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Auschwitz Revisited: The Holocaust and the Abortion Debate

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Stephanie Gray, a Canadian anti-abortion activist, has been touring American and Canadian college campuses with a rather chilling message: Legalized abortion isn't merely a grievous wrong, but a calculated genocide morally indistinguishable from the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust. During a sparsely-attended lecture delivered at Columbia University on November 16, and entitled, "Echoes of the Holocaust," Gray told her audience that "the systematic nature of killings was seen in Auschwitz then and in abortion now....Centers are set up for the express purpose of terminating lives where women come and their children are dismembered." In another address at a Canadian university, she reportedly told her audience that denying full "personhood" to embryos, such as those used in stem-cell research, was analogous to denying full personhood to Jews during the Shoah. Gray does not merely argue that both are moral wrongs, or that the lessons of the Holocaust can shed light on a contemporary debate. Instead, she actually argues that the two are moral equivalents.

I do not find this rhetoric particularly shocking, as my encounters with radical anti-abortion activists in recent years have prepared me to expect inflammatory hyperbole, rather than sincere engagement. What amazes me is the degree to which mainstream society -- and, most strikingly, the Jewish organizations that usually stand up to Holocaust deniers and their ilk -- have proven unwilling to confront what amounts to an overt mitigation of the death camps. Efforts by a small group of extremists to link the termination of unwanted pregnancies with the systematic slaughter of Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Romani people by Hitler's henchmen does not merely inject unnecessary tinder into the already fiery abortion debate. Comparing abortion clinics to concentration camps diminishes the memory of those who perished in the gas chambers, using their suffering for an unrelated political purpose, while simultaneously generating a rationale for the murder of abortion providers.

Holocaust-infused oratory is relatively new to the abortion controversy. Dissenting in Roe v. Wade, Justice Byron White described the question of when life begins as one "over which reasonable men" may disagree. One cannot imagine even the fiercest mainstream abortion opponents of the 1970s, such as Ronald Reagan, invoking the memory of Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. So maybe it is a sign of how extreme the hard-core anti-abortion movement has become that shortly after the murder of Kansas provider George Tiller, both Operation Rescue's Troy Newman and freelance activist Randall Terry compared his clinic to Auschwitz. Even supposedly more moderate abortion opponents like President Obama's pet fundamentalist, Rick Warren, have taken to describing abortion as "a holocaust" in which "46 million Americans" have perished. Such language may play well to the ideological fringe. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for domestic terrorism.

I am among the more progressive Americans who believe that abortion should be legal from conception until birth, and that, in preventing the creation of unwanted or impaired children, terminating pregnancies can often be a social and ethical good. (I suspect many other bioethicists, pro-choice theorists and women's equality activists also believe that birth is a useful dividing line between personhood and non-personhood -- but they do not dare say so, fearing the sort of backlash that greeted similar remarks by General Wesley Clark during his 2004 presidential campaign.) At the same time, I have no difficulty recognizing that perfectly well-intentioned and truly good-hearted people see abortion as a grave moral wrong that should be criminalized. These dissenters may believe that embryos and fetuses have more intrinsic value that mere clusters of disorganized cells or lumps of seaweed, which I do not, or they may oppose legalized abortion because they fear it causes sexual promiscuity and other perceived social ills.

One can certainly believe that fetuses have inherent value without believing that a "holocaust" is occurring. By analogy, I view capital punishment as a grave moral wrong, but I don't think one can reasonably compare governors who sign death warrants to the guards who carried off Ann Frank. While the overwhelming majority of people oppose the torture of animals, very few consider such deeds to be as immoral as the systematic torture of human beings. Although many women died from septic abortions in the pre-Roe era -- and many more would perish if abortion were re-criminalized -- you never hear supporters of reproductive freedom describing the victims of botched "back-alley" abortions as Holocaust victims. Reasonable people who oppose abortion often do so because they believe fetuses have inherent moral value, yet not the same or more value than fully-born humans -- which is why nearly all mainstream abortion opponents accept such terminations to save the mother's life.

What astounds me is the dangerous claim that embryos and fetuses have the same intrinsic value as born human beings. If one actually embraces this radical position, then mass-murder is indeed taking place at abortion clinics and hospitals across America. Embryonic stem cells are indistinguishable from slaughtered Jews. Taking a morning-after pill is like throwing a child into a crematorium. Our great country is as rotten to its moral core as Hitler's Reich. Fortunately, this argument crumbles quickly under the weight of its own conclusions. After all, considering the long-term effort involved in training abortionists, killing even one of them would prevent thousands of abortions. So if mass-murder is occurring, anyone who would have tolerated the preemptive killing of Adolf Eichmann or Josef Mengele to impede the Holocaust should logically also embrace the vigilante execution of abortion providers to save many innocent lives. Or, if one accepts this Holocaust analogy but believes all killing is wrong (ie. the rare absolutist who would not preemptively have killed Hitler), then, at the very least, one should renounce one's citizenship in such a bankrupt nation, or refuse to pay one's taxes a la Henry David Thoreau, or -- as the Buddhist monks did to protest American atrocities in Vietnam -- set oneself aflame in the name of bearing witness. Activists like Stephanie Gray don't do any of this. To her credit, Gray's website condemns anti-abortion violence. Yet the inevitable consequence of her inflammatory language is that fanatics like Paul Hill and Scott Roeder follow her astounding premises to their cold, unavoidable conclusions. If you believe you can stop an ongoing holocaust, why shouldn't you gun down the doctors you believe to be perpetrating it? That sounds like a far more appropriate response to mass murder than touring the college speaking circuit.

The reality is that few (if any) sane people, however strong their views regarding the morality of abortion, sincerely believe that abortion clinics are like death camps. They just say they are, because it's easier -- and far more dramatic -- than explaining what they really mean. I have witnessed surgical terminations. I have also seen the mounds of human hair and baby shoes at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Most strikingly, I have heard first-hand horror narratives of deportation and starvation from elderly survivors, stories that my own relatives never survived to share. Any reasonable person who has any knowledge of the Nazi death machine should find the comparison of Planned Parenthood to Auschwitz-Birkenau an unacceptable affront to common decency. This is not to say that the legacy of the Holocaust needs to be preserved as "unique": To my thinking, those who try to finesse the argument that the slaughter of Europe's Jews was somehow morally distinct from the Cambodian or Armenian genocides, for example, have lost the forest for the trees. But that does not mean that any perceived moral wrong can reasonably be described in such terms. The Anti-Defamation League effectively challenged Mike Huckabee when he used Holocaust imagery to describe abortion during his recent presidential run. When will Abe Foxman stand up to this new generation of anti-abortion Holocaust misappropriators?

I do not mean to suggest that abortion opponents have no legal right to use such incendiary analogies. But if these activists want to be taken seriously, and if they wish for a meaningful place in the public discourse, then they should eschew them. Ms. Gray has questioned why many reproductive rights supporters refuse to debate her. I assure her that it is not because we fear her ideas or public engagement -- but because some forms of argument are too repugnant to be indulged. Nobody questions Gray's entitlement to believe that abortion should be illegal or to further her case in the marketplace of ideas. As far as I'm concerned, she can believe that the earth is flat and roam the streets preaching platygaeanism. The hallmark of an enlightened society, after all, is agreeing to disagree. What Gray has no business doing is comparing the United States to Nazi Germany, or calling Plan B a modern-day Final Solution, or insisting that offering women reproductive options is the moral equivalent of massacring Jews. That is the sort of angry, empty rhetoric that gets innocent people killed and defiles the memory of others. It must stop.