Daniel Chardell: Abortion is not genocide

By Daniel Chardell, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published October 10, 2011

Before I get to the spectacle that was the two daylong abortion-is-genocide extravaganza held on the Diag last week, let’s talk about the importance of the words we choose.

The word “genocide” is a relatively recent construct, drawing from the Greek genos for “race, kind” and the Latin -cide for “killer.”

We owe many thanks to a man named Raphael Lemkin for coining this term and, more importantly, for his pioneering advocacy of international legislation to address and prevent it. As a Polish Jew and scholar of international law, Lemkin’s studies assumed much more personal significance when he witnessed Hitler invade Poland, demonize his religion and murder his family on the grounds of a twisted theory of racial superiority.

Surviving World War II, Lemkin emerged as a leading proponent of a legally binding international agreement prohibiting genocide. In 1948 the nascent United Nations unanimously adopted the landmark Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — the product of Lemkin’s activism and a triumph for untold millions of victims.

Labeling abortion “genocide” is wrong. That’s not my opinion — it’s etymological fact. Lemkin arrived at the term genocide precisely because its roots, genos and -cide, capture the nature of the events that he sought to illustrate: the purposeful extermination of an ethnic group. In Lemkin’s lifetime, this meant Armenians and Jews. Over the next several decades, that list of victims would tragically come to include Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsis in Rwanda, East Timorese under Indonesian occupation and other groups victimized for their shared heritage, common social identity or expressed beliefs. Sorry, but fetuses don’t qualify.

The pro-life supporters on the Diag were only aware of the historical implications of the word “genocide” in the most superficial and distorted ways. I say this not as a liberal (which I am) who disagrees with their extreme political stance (which I do), but as someone who stood on the Diag for nearly two hours speaking with the event’s organizers as I tried to figure out how they could possibly justify equating abortion with Nazism.

Needless to say, I wasn’t convinced.

After telling the activists on the Diag that I’m Jewish, I asked if my being pro-choice meant that I’m the contemporary equivalent of a Nazi. “No,” they said, “of course not!” Why, then, were there pictures of aborted fetuses placed alongside photographs of emaciated Jews? Why was there a swastika strategically placed at the top of a sign reading, “Can you connect the dots?” Why, Students for Life, was this sensationalist scare tactic the best way to convey your pro-life message? Suggesting that your peers are complicit in genocide isn’t exactly the best way to start what Michigan Daily columnist Harsha Nahata aptly calls meaningful debates.” Last week’s display was anything but meaningful. It was insulting — no matter how you spin it.

Carmen Allen, president of Students for Life, defends her organization’s decision to bring the Genocide Awareness Project to campus by claiming that students at the University are apathetic toward the issue of abortion. That’s a valid point.

But you know what else students are apathetic about? The socioeconomic inequalities and campaigns of misinformation that exacerbate the number of unwanted pregnancies in the United States. One of the representatives from the Genocide Awareness Project tried to convince me that abstinence should be taught as the best way to minimize unwanted pregnancies. If teenagers didn’t have hormones, that might be true. But let’s take a look at the facts.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry champions abstinence-only sex education. According to a 2009 study issued by the Texas Freedom Network, 94 percent of Texas school districts give students no sex education beyond abstinence. How well has abstinence-only sex ed worked? The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2010 that Texas has the highest teen birth rate and the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. Clearly, Mr. Perry, the young people of Texas aren’t buying it.

This matters. Let’s get at the source of the problem — unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, Students for Life doesn’t seem to understand that abortion is the consequence of a much larger societal issue — one that’s perpetuated by extreme right-wing politicians who are all too eager to pander to their base and unjustifiably defund Planned Parenthood. (By the way, only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion-related.) Rather than draw attention to underlying social issues and the failures of abstinence-only sex ed, Students for Life has resorted to an easier approach: calling anyone with whom they disagree a Nazi.

Students for Life, you’re contributing directly to the erosion of our discourse (and your own credibility) by giving a platform to a reactionary, fear-mongering, historically insensitive group that’s willing to exploit and cheapen genocide for the sake of its own highly politicized cause. You’re free to invite whoever you’d like to campus. That’s a right to which you’re entitled. But don’t sacrifice decency for shock value.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.