Watching Paul Mason’s Newsnight report last night on the ‘abortion wars’ in the USA, I was struck by the use of the word Holocaust to describe the granting of the right to choose to abort to women.
But first, an admission of ignorance: I am not a specialist in either reproductive rights or the Holocaust. But I am a human being, and a woman and therefore have an interest in this issue. Having said that, this is, for better or worse, definitely an opinion piece. Apologies in advance.
Allowing access to abortion is not like allowing the Holocaust. No really, it isn’t.
By ‘the Holocaust’ I mean, of course, the systematic, calculated, legally enforced killing of men, women and children for no other reason than their being Jewish. I know about (& am as horrified by) the killing of other groups-the homosexual, the disabled, Roma, amongst others but the central moral resonance derives from the attempted genocide of all Jews. All of them.
Allowing women access to abortion does not allow the systematic, calculated, legally enforced killing of all foetuses for no other reason than their being such.
For me, any comparison of the two needs to at least acknowledge these points: their intention and philosophical origins, eugenics, the degree of compulsion present and universality.
So, the intention: The Holocaust was an attempt to wipe Jewish people from the face of the earth. The ‘reasons’ for this, I don’t intend to discuss, as it’s clear to me they’re not reasons in the sense of ‘causes’ but rather justificatory of an action which it is perfectly clear would have happened anyway.
The philosophical origins? Well, again, there was a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe before the Nazi state, but that does not explain the Holocaust: the Holocaust was unique in its totality.
In order for the comparison to hold, there has to be an intention to kill all foetuses and history of hatred towards all foetuses, without any exception. This is clearly not the case in the US-the existence and influence of the prolife movement in itself proves this.
The aspect of eugenics is one that troubles me greatly, as it should: Those against abortion often argue that by according a lesser status to a potentially viable human life, as opposed to a foetus at a later stage of development, or indeed a baby, prochoicers are thinking eugenically-Life A has less intrinsic worth than Life B despite their common humanity.
My response is this: it is the woman, a human capable of moral action, and the person arguably most concerned with the well-being of any child ex-or in-utero that is the decision-maker. It is on her conscious, conscience-bearing body that any medical procedure will be performed. With her consent. By offering a woman who wishes to terminate a pregnancy the choice to do so, is not to act eugenically, because eugenic thinking does not allow for choice on behalf of any of the people most affected.
It is often claimed that eugenicist intent on the part of providers reveals itself in the higher rates of abortion amongst the poor, the disabled or African-American women. I think this is to conflate one or several sub-class(es), with a whole class (poor/disabled/African-American foetuses) with all foetuses: we must remember the Holocaust was the attempted killing of all Jews, not just some of them.
In addition to which there may well be confounding factors: where contraception is harder to access, abortion may be more prevalent as a form of birth control. Or where support for parents of disabled children is not present, mothers may feel they will not be able to cope: Neither of these scenarios is ideal, to put it mildly, but nor will these issues be addressed by restricting access to abortion.
This also applies to the matter of female infanticide. I am a woman, and it is claimed that in some parts of the world female foetuses are more likely to be aborted than males. I would argue that we will not solve any cultural contempt for women as people by restricting their access to abortion- femicide and denial of choice are part of the same problem.
A further thought has occurred to me; the genocidal/eugenicist comparison that the prolife movement in the US uses is that of the Holocaust in Europe. The Native American peoples of the United States were removed from their homes, starved, beaten and were killed out of hand for no other reason than their ethnicity and I do rather wonder why it is not cited in this debate. I specifically wonder about a. its being (literally) too close to home and b. its invocation leading to some uncomfortable political questions about the murkier aspects of the US’s ‘manifest destiny’ and self-proclaimed status as ‘leader of the free world’.
For me where this comparison really falls down is in regards to compulsion:
No-one is forced by the US government to have an abortion. If anyone can provide me with an example where a woman was compelled by the government, using the force of the law to abort her child against her wishes I will of course link to it. It shouldn’t need saying that it would be morally repugnant. It needs to be said, strongly, that there are no railroads leading to any Marie Stopes clinic of which I am aware, no guards on the doors to prevent escape. Moral suasion (if one accepts that it occurs) is not the same thing as a totalitarian state. The former can be resisted where the structures surrounding an individual promote liberty-the latter finds individual freedom to be inimical.
Globally, there have been both proven cases and allegations of forced abortion. Again, it shouldn’t need saying, but for the avoidance of any doubt: These cases are as revolting to me as they are to those who are opposed to every abortion. However, these cases do not make a freely-chosen termination a genocidal act.
In addition to which, the abortion providers are themselves acting freely, which was not the case in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps-a significant proportion of guards, for example, were acting to save their own lives, by enabling the murder of others. Others may feel able to judge the rights and wrongs of such cases: I cannot.
In the interests of fairness, I do need to acknowledge the cases concerning health workers opposed to abortion on moral grounds, who have felt compelled to leave their jobs (or were fired?) due to not being allowed to exercise their conscience rights at work. However, under the Nazi regime, there were no conscience rights in the camp (or anywhere else!). There is a significant difference, I feel, between losing one’s job and losing one’s life.
Reading back through this, I feel utter misery that the debate has come to this: the evocation of one of mankind’s worst moments enlisted, arguably, to shut down the exercise of moral choice by free women acting in a democracy governed by laws.
Moral choice and the freedom to act in accordance with one’s conscience. The thing that was absent in the camps, the thing we need to protect now.