As the 2008 presidential election cycle heats up, the political and moral rhetoric about abortion is reaching the boiling point. Some prominent prolife Catholics have compared politicians who support abortion rights to the Nazis, and intimated that Catholics who would vote for such politicians are comparable to citizens of the Third Reich who were indifferent to the plight of those condemned to the gas chambers. Is the analogy that equates the American prochoice legal regime and Nazi Germany correct? I do not think it is. Let me begin with a disclaimer. In contemporary American political discourse, associating someone with the Nazis is usually an insult, not an invitation to serious dialogue. But as a teacher of ethics, I have encountered many prolife students who have grappled with the Nazi analogy in a sincere and even agonized manner. Precisely because they are asking a question, not hurling an insult, they deserve an answer. One important difference between the Holocaust and the American practice of legalized abortion has to do with the intentions of the perpetrators. The Final Solution implemented the judgment that all Jews (and other targeted populations) were a blight and drain on the German volk. For that reason, the goal of the Third Reich was the elimination of “inferior races.” No one in the United States argues that unborn children as a class are akin to social vermin-no one is aiming to eliminate or kill all unborn children. U.S. law does not force women to have abortions. A second difference pertains to the type of classification involved. Nazi racial classifications such as “Jewish” or “Gypsy” are both exclusive and permanent. For the Nazis, some individuals are Jews, others are not. Moreover, it was impossible for an individual to move out of a disfavored category into a favored one. Once a Gypsy, always a Gypsy. In contrast, the category of “unborn” works very differently. It is not permanent: a particular human being remains in the category for at most nine months. And it is a category in which everyone has at one point belonged. So while abortion is intentional killing in many cases, it is not genocide-it does not aim to eliminate “them,” a group of people who are deemed totally and permanently different from and inferior to “us.” A third difference concerns the extent of government involvement. The Third Reich directly ordered and carried out the killing of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other populations. In contrast, the U.S. government does not demand the killing of unborn children in general or of any particular unborn child. Instead, it declines to protect the unborn against one type of private killing initiated by one particular person-the mother. Importantly, it protects the unborn from other kinds of assault. No third party has an independent right to kill an unborn child. The millions of Jews killed in the Final Solution were killed as a direct result of the policy of a ruthless government. In contrast, the millions of unborn children killed since 1973 were killed because of the individual decisions made by millions of women who as a class should be considered more desperate than ruthless. A fourth difference pertains to the options available for assisting the victims. The Nazis cracked down on anyone who agitated on behalf of the Jews or took steps to help them. In contrast, the prolife movement in the United States has a strong political voice. Ongoing efforts to convince women to carry their pregnancies to term, and to give those women assistance in doing so, are entirely legal and legitimate, and often effective. Crisis pregnancy centers are not analogous to the “secret annex” in The Diary of Anne Frank. In short, those of us who believe that the unborn are full members of the human community have morally relevant reasons for distinguishing between Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews and the treatment of the unborn under U.S. law. What follows from keeping those reasons firmly in mind? In my view, two things. First, a continuing commitment to the legitimacy of the U.S. government and its Constitution. I simply fail to see how those who equate the Holocaust with legalized abortion can avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government merits the same fate as the Nazi regime. Second, if we view abortion narrowly through the lens of the Holocaust, we miss a key aspect of the problem. The relationship between women and their unborn children is not the same as the relationship between Nazis and Jews. Many women who face crisis pregnancies are themselves financially and socially vulnerable. Carrying a baby to term is not a simple matter of refraining from intentional killing; it also requires a positive investment of one’s physical and emotional strength. At the end of the process comes an anguishing decision about whether to raise the child oneself or to give it up for adoption. This means that any effective response to the problem of abortion must help vulnerable women find the strength to protect those even more vulnerable than themselves-and find the hope that they themselves can flourish in doing so.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Published in the 2008-06-20 issue: View Contents
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