One of the greatest hinderances to constructive dialogue about abortion is the prevalence of extreme, conversation-stopping rhetoric. As Lisa Cahill explains her book Theological Bioethics, both sides have adopted
what could be viewed as prophetic and narrative discourse, appealing to the imagination and solidifying group identity by the use of slogans and symbols such as ‘sanctity of life,’ ‘murder of the unborn,’ ‘our bodies, ourselves,’ and ‘reproductive choice’…These types of discourse function primarily as rallying calls for those who share the worldviews of advocates. Rather than building bridges to those of different convictions, narrative and prophetic discourse widen division while reinforcing group bonds and goals.
While this does occur on “both sides,” I have experienced it predominately from the extreme pro-life side, probably because those are the circles I tend to run it. In particular, I encounter people describing abortion with terms like “genocide” and comparing abortion with slavery or the Holocaust. These kinds of comparisons are intellectually dishonest and unnecessarily divisive. Comparisons like this, while emotionally and rhetorically powerful, are either intentionally intellectually dishonest or else demonstrative of a severe misunderstanding of genocide, slavery, and abortion.
Abortion is not like genocide. Article 2 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In other words, genocide is the systematic attempt to eliminate a particular group of people from existence. The Holocaust was attempted genocide. The Nazi’s identified specific groups of people and systematically tried to exterminate them. The mass extermination of more than one million ethnic Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I, the Cambodian government’s slaughter of nearly two million political dissidents in the late 1970’s, and the Hutus targeted massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 are all examples of genocide. Abortion is not. There is no coordinated, systematic attempt to wipe out babies.
Those who defend the genocide comparison often do so on the basis of scale. The sheer number of annual abortions, they argue, justifies the comparison. But scale is not what makes genocide, genocide. For example, more than 20 million combatants and more than 50 million civilians were killed during World War II, a far greater number of deaths than those killed in Nazi concentration camps. We do not, however, refer to World War II, or even the civilian deaths that accompanied it, as a genocide. While war is itself atrocious, we understand genocide to be even more atrocious because of the way it intentionally targets specific groups of people for elimination. Abortion does not do this.
In addition to scale, “dehumanization” is often cited as the basis for comparing abortion with both genocide and slavery. It is absolutely true that dehumanization has been an important factor in both genocide and race-based slavery. Lots of important work has been done highlighting the way that humans dehumanize other humans in order to justify mistreating, enslaving, or killing them. This is true even in the context of the military, where it has been observed that dehumanizing the enemy makes it easier for soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill. But in each of these cases, the groups in question have been dehumanized, implying that they were at one time understood to be fully human and that humanity was then intentionally diminished in order to justify killing on enslaving them.
The same process is not true for abortion. As previous posts have demonstrated, the full humanity of the unborn – especially at early stages – has never been universally recognized or agreed upon. Anti-abortion apologists are fond of accusing pro-choicers of dehumaning the unborn to justify killing them, but the truth is that the unborn have never been fully humanized in the eyes of the majority of people, Christians included. Given what we’ve seen so far from religion, history, science, and law, in this particular case the burden of proof is on those who claim the unborn are fully human from conception.
Additionally, dehumanization as it functions in regard to genocide, slavery, and war is usually deeply connected to hatred and disgust for the group being dehumanized. This is very rarely, if ever, the case for abortion. Those who are “pro-choice” do not hate babies, nor are they disgusted by babies, and they certainly aren’t orchestrating a campaign either to exterminate babies as group from the planet nor to exploit babies’ labor for profit. Far from advancing the conversation in any meaningful way, these kinds of intellectually dishonest comparisons only widen the divide. There’s a part of me that suspects that pro-lifers have adopted such extreme language as emotional and rhetorical overcompensation to cover for the fact that abortion is far more complicated than they want to admit.
On the other side, pro-choice extremists have adopted some language and tactics that are also harmful to productive conversation. The recent “Shout Your Abortion” campaign on social media is an example of this. It’s very difficult to convince people on the “pro-life” side that “pro-choicers” view abortion as a tragic necessity that should be “safe, legal, and rare” when women are celebrating abortions. While I believe “Shout Your Abortion” was a reaction to obstinate and compassionless pro-life extremism, it nevertheless, as Cahill stated earlier, “widens division” and stymies productive conversation. Similarly, language like “my body my choice” tends to, at the very least, oversimplify the discussion. Even most “pro-choice” people believe there should be certain limitations on abortion after a certain level of development and understand that, at least on some level, the fetus differs from the body of its mother.
In short, if we’re going to find a productive
way forward that both reduces abortions and protects women, we’re going to need
to learn to build more bridges. I believe one of the ways we can do that is to
be more careful about the kind of language we use. Extremist rhetoric on either
side only reinforces and intensifies the division. We should remember that most
people fall somewhere in the middle between the two extremes and allow this
fact to shape our discourse into something productive instead of divisive.
 Cahill, Theological Bioethics,