The following was first published in The Interim in the spring of 2009. It was written in response to a speech delivered by National Post columnist Barbara Kay to the Live for Life club at Western University, and reprinted in the Post on Feb. 4, 2009. The topic continues to be depressingly relevant today.
Chesterton wrote somewhere that “truth alone can be exaggerated; nothing else can stand the strain”. Certainly the liquidation of millions of unborn children is one of those stupendous human facts that can hardly be stated truthfully without sounding like an exaggeration.
Those who support abortion are thus constantly advising those who don’t “not to exaggerate”, to “tone down their rhetoric”; that is, to moderate their truthfulness into the kind of inoffensive, unexaggerable evasions and euphemisms behind which the “pro-choice” movement has typically taken cover.
Temperate, reasonable-sounding dishonesty is always the price of getting along with the proponents of abortion, especially those who think of themselves as “moderates”. And such is the case again with the friendly counsel offered to the pro-life movement by National Post columnist Barbara Kay.
Kay is a self-described “reformist” supporter of the legal right to abortion. She thinks significant restrictions ought to be placed on that right and regards Canada’s wholly unfettered abortion regime as scandalous. She is intelligent, eloquent and, in other contexts, an unapologetic social conservative. I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of Kay’s desire to find common ground with the pro-life community or that its cause should thrive. But her advice is nonetheless a well-intentioned Trojan Horse.
“Up to now”, Kay says to pro-lifers, “your message has been: ‘Abortion is morally wrong. Stop doing it.’” She says pro-lifers “haven’t made much headway” with that morally absolutist position or the argument “that abortion should be ‘illegal in all circumstances’”. Better to concede that it is “humanly natural” to act according to “a hierarchy in the sanctity of life” that “takes its ethical cue from the circumstances in which we find ourselves at the moment of decision” (Kay’s emphasis). Desperate circumstances have always entailed desperate choices, as any number of historical examples demonstrate: the pre-contact Inuit who abandoned their old and frail so that the larger group might survive; the soldier who accedes to the dying request of his mortally wounded buddy to shoot him, for fear of being tortured by his captors; the mothers who, during the Holocaust, suffocated their babies lest the hiding places of the Jews be revealed by their cries. Few people would call these acts immoral.
With the Genocide Awareness Project in mind, Kay warns later in her address that “emotional arousal must be subordinated to rational persuasion”. Indeed. But her own appeal to “desperate circumstances” is surely as irrational as it is rankly emotional.
Let us leave aside that some opponents of abortion have accepted exceptions for the life of the mother and the victims of incest or rape and thus hardly wish to make abortion “illegal in all circumstances”. (Such “moderation” is rarely shown by the other side.) What, then, do Kay’s affecting historical examples really tell us here?
The vast majority of abortions are undergone by women for whom the time is not right for motherhood (or pregnancy): trying circumstances, surely, but hardly comparable to the genuinely desperate situations of starving Inuit hunters, dying soldiers about to be tortured, or Jews trying to evade the gas chambers. By invoking such parallels, Kay exaggerates to Chesterton’s breaking point the plight of most women who abort for comparatively trivial reasons (education, career, social stigma, financial hardship). Terminating a life to save a career – is that what Kay means by a hierarchy in the sanctity of life?
Such women are, in any case, unlikely to be persuaded by more morally nuanced arguments from pro-lifers; they are already past masters of the moral nuance they have breathed in from the liberated atmosphere of the post-60s universe. What their un-desperate circumstances call for is moral clarity.
What is especially ironic is that, having drawn such spurious analogies, Kay then affects to take offence at the pro-life movement’s comparison between the killing of the unborn and the Nazi Holocaust. “Choose any factual perspective”, Kay writes, and “you won’t find a single moral parallel between the situations”. Here’s one: the Nazis excused their crimes by calling the Jews “vermin”, “parasites”, “less than fully human”, “non-persons”. That is precisely the sort of eristic that the defenders of abortion employ to exculpate the killing of the unborn child, which they define as “a lump of protoplasm”, a “part of the woman’s body”, not yet “legally” endowed with “personhood”.
If one wants to dispose of inconvenient life, the tested strategy is to dehumanize it, to degrade it ontologically. Their insouciance about doing so is what totalitarian thugs and abortion apologists share pre-eminently in common. Amongst the latter, the strategy isn’t consciously Machiavellian so much as it is culturally attitudinal, an impulse absorbed directly from the Zeitgeist.
While discussing abortion with one of my undergraduate writing classes, I asked my students what they would like to call the unborn child. One replied, “fecal tissue” – an innocent, unintentionally amusing, malapropism.
One is tempted to generalize and call “fecal” a Freudian slip evocative of the universally coarsened moral sensibilities that induce some mothers to dispose of their unwanted newborns in toilets and dumpsters. In any case, the word “tissue” is certainly consonant with the casual velleity of the “pro-choice” crowd to demote the unborn child to the lowest ranks in the hierarchy of biological life. If it’s merely unwanted “tissue”, an impersonal “mass of cells”, even a maternal appendage, then no one need trouble oneself about cutting it out and tossing it away. It is this all-too-prevalent attitude that makes the analogy to the Nazis not only morally salient, but central.
But, as Kay knows from her own rhetorical practice, no analogy short of a tautology is exact in every particular. Liberals still compare the McCarthy hearings to the Inquisition. Anti-Zionists call Israel an “apartheid” state. No one has ever been censured for theatrically comparing difficult, annoying, yet relatively minor, personal hardships to suffering in the Soviet Gulag, in which millions of innocents perished.
Why is the Nazi Holocaust so sacrosanct that it is the only atrocity in history that is beyond comparison? And why are pro-lifers the only group that is reflexively accused of rhetorical inflation?
Whether the Holocaust ought to hold a monopoly on public remorse as the signal example of human evil in history is a question for another time. But as long as it continues to be so, the comparison to the Holocaust of a practice that kills 25 million babies world-wide every year sounds just sufficiently exaggerated to be true.