Lynching of Blacks by the KKK. Jewish genocide under the Third Reich. Abortion in America. Do these three have anything in common?
Early this fall, the campus of the University of Kansas was rocked by a controversy that made headlines in the national press. Two pro-life groups--the Center for Bioethical Reform and Heartland Life Network--had posted a "pictorial essay" at a prominent crossroads on campus.
Three panels of a seven-by-fourteen foot billboard made the point. The first panel, a photo of a lynched African American, was captioned "Racial Choice." The second, a concentration camp photo of human bodies stacked like cordwood, read "Ethnic Choice." The photo on the third panel was the most controversial. Clearly visible next to the American dime included for perspective were well-defined forms of a severed arm and foot, the remnants of a first-trimester abortion. Underneath were the words "Reproductive Choice."
The comparison between abortion and other forms of genocide--the lynching of African Americans and the systematic ethnic cleansing of Jews by Nazis in Europe--was more than many could take.
Though neither sponsoring group is activist in the classic sense--their principle goal is
public education--their presence on campus stimulated a fury resulting in two unprovoked assaults recorded in the press. One Catholic seminary student was punched in the mouth by an African American student. In another incident, the 17-year-old daughter of the President of Heartland Life Network was nearly run down while she carried one of the panels through the parking lot. She was pulled to safety at the last moment, the sign slipping from her grasp. The sign was run over as the car sped by.
An American Holocaust?
The deepest offense was felt by Jews and was a topic of conversation on mainstream talk shows even on the West Coast. Calling the 1.4 million abortions per year--most done during the first trimester--a holocaust is an offense to the memory of six million Jews that perished at the hands of the Third Reich.
Such "extremism" has alienated even some moderates who, though not strictly pro-life, are deeply concerned with the morality of abortion.
In a general appeal to moral intuition, KABC radio talk show host Dennis Prager in Los Angeles argued it was self-evident that the destruction of first-trimester fetuses was not equivalent to the murder of Jews. Mothers don't grieve over the death of a miscarried fetus the same way they'd grieve over the death of a child, Prager argued. Ergo an abortion, especially one done early, is not the equivalent of homicide.
Further, would Jews consider it a holocaust if six million Jewish fetuses were aborted? Many recoil at such a thought. The comparison of abortion with the Holocaust insults the memory of those who suffered under the Third Reich.
I want to pass two thoughts on to you. The first is my own, and the second was volunteered by a caller to my radio program.
First, the illustration posed appeals to an intuition, that the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazis is obviously more heinous--especially to the Jews--than the same number of abortions would be.
But the appeal begs the question. The fact that abortion doesn't seem as bad as concentration camps and gas chambers is misleading because it depends for its force on a tacit denial that the unborn are bona fide human beings. If they are, then who would say that taking the life of the same number of youngsters (in this case very young) is not the moral equivalent of taking the lives of the same number of adolescents and adults? In fact, generally we're more shocked by the taking of young life than old, though we would hold that both are equally valuable in their humanity.
There does seem to be a sense, though, in which we could decry the tragedy of the abortion holocaust, yet say that the Nazi Holocaust was a greater evil. This was the contribution of my caller.
Both are holocausts and unspeakably evil, purely on the merit of the number of human lives sacrificed. However, in the case of the Jewish Holocaust, the evil is compounded by the circumstances under which it was done.
Aborted human beings die relatively quickly and, by comparison, with little or no mental anguish. (This is certainly not always true, but that's another issue.) Jews, on the other hand, were treated like animals--terrorized, persecuted, raped, beaten, and then eventually murdered. The second crime is truly worse than the first, not because the unborn were not human, but because of the barbaric conditions under which Nazis exterminated undesirables.
An illustration may be helpful here. What if one million day-old children were vaporized in an instant through some high-tech weapon of mass destruction? Would that qualify as a holocaust?
I choose the details carefully to eliminate the possibility of suffering for those killed. Further, the collateral moral damage is minimized. There are no orphans left behind, no important posts in society left vacant, no long-term relationships destroyed.
Clearly, not all holocausts are equal. The numerous examples of ethnic cleansing in this century are made more egregious by the additional suffering, loss, and assault on human dignity they entail. Still, I suspect most would consider the destruction of one million day-old infants a moral catastrophe, a holocaust of significant magnitude simply because valuable human beings were wantonly destroyed.
Two Types of Value
Appealing to the grief one feels at the loss of a fetus vs. the loss of a child, a spouse or a friend misses a very important distinction. There are two ways that a thing can be valuable.
To value something simply means to acknowledge its worth. Any particular thing can be valued--considered worthwhile--for one of two reasons. First, a thing can be valuable to me. The computer I now compose with, my particular friendships, the fishing rods in my boat locker, my choice of clothes, or my fondness for Puccini arias are examples. These and a host of other things and ideals reflect my personal, subjective values. Others may not share them, but instead have their own set. This is called instrumental value.
Sometimes, though, we don't value things we ought to value. What some have called the crisis of values in this country reflects not the absence of any values at all. Instead, Americans don't value the right things. They don't value things that have genuine worth in themselves--honesty, personal responsibility, or other human beings, for example.
This is the second sense of value. Some things are merely valuable to us. Other things have worth in themselves. We call this intrinsic value.
Often things share both kinds of value. I may weep over the drive-by shooting of a friend because I have lost a dear companion, but also because of the wanton sacrifice of a human life valuable in itself.
The feeling of grief over something lost does not, by itself, capture these distinctions. Therefore, grief is not a useful guide to determine if something lost was innately and intrinsically worthwhile. I might grieve the passing of a family pet, but not shed a tear over hundreds murdered in Kosovo. My grief merely signals a thing's value to me, and not its intrinsic worth. Indeed, most don't feel grief over the Jewish holocaust, though they recognize its intrinsic moral tragedy.
It's true, a mother may not morn a miscarriage the way she morns a lost child. It also may be true that Jews do not feel the same sense of loss over six million abortions as they feel over the death of the same number of their kinsmen. But this by itself tells us nothing about the innate worth of either.
Our grief is a signal that something valuable has been lost. What grief does not show is whether the thing had worth merely to us, or whether it had value in itself. That must be determined a different way.
The Real Issue
This brings us to the most important question in the entire debate: What is the unborn? You must answer that question before you can answer the questions: How should we treat the fetus? What protections ought we give it? How far should we go to protect it?
Until we answer that question, we can't make any judgment about the morality of abortion or the moral consequences of any protest against it. If it's possible that an unborn child is as fully human in his or her essential nature as you and I, then he or she deserves the same legal protections--and legal sanctions against abuse--you and I enjoy.
That's the hard truth, and that's why the deep thinking ought to be addressed to this question. Unfortunately, this vital issue is almost never discussed in the public square at large.
California Homicide Statutes
Ironically, the California homicide statutes offer us some insight here. Some observers denounce the use of the word "murder" to describe the destruction of a fetus. Yet this "rhetoric" is completely consistent with California law.
Under the category "Crimes against the Person," § 187, murder is defined this way: "Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought." [emphasis mine] After the definition, we find among the exceptions: "This section shall not apply to any person who commits an act which results in the death of a fetus if any of the following apply: The act complied with the Therapeutic Abortion Act....The act was solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus."
This exception in the California statute leads, of course, to a very troubling concern. The foundational moral concept underlying all homicide statues is that human beings have innate value. Destroying a human being is the most serious of crimes. We condone it only in extreme circumstances, e.g., self-defense in the face of lethal attack, capital punishment, and war. Even then there remains a sense that killing is deeply tragic because of the intrinsic worth of the human whose life is taken.
Here's the problem. The only difference between legal abortion and punishable homicide in the state of California is the consent of the mother. How does the mere consent of the mother change the innate value of the unborn human inside her?
However one answers this question, the fact is that abortion is legal in California. But this can't hide a second fact: Apart from the stipulated exceptions, killing the unborn is still homicide. It's murder. Those who do so are prosecuted.
On the fundamental issue, then--the innate value of unborn human beings--pro-lifers are not extreme, but in concert with the law's general assessment of the sanctity of the life of the unborn. Pro-lifers are not inconsistent; the law is.
Ethnic Cleansing in the Womb
There's another problem. Disqualifying the unborn's claim to life because of some physical characteristic--such as its primitive level of development or a congenital defect--is precisely what ethnic cleansing is about.
Ethnic cleansing is appalling for one simple reason: Valuable human beings are eradicated merely because of some physical "inadequacy." The person is condemned for his ethnicity. His features--skin, hair or eye color, shape of face, blood ancestry--are different from the accepted norm.
Most often abortion kills the unborn human for the same kind of reason. Though clearly a human being--a fact established by science--she does not have the physical characteristics or attributes that qualify her for protection. She's unwanted and in the way, and so she's eliminated.
If it's wrong in the first case, it's wrong in the second case. The rationales are identical. The motive is the same. And in both cases the result is the death of a valuable human being.
Whether it's a wise tactic to compare the victims of racial or Nazi injustice with the injustice of abortion is a debatable matter. It may not be the best way to win people over, and tactical considerations are important.
However, we live in a culture that thinks and learns visually. This profoundly affects how people resolve moral issues. The word "abortion" has lost meaning in the prevailing atmosphere of choice and personal autonomy. Sometimes we must visually awaken moral sensibilities to move the debate from the abstract to the concrete: from choice to the death of the child.
Photographs can do that. The question is not, "Are the pictures emotional?" They are. The real question is, "Are the pictures accurate? Are the pictures true?"
The photos on the first two panels used on the billboard at the University of Kansas are not new. You can find them in history books where they serve to inspire the conscience of young students to oppose injustice. Those photos tell a true story. But so does the photo on the third panel. The tiny limbs are unmistakable. They belong to a very small human being.
Do these photos have anything in common? Yes, I think they do.
When others complain about the extremists with the signs, you point out that displaying the picture is not what's most offensive. What ought to offend us is what's captured on the photo.