realistically at cause and effect, at the reasons why people make certain choices they never wanted to face. We need to respect the valid concerns and fears of women, and place them at the center of the conversation, especially women of color, or from vulnerable demographics – immigrant, disabled, low-income.
Abortion is tragic in the classical sense: that at the heart of the story is a human being, often a good and lovable human being, facing a terrible dilemma. And another human being, an innocent who suffers through no fault of their own, but the “fault” is not truly that of the agent, either. There is a sense of little agency, of hopelessness.
The Holocaust is only tragic in the dark, terrifying sense of horror, unescapable and irrational evil, a destructive force at work in the human heart.
The two cannot be compared. And I will never compare them.
Incidentally, for those who put great stock in the non-magisterial statements of popes who aren’t Pope Francis, it seems my refusal to make this connection is not only correct; it is also in keeping with the original intention of John Paul’s speech, if we are to believe the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, making clarification:
Responding to accusations against John Paul II’s latest book, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger clarified that “the Pope does not compare the Shoah with abortion.”
The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made that statement Tuesday when presenting the book, “Memory and Identity,” at a press conference.
The cardinal explained that “the Pope recalls men’s permanent temptation and tells us that we are not immune either to the destruction of human life; however, the identification between the Shoah and abortion is foreign to the book and to the Holy Father’s idea.” Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.