Are abortion and the Holocaust comparable?

I was given a copy of Ray Comfort’s 180 (link to YouTube). In the video Ray Comfort interviews people to ask them about Hitler, their views on abortion, and their views on God and the afterlife. The video also contains historical clips from the Holocaust, many of which are very graphic. The primary thesis of the video is that abortion is a modern day Holocaust, claiming countless human lives. It’s a powerful video.

I confess that after watching the video I went online and read the comments section on YouTube. The main critique of the video was that its comparison between abortion and the Holocaust was misleading. There were multiple critiques of this form but there were two serious ones that I want to look at.

Objection 1: The holocaust was government mandated, abortion is only permitted by the government.

This is an important distinction. Germany was a totalitarian regime and the killing of Jews and others was mandated by that regime. The US is a democracy which does not “force” anyone to have an abortion. It simply makes having an abortion legal.

While this really is a distinction, it doesn’t hold quite as much weight as some assume. Would we think it any less ghastly if the German government simply passed laws saying it wasn’t a crime to kill Jews? It may have resulted in a little less carnage but we would still call such a law unjust.

Objection 2: The Holocaust was the destruction of individuals who had memories, personality, and the ability to suffer.

How can we compare (so the argument goes) the killing of a man or woman who has a family, a personality, and who has the ability to experience excruciating suffering (like being gassed, or burned, or buried alive) to the destruction of a fetus which has such limited brain power. Surely, this is an important distinction, right?

Whether or not you find this distinction convincing will depend on your understanding of the human person. The ethical system of Utilitarianism aims at maximizing overall happiness and minimizing suffering. This system thinks of people as a sum of their ability to experience both. A baby in the womb has a limited capacity for such feelings whereas adults have a greater capacity. Most defenders of abortion do so because they have done a utilitarian calculation: The mother (adult) will suffer more by having this baby than the baby will suffer by being aborted or, even, the baby (possibly because of some genetic defect) will suffer less if it is killed right now than if it is born and lives with said defect. The utilitarian calculation, it is said, weighs in favor of abortion.

The problem with Utilitarianism is that it reduces people to their ability to experience pleasure and pain. It takes a single, albeit important aspect of what it means to be human, and it makes it the sum of our existence, at least for moral and ethical purposes. A more robust picture of humanity (like one where people are created in the image of God) rejects simple Utilitarianism and leads, I think, to a more robust ethical framework.

I admit that the two distinctions above are real and should give us some reason to pause and consider their merit. However I think the objections are less convincing than they may seem on first reading. Furthermore, I think there are two important similarities between the Holocaust and modern day abortion.

Similarity 1: Both the Holocaust and abortion rest on dehumanizing or “de-personizing” the victim.

Hitler rested his case on killing Jews and others on the premise that they were, to some degree, less than human or sub-human (much in the same way that the American slave trade dehumanized the slaves). If we view a person as less human it makes their subjugation or destruction palatable to our consciences. Abortion rests on a similar principle. While most pro-choice advocates acknowledge that a baby in a womb is “genetically” human, they would argue that that baby is not a person, or at a minimum they are a human of lower value. Personhood is equated with consciousness, the ability to suffer, brain functioning, the ability to reason, etc. So the baby (which sounds too much like person) is instead a fetus or a sack of cells. Whatever it is, it cannot be a person, for if it were a person then abortion would be objectionable. And so we see that abortion and the Holocaust both require de-humanizing or de-personizing the victim and on the same basic moral framework and definition of what is “life” and what constitutes “human life” and what constitutes a life worth saving.

Similarity 2: The loss of life is daunting.

11 million people were killed in the Holocaust, 6 million of them were Jews. Between 1973 and 2011, there were nearly 53 million abortions. In both cases, the loss of human life is daunting and, frankly, difficult to wrap your mind around. If you view abortion as the destruction of human life, of a person, then the comparison of abortion in the US to the Holocaust in Germany is not so far-fetched.

Is such a comparison helpful?

Is the comparison between the Holocaust and abortion a helpful comparison? On the one side it makes me a little nervous because it is such an emotionally charged argument. People who disagree are practically put on the same side as Nazi’s, which feels unnecessarily inflammatory, and frankly, a bit like trolling. But, I think to some degree the comparison is both fair and helpful. It’s helpful if it allows us to recognize the moral and theological underpinnings of abortion in the United States, many of which would be otherwise unaddressed. Abortion supporters need to answer some serious questions: Are people defined in utilitarian terms, by their ability to feel pain, to remember their past, to experience joy? If so, why don’t we take this belief to its logical conclusion, as Peter Singer does, and defend infanticide? Or the killing, voluntary or involuntary, of the some mentally handicapped? What is enough brain power to be a person? At what point are our lives protected? At what point are they expendable or even harmful to the human race? If babies in the womb are persons created in image of God in what way is abortion defensible? How is it different from killing Jews? These are important questions and I think they are questions that a serious comparison (not just trolling) between abortion and the Holocaust elicit.

But this wouldn’t be my first argument. I think it is better to get to the root questions, those mentioned above, and you can get to these questions of humanness, personhood, value, apart from the comparison. Ultimately I think it is better to state the argument more positively: All people are created in the image of God, are valuable because he made them, and are valuable apart from their particular brain capacity or ability to feel pain or pleasure. Therefore each life is worth protecting and preserving.