When Kansas state senator Steve Fitzgerald found out that a $25 donation had been made in his name to a Planned Parenthood chapter recently, he responded by making an explosive comparison. "This is as bad, or worse, as having one's name associated with Dachau,” the Republican wrote in a letter, which became public when the organization tweeted a photo of it. When the Kansas City Star asked the legislator to clarify, he doubled down. “I think the Nazis ought to be incensed by the comparison,” he told a reporter. “They’re both exterminating innocent human life.”
The brazenness of Fitzgerald’s language made headlines across the country. But despite some claims, Holocaust comparisons are not new to the abortion debate. In fact, they date almost all the way back to the Holocaust itself. The first to make the connection was apparently Pope Pius XII in 1951, according to historian Daniel K. Williams’s recent book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade. “Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life,” the pope wrote, before going on to allude to the “direct destruction of so-called ‘useless lives’… practiced extensively a few years ago.” The implication was subtle but clear: Those who supported abortion were employing the same logic that the Nazis used in killing those who were “useless to the state.”
Catholics dominated the pre-Roe anti-abortion movement, and they saw an obvious connection between the budding push for wider access to abortion and recent atrocities in Hitler’s Europe. They feared a slippery slope between abortion and eugenics, euthanasia, infanticide, and genocide—all, they argued, practices rooted in a disregard for the essential value of human life. Indeed, early pro-choice rhetoric often framed abortion as a benefit to society, one that would decrease births of the mentally and physically disabled, and also the “unwanted and unloved child, to be raised in poverty and ignorance,” as the president of one medical society put it approvingly in 1936. That appalled Catholic leaders, who—unlike Protestants—had consistently opposed the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. “Once we claim the right directly to kill one innocent person in the name of a greater good there is left no moral grounds upon which to protect the killing of millions of innocent persons in the name of a greater good as the Nazis did,” a monsignor in Minnesota wrote in 1962. “Logic would lead us from abortion to the gas chamber.”
As abortion restrictions loosened in some states in the years before Roe v. Wade, comparisons to Nazi Germany became increasingly common. One New York resident wrote about the dread she felt before a 1970 state law repealing most restrictions went into effect: “like being a resident in Nazi Germany awaiting the announcement of the killing of the first Jew—had that event been announced in advance.” After Roe, those comparisons escalated. A writer for National Review called the court’s decision “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s genocide.” In the 1980s, books like The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution and Abortion: The American Holocaust made the argument at greater length.
Today, Nazi comparisons remain commonplace within the pro-life movement, but the angle has shifted. Catholic theologians no longer dominate the anti-abortion conversation, and contemporary activists are just as likely to emphasize the sheer numbers of the dead as the moral calculus of the “killers.” “What concentration camps did in 12 years, abortions do in 88 days,” one right-wing site proclaimed recently, comparing estimates of Hitler’s victims to the numbers of abortions worldwide. Just a few weeks ago, evangelist Franklin Graham lambasted former First Daughter Barbara Bush’s speech at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser using the old chestnut. “Planned Parenthood is the #1 abortion provider in the United States,” Graham wrote on Facebook. “Raising funds for this organization is like raising money to fund a Nazi death camp—like Auschwitz, except for innocent babies in their mother’s wombs!”
More than a half-century after Pope Pius XII’s understated reference to a system “practiced extensively a few years ago,” today’s Nazi metaphorists go bigger and bolder. Their goal often seems to be riling up true believers and making their enemies angry, rather than persuading with a morally serious argument. But either way, the very long history of these comparisons in the abortion debate suggests they’re not going anywhere.