A glossy advertising supplement currently plaguing college newspapers warns readers of a “silent epidemic” that has “infected American culture.” It (the advertisement – a 12-page insert paid for by a Minnesota organization called the Human Life Alliance) was here in Ann Arbor last week, shaken carelessly all over campus from the pages of Tuesday’s Daily. The cover photo looked – if you’ll excuse the redundancy – like a Gap commercial gone horribly wrong: trendy sweaters, meticulously un-styled hair and those little white masks people wear to keep out fumes and debris when they paint their kitchens.
This looked serious. I seized a dusty insert from the floor and was relieved to discover that the epidemic in question was not an actual disease, but a relatively poor metaphor for abortion. Yes, the United States has the baby-killing sickness. Americans are killing so many babies, it’s like an epidemic taking out a whole generation of people and it must be stopped. And Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel agrees.
Wait a second. What?
Well, not “agrees” per se. More “is quoted on the back of the ad” than “agrees,” really. But let’s not waste our time arguing semantics; at that level, the Wiesel quote simply encourages people “never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation” and could easily be used to further any other ideology whose pedagogues purported to be anti-suffering. Or it could be an argument against reality television or the U.S. tax code. So let’s talk about context instead. The only reason to quote a noted Holocaust survivor in a discussion of a completely unrelated issue is to draw a parallel between the Holocaust and the subject at hand.
This might work in the context of, say, some ethnic group playing another round of Let’s-kill-everyone-who-doesn’t-look-like-us, but in the case of abortion, it just makes people look desperate, like their argument is so pitiful that they can’t bear to tell us what it is.
The abortion-as-Holocaust metaphor has been floated before, most memorably (and least effectively) in the form of six-foot-high mangled fetus photos looming over the Diag, courtesy of the so-awful-it’s-almost-humorously named Genocide Awareness Project. The logic (and I use “logic” as loosely as possible) goes something like this: Abortion is like the Holocaust because both involve the government-sanctioned killing of innocent people. This is the final thought with which HLA seeks to leave readers: abortion = killing people legally en masse = like the Holocaust, therefore “pro-choice” = Nazi. And world-renowned children’s author Dr. Seuss agrees.
Wait a second. What?
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” That’s what he said, right? Indeed he did, but the good doctor’s words take on a far different meaning when placed above pictures of tiny fetus feet than they did when Horton the elephant said them the first time. Horton heard a Who, not a fetus, and though Seuss often made political statements with his stories (e.g. “The Sneetches,” “The Lorax”), he never dragged my beloved Horton into the abortion debate. Horton meant what he said and he said what he meant and there was nary a word on the unborn.
Still, the “pro-lifers” behind this ad would probably argue that nothing could be more pertinent to the subject of abortion than this particular Seuss-ism, which states their case far more concisely than they have. I couldn’t disagree more. It is never OK to take someone’s words out of context, and doing so kills any credibility the argument might otherwise have had. I think the “pro-life” argument does have some merit; I am morally opposed to abortion in most cases, but I think it should be legal and there are circumstances under which I believe it’s justifiable. Nobody in either camp (“pro-life,” “pro-choice”) trusts me, which I think is just fine. Each side has a number of scary extremists with cavalier attitudes toward life and each side uses emotionally-charged imagery and rhetoric to further its cause. The world may never know which came first (the extremists or the extreme rhetorical tactics), but the elimination of the latter may at least slow down the former. You can quote me on that. But I wish you wouldn’t.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached at email@example.com.