Humanity in question

Horrors of Auschwitz and legal abortion put a price on the value of life

One week ago today was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Seventy years since the Soviet army marched into the Nazi camp and liberated the remaining prisoners.

holocaust — This year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a camp responsible for over 1 million deaths. Photo credit: Ash Brownd

Holocaust — This year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a camp responsible for over 1 million deaths. Photo credit: Ash Brownd

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners left in the camp. But while the Soviets managed to liberate all those prisoners, they were too late to save the nearly 1.5 million people who had already died in the camp.

My parents have served as missionaries in Poland for the past six years, and in that time, I have made two trips to the grounds of Auschwitz, which was turned into a museum some years ago. Of all the images and exhibits now filling the restored barracks, there is one in particular that continues to haunt me.

One of the exhibits consists entirely of items the Nazis confiscated from the prisoners arriving at the camp. There are massive glass cases filled with dishes, glasses and prosthetic limbs, just to name a few. There is also a long hallway lined by large glass windows.

Behind the windows are mountains of shoes. They seem to stretch into infinity. The sheer number of them is mind-boggling.

Amidst the sea of aged and faded footwear, one lone shoe caught my gaze and refused to let go. It was smaller than the others, probably the shoe of a child. And it was white. Dusted with dirt, yes, but the blackened shoes surrounding it made it seem as white as snow.

Most sources place the total death toll of the Holocaust at around 12 million. However, a study at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., indicates it could actually be as high as 20 million. Regardless of which number is the most accurate, they had always been exactly that to me — numbers.

But as I stood in the museum that day staring at a tiny white shoe, it suddenly struck me for the first time that the victims of the Holocaust were more than just numbers. The owner of that tiny white shoe was not just a number. He or she was a real person. Every pair of shoes in that exhibit represented a real person. People with families and lives and dreams. People whose lives were snuffed out like candles because one man believed, and convinced others to believe, that their lives were worthless.

The week before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz marked another anniversary of great importance — the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. According to CNN, the lengthy court case ended Jan. 22, 1973 with the Supreme Court affirming the right of women to get abortions. This case is considered key in opening the door for what is often referred to as a woman’s right to choose.

At this point you may be wondering what in the world the Roe v. Wade court case has to do with a Nazi concentration camp. Well, I have heard many people in today’s world refer to abortion as a modern-day Holocaust, saying that the two are deeply paralleled in their slaughter of the innocent. Personally, I am not entirely sure I agree with that comparison. However, I do believe that both abortions and the Holocaust stem from the same key issue — the definition of humanity.

Throughout history, people have attempted to place limits on who is and is not a human being. European settlers enslaved the natives of both the Americas and Africa because they believed skin color was the determining factor. Adolf Hitler tried to wipe out the Jews because of their religion. In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered because of their ethnicity, according to the BBC. Whenever a group of people tries to determine who does and does not qualify as a full-fledged human being, atrocity follows.

Those who debate abortion today include a wide variety of arguments. Does the fetus count as part of the woman’s body? Is abortion acceptable at some stages of the pregnancy, such as before viability and not after? Should it be allowed based on the situation, such as whether the mother was raped or whether the pregnancy poses a serious threat to the mother’s health? The list goes on and on. However, I believe abortion comes down to a far simpler issue. The question is not, “Does the fetus qualify as human?” but rather, “Do we have the right to decide that?”

Do we have the right to decide who does and does not qualify as a human being? Do we have the right to look at someone’s physicality, religion, ethnicity, stage of development, genetic defects or any other aspect of their person and tell them that they do not qualify for the basic right of life? How we choose to answer these questions has massive implications.

If we have the right to determine who is and is not human, then the enslavement of the African and Native American peoples was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then every single one of the 12 to 20 million deaths incurred by the Holocaust was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then the murder of a young child in a pair of little white shoes was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then none of these deaths should bother us because the victims were not even human anyway.

And yet they do bother us. I have seen visitors to Auschwitz moved to tears because they cannot fathom how humankind could be capable of such atrocity. They look at the pictures of those who died in the gas chambers and instead of seeing lumps of tissue, they see people.

People who look like them. People who, in a different time, could have been them. People who deserved, at the very least, the right to live. People whose deaths bother us because something in our gut knows that it was wrong.

The Nazis found all sorts of ways to justify the millions of deaths they caused. They claimed scientific research that supposedly proved the Jews to be subhuman. European settlers did the same with the people they enslaved, claiming themselves to be far superior. We, as human beings, can justify practically any crime we want to. The question is not can we find a basis for it. The question is do we have the right to even try? If we take away someone else’s basic humanity, is it not possible that someone more advanced could come along and do the same to us? If we begin determining levels of humanity, who is to say we will come out on top? Who is to say we even deserve to? It seems to me that when we begin setting limits on someone else’s humanity, we willingly sacrifice our own.

At the end of the day, I believe that abortion does not come down to issues of viability or whether or not the fetus is part of the mother’s body. What it really comes down to is the issue of humanity. Does a life form with human DNA deserve to be treated like a human being? Or do we who bear the same DNA have the right to degrade it to nothing more than a lump of tissue?

Interestingly enough, Norma McCorvey, who took on the pseudonym Jane Roe for the purposes of the Roe v. Wade case, eventually changed her position when she became a Christian and joined the pro-life movement, according to CNN. She now says she devotes her life to reversing the Roe v. Wade decision. In her mind, the fetus is a human child and deserves to be protected as such.

It is an issue that each of us must settle for ourselves. Are the fetuses aborted in this nation every year, fetuses who bear our same DNA, really just lumps of tissue? Are they just numbers to us, much like the victims of the Holocaust once were to me? Or are they rows upon rows of little white shoes silently begging someone to defend their right to live?

There is a plaque at Birkenau, the extermination camp associated with Auschwitz, which reads in multiple languages, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.” Will we choose to heed that warning and learn from our mistakes? Or will we allow history to repeat itself and line yet another corridor with mountains of empty shoes?

BROWND is a copy editor.


  • Ash,
    Thanks for posting this story about your thoughts. I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but I have gone several times to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and last May I had the great privilege to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and research center in Israel.
    The tragedy that occurred during the Holocaust is one of the greatest of all time. You mentioned that the number could be as high as 20 million people killed. That number is unfathomable to me. That’s more than the entire population of New York. (Not just the city, the entire state.)
    The death toll of legal abortion in the United States over the past 43 years has more than doubled that number. We are living in a time when over 55 million people have been killed by abortion in our country alone (if you include the whole world, the number is over 1 billion). The United States Abortion Holocaust has claimed more than a sixth of our current national population.
    Notice that I very carefully and strategically used the word “people” when describing those who have died from abortion. Your article questions whether we can decide who is and is not a human. That’s not a valid question. Being human is a scientific fact that cannot be questioned by any rational person. Today the pro-abortion movement does not even question whether the preborn are human. (“Preborn”, like newborn, toddler, and teenager, is used only to describe the age someone is, not what they are. The same is true of Embryo, Infant, Child, and Adult.) No one questions the humanity of the preborn, they only question whether those humans have value.
    No one doubted that the Jews were human. The Nazi party called the Jews “untermench” – inferior humans, sub humans.
    No one doubted that the slaves they held were human. They called them lesser humans. Less evolved humans.
    No one doubts that the preborn are human. They only call them less valuable humans. They say that they are “human,” but not “persons.”

    Who is or is not a person is the real debate. That’s the real question you’re asking, Ash.
    All individual human beings are persons. Each human person should be granted full and equal legal protections. There are some who don’t agree with this, as there have been throughout history (see above).
    While we must choose to empathize with these people, we cannot change the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God and are equally valuable from the start to the finish. We are all persons. Those who say otherwise are wrong, and are guilty of great sin.
    I pray for their salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

    Thank you again for writing this, Ash. I ask you to consider carefully your use of the words “human” and “person” in the future.

    • Thank-you for your comment on this article. It is true that abortion is a great tragedy in our nation today. However, I do not agree with your distinction between a person and a human. According to both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, the terms “person” and “human being” are completely synonymous. The faulty distinction of personhood our society has created serves no purpose other than easing our own guilt. A human being is a person, and a person is a human being. End of story. We may claim to be debating this fictional state of personhood, but in reality what we are truly debating is humanity, no matter how we choose to package it. And humanity, as you pointed out, is a scientific fact that nothing can change. That is the real point I was trying to make in this article. The rest of the world may attempt to argue degrees of “personhood”, but in the end this argument is logically invalid because a person and a human being are one and the same. You are either both or neither. And since humanity is a scientific fact, then it follows that the distinction of being a person, which is merely a different name for the same concept, must be a fact as well.
      Thank-you again for commenting. It provided interesting food for thought.

  • Ash,
    Thank you for writing this article. I was about to comment, but found that Sean had beaten me to it. As for dictionaries, they are not useless, but we need to keep in mind that for speakers of a language, a dictionary is primarily descriptive, and not prescriptive. A dictionary describes the way that speakers of a language use the words in their language. A dictionary’s description of words isn’t always accurate, and takes time. A dictionary doesn’t tell speakers of a language how to use the words of their language, as a doctor instructs a patient to take a certain prescription. Also, consider that these words each have a denotation and a connotation. Is a cadaver a human? Is a cadaver a person? You may find yourself saying that a cadaver is a human, but that a cadaver was a person. Somewhere in that difference between a cadaver and me, as I sit here typing this, lies the distinction between a human and a person. There are various types and definitions of death which we don’t really need to go into here. The difference hinges on life and death. A living human is a person, whereas a completely dead human is no longer a person. It is a crime to incinerate a person, but it is not a crime to incinerate a human. So, the distinction is personhood, and it hinges upon life.
    Our words speak for themselves, but please pay close attention when Sean speaks on this topic…Sean and I have both been very active in the pro-life/pro-family movement for a long time, and we both understand the nuances of language use in discussing these matters. Sean and I are trying to provide the right enzymes here, so that you can properly digest this food for thought. It will nourish you, and you may find that this article of yours was seminal in the conception of an Atrocity Museum at LU. It’s something that I’ve been praying about for years now. Studying the Genocide that took place in Cambodia under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge was actually what God used to convict me about the fact that I wasn’t even praying about the abortion situation, let alone doing anything to provide for those who thought that they had no other choice but that offered by advocates of, “choice.”
    Ash, you are writing here at LU. To say that “it is an issue that each of us must settle for ourselves,” is to say that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Good attempt at setting up, and demolishing, the paper tiger that such a statement is, though.
    For anybody who doesn’t agree with the comparison between The Holocaust that Hitler brought about and the atrocities which Margaret Sanger brought about (she laid Planned Parenthood’s foundations), consider the eugenic motivations of both. Margaret Sanger agreed with The Third Reich’s eugenics enough to publish the writings of one of Hitler’s leading eugenicists.

    I could go on and on, but I am very grateful for the dots that you have connected in this article, Ash. Keep up the good work.

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