In the modern culture wars (Kulturkampf) the accusation is frequently made that one side or the other is guilty of “Nazi tractics” or “Nazi ideology.” This charge is made with such frequency that it is bound to lose its force. One reaction to the abuse of this charge is to call for moratorium on its use. That’s tempting especially on the web when anonymity allows rhetoric to become quickly overheated. Sometimes, however, the charge is demonstrably true.
It is an historical fact that there was a Nazi (National Socialist Party) party in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. This group of fascists arose from obscurity, during a severe economic downturn, in the wake of Germany’s humiliation after World War I. With the consent of the people they took political and military power in Germany and instituted a program of almost unspeakable horror against Jews and others. They called their program to annihilate the Jews the “final solution.” Cumulatively those atrocities became known known as the holocaust. One of the most important premises of the holocaust was that the Jews were less than human or less human than the so-called Aryan race, which the Nazis intended to take over the world. This is isn’t a myth. It isn’t a weird conspiracy story for late-night AM radio. It really happened. It was only stopped because of World War II. The United States, Great Britain and other nations allied, conquered Germany by force, and liberated the prisoners from concentration camps—only after millions had been slaughtered in gas chambers and in mass shootings.
I rehearse this ugly history because that is my job as a historian, to remind people of ugly facts. It’s also useful to remember what happened and why so that when it appears again we can recognize it and tell the truth about it. Sometimes, however, Nazi ideology does not come dressed up in brown shirts and wearing a distinctive signal such as the swastika. Sometimes its source is commentary in mainstream media as in an essay today by Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, who admits that which is aborted is human life but that fact does not matter.
How could she write such a thing? In 1973, Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority in Roe v Wade, argued that the humanity of the unborn foetus (Latin for infant) is uncertain and therefore the unborn are not legally protected in the same way that fully developed, post partum, human beings are. In Roe the court divided human gestation in utero into three trimesters. The court held that
(a) For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.
(b) For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
(c) For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.
Blackmun further argued, “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.” What a pregnant woman carries was described as an “embryo and, later, a fetus, if one accepts the medical definitions of the developing young in the human uterus.” As evidence the court cited a 1965 medical dictionary. He argued:
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
The argument wanders through theories of “quickening” and foetal development and even acknowledges the problems raised by forms of abortion including “the morning-after pill.” I didn’t know there was such a thing in 1973. Relative to the health of the mother the “compelling point” is the first trimester.
With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.
Pregnancy is usually calculated from the last menstrual period. Human gestation is 40 weeks or 280 days. Trimesters equal 13.3 weeks each. According to the majority in Roe, humans are only accorded legal protection after they become viable. In Roe, the majority wrote, “[v]iability is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.” Today, however, viability can be set no later than 23 weeks or three weeks before the end of the second trimester. Even self-described a socially “progressive” has conceded that changes in medical knowledge and technology make obsolete the “scientific” claims on which Roe was decided. A British study claims that 1 infant in 10 born before 24 weeks is viable outside the womb.
Since Roe v Wade the court has moved some but in the culture the argument has often centered on the question of the humanity and the personhood of the human foetus. If it can be shown that humans conceive and give birth to humans and that humans are subject to legal protection then the logic is compelling. Thus, those who have defended abortion after the first trimester have typically sought to deny the humanity of the infant in order to disqualify her from legal protection. Not all have been so delicate, however. Peter Singer has long argued for the right to commit infanticide.
This morning Mary Elizabeth Williams published, “So What if Abortion Ends Life?” in which she concedes:
Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.
When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?
She admits the hitherto incoherence of those who have attempted to deny the humanity of that which is aborted while, at the same time, affirming the humanity of that which is allowed to be born.
it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.”
Williams pulls no punches. She looks reality full in the face, embraces it and then says:
And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.
This, of course, is what pro-lifers have been arguing for decades: the convenience of the mother is the animus behind most abortions. The only, thin, rationale behind which that will to power could hide was a denial of the humanity of the aborted foetus but now Williams has fled that shelter and nakedly admits that it is nothing but a will to power; a raw exercise of autonomy of the strong over the weak.
Now that Williams has laid her Nietzschean cards on the table the civilized amongst us must face facts. That which the law currently allows to be aborted is a fully-formed, tiny, human being which the American Declaration says has an “unalienable” right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The logic is clear.
- If human then protected.
- Therefore protected.
What Williams, Singer, and their ilk seek to do is to admit the the middle premise and deny the conclusion by denying the major premise. Both premises of the syllogism, however, are clearly established in our national documents and in our law, which claim to be grounded in nature, which is universal.
In 1923 a group of oddballs and kooks staged an attempted coup of the German government. Some of them were imprisoned and the movement was dismissed. By 1930, however, they reached national power and by 1939 the world was at war. Before the war there were 9 million European Jews. By 1945 two thirds of them were dead. There are holocaust museums, memorials, and anniversaries and rightly so. We force ourselves to look at the holocuast so that we do not forget it and so that we do not repeat it. As the Jews say, “Never again.”
It was one thing to argue that which is aborted is not human. It is quite another to admit the humanity of the aborted and to defend it on the basis of the autonomy of the mother and the will to power. At least under the earlier defense there was a veil of civility. Now that that pretense has been abandoned the game is changed and the question becomes how those of us who believe in civil protection for legally innocent human life should respond. We should begin at least by acknowledging Williams’ concessions as a notable event and potentially a turning point.
Excellent post. It reminded me of California’s law on murder, Penal Code 187. The unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought is murder in the first degree. But acts which cause the death of the fetus are not unlawful if it was a therapeutic abortion, or performed by a doctor to save the life of the mother or “solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”
So even the law recognizes it as a killing, resulting in the death of a fetus. The law simply regards it as a lawful killing if it’s an abortion. It’s amazing that the killing of a fetus that’s wanted by the mother is murder punishable by death, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or 25 years to life (CA Penal Code 190). But the killing of a fetus that is unwanted by the mother is a protected, lawful action. Talk about the ultimate double standard…
Such laws are the will to power enshrined. The 14th amendment would seem to apply:
This is great, thanks for this overview.
Reminds me of the debate tactic “Reductio Ad Nazium”
Well, by one or two abortion advocates — any idea how this argument is being picked up by the rest? Lord willing, may this be a glass of ice-water to the face of many, that they will wake up and abandon pro-choice.
Note also, I bet almost all of the pro-choice crowd would also be pro-choice in the realm of euthanasia, even to the extent of putting the life of the mentally incapacitated sick into the hands of their guardians.
The fetus can’t speak up for itself; but who decides whether its life can be sacrificed? The mother who is inconvenienced by pregnancy.
Grandma with alzheimer’s can’t speak up for herself; but who decides whether her life can be sacrificed? The children who are inconvenienced by the nursing home bills.
It’s the same principle at work on both ends.
I clicked over to read the article to see how she would argue for that, but found that she left it as a bare, unsupported assertion. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
Her argument, if it is widely accepted, is the end of civil life as we know it. Anyone judged not to be autonomous is in imminent jeopardy. Add that up with Peter Singer’s arguments and we’re whittling down the population from both ends.
Thank you for this article, Dr. Clark, and for this observation that civilized society dies if the author’s assumptions prevail.
This really isn’t new, however.
Nearly three decades ago, a church council member in the prominent liberal Grand Rapids church where I was then a member openly stated that we need to make decisions not only about abortion but also about end-of-life issues based on the potential for future success of the baby or the elderly person.
Even as a new convert to evangelical Christianity, I was shocked to see a medical doctor and member of my church council openly saying euthanasia of elderly people would be appropriate in some circumstances if they had no potential to contribute to society and merely consumed resources. It took another half-decade, but I finally left the church when a new pastor was called who had helped women get abortions prior to Roe v. Wade by providing them transportation from states where abortion was illegal into states where they could get abortions.
Denying the protections of personhood to babies is not inherently different from denying personhood to Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, or any other despised group. There are reasons why the first Nazi death camps for Jews were staffed by people who had previously been part of the Nazi programs to euthanize the disabled and infirm — programs shut down since even in its debauched state, the German church understood what was at stake and protested state-sponsored killing of Aryan adults.
I am not sure whether or not this is a good thing, or a harbinger for further atrocity down the road. But, at minimum some abortion advocates are dropping the unsustainable argument that the unborn are not human, or that aborting a fetus is somehow not the same as terminating a human life. It could be good if such pretense were to be legally rejected and Roe v. Wade revisited on the basis that the unborn are human, worse if they use the legal killing of unborn human life as precedent for legal termination of humans at any point after conception.
Exactly. This could be a turning point.
This is what happens when 9 justices give themselves the power to legislate from the bench since 1803 and can basically never be removed from office. Seems a little tyrannical if you ask me that that particular branch could do that.
Scott, I get the logical argument (and agree). But I remain skeptical as to the efficacy of the rhetorical devices. I’m not wild about being portrayed as positively medieval and having views on the subject that make things safe for misogyny, etc. And so if the golden rule holds, maybe portraying our opponents as Nazis seems less than optimal.
Still, the debate continues to be framed in terms of rights, and we are forced to choose between those of the unborn and those that bodily house them. Framed that way, the (ahem) choice seems obvious in favoring the lives of the weak. But the framing leaves me unsatisfied, not only because it seems to leave the situations of the other class of human beings flapping the the wind, but more than that seems to assume the ethics of modernity (individual rights) and ironically for many on this side of the table miss the ethics of the Bible (responsibilities toward neighbor). I’ll see Williams’ showing of cards and admit that framed this way the conclusion favors anti-abortion views (sorry, “pro-life” seems like political spin in the age of positivity, blech). But for all the pious quoting of Psalm 139 that seems to prop up individual rights, I do think we do better to frame things in terms of the sixth and second greatest commandments which are more other oriented.
If someone is making a Nazi argument, what should we call it? I wouldn’t call Blackmun’s argument “Nazi” or Nietzschean but she’s crossed a line, hasn’t she?
I’m making a civil, logical argument based on accepted constitutional principles. Yes, those are civil, constitutional rights, grounded in nature. Grounding civil liberties in nature is hardly a distinctly modern move. Yes, the founders were modern but they learned a good deal from pre-modern views and assumptions. Natural law isn’t a modern idea. The state of nature, on which Locke built, was a revision (corruption) of a much older and even Reformed idea. That’s why I’ve been going through Althusius here to show the connection.
You’re asking about the woman whose life may be threatened by pregnancy. First, we have to acknowledge that we’re now talking about two humans who both deserve protection under the law.
I wouldn’t necessarily fault someone who chose the life of the mother over the life of the infant if medical necessity required a physician to make that choice
but let’s say what choice is: to take another human life for the sake of preserving one.
Appealing to an extraordinary case to justify what has become an ordinary and now admittedly homicidal procedure is unsatisfying.
Not terribly relevant. Even if we were to grant that acorns are trees, eggs are chickens, and menses and semen are a person because time and growth and everything we know about embryological development doesn’t exist like you guys want us to, in what situation is it acceptable for a living uninvited intruder to hijack another person’s body and then stay there for the better part of a year against the host’s will? Sure sure, there’s no malevolence on the part of the embryo, because it can’t think or act as it isn’t by any reasonable stretch alive, but if there were, then how does that make it okay?
In any other situation in which an uninvited intruder invades one’s home, let alone their body, it is unambiguously the moral right of the person being invaded to kick them out, by force if necessary. The fact that said intruder does not go on it’s way but rather ceases all function and withers like any other severed body part that is not itself a living thing mostly just further demonstrates how ridiculous anti-choice assertions about embryos being people are, not that kicking it out was amoral to begin with.
Aren’t you failing to distinguish between legally innocent and legally guilty persons?
Don’t we all agree that, relative to legal protection, these are two distinct classes of persons. An infant in the uterus has committed no crime. An invader in one’s home has committed a crime.
A human in utero isn’t ordinarily an invader. She’s typically there by invitation in you will. This being a family blog we’ll leave it there.
If you’re implying the case of rape, once again, we’re leveraging the ordinary with the extraordinary. See my comments above to Zrim.
The last part of your argument seems to assume that dependency disqualifies a human being from legal protection. Is that really what you want to say? Should we disconnect the elderly from medical assistance because they’re no longer independent.
Williams has conceded that we’re talking about human lives in utero now.
The sperm cell and egg cell are not genetically distinct individual human beings. Genetically distinct individual human beings come into existence at conception. Pick up any college textbook on embryology for that information.
It’s outside my medical specialty, but I believe the ‘technology’ of the morning-after pill existed even in the early 70s; one could use existing hormone pills (eg. oral contraceptives) to fashion a similar effect, though it may have required more than one pill and more than one dose.
Agree with the basic analysis, but many others besides Williams have said the same things for quite some time now. Perhaps not in such a casual way in such a popular forum, but these ideas are not original to Williams. The “invader/intruder” argument has been used for quite some time to defend the killing of what many on the pro-choice side admit is a life. I mean, I even think of Joe Biden during the vice presidential debate where he said in the same breath that he accepts the RCC teaching that life begins at conception but that he also supports abortion rights. Nobody seemed to notice that he was–along with many Catholic politicians–making an argument that is not only logically incoherent, but morally depraved. So while I agree with your argument and stance, I don’t think this is some watershed event or turning point unfortunately. Flannery O’Connor’s idea that we can no longer recognize evil when we see it has truly arrived.
UPDATE: I updated the photo. I was originally duped by a photo that was circulating that was actually an inaccurate model. The new photo is accurate.