Brightly colored flags greet visitors to the United States Holocaust Museum. The flags are not the national flags of the millions of victims of the shoah. Nor are they the national flags of the Allied powers who defeated Nazi Germany. Instead, they are the flags of the military divisions that took part in the liberation of concentration camps and other places of incarceration under Nazi control.
The focus on military units was not what I expected when I first visited the museum in 2003. The flags represented no grand condemnation of fascism or associated political systems. They exalted neither the free lands of Europe and North America, nor the indomitable spirit of the Russians, nor their respective histories or ideologies. They celebrated liberation only in the most immediate and practical sense—the divisions whose soldiers and tanks entered the camps within the first two days of the broaching of their boundaries.
There’s a lesson here for the pro-life movement: Remember your priority is the protection of the weak. It’s natural and can be helpful to elaborate your primary goal into secondary and tertiary goals, so long as the elaboration does not eclipse your priority.
One avenue of elaboration is the effort to understand the targets of the violence. Students of the Holocaust investigate its victims and survivors. In particular, it is not possible to understand the Holocaust without recognizing the Jews as the subjects of a uniquely genocidal program. Then there are also Poles, Roma, homosexuals, and others worthy of special investigation. But at the entrance to the Holocaust Museum, the choice for divisional flags over the national symbols of the victims reminds the visitor not to get lost in the taxonomy of victimization.
Likewise, prolifers may fruitfully explore the vulnerability of special populations to abortion. In the United States, we commonly observe the especially negative effects of abortion on the African-American population. This year’s social media campaigns called attention to the elimination of children with Down syndrome in Iceland and elsewhere. And for decades we’ve called attention to the use of abortion as sex selection against females.
Even so, let us take care not to suggest that racism, sexism, or eugenics is what makes abortion wrong. Or perhaps more importantly, let us take care that in an effort to persuade others, our language conveys no such false impression. Our goal is not equity via more abortions of fully-abled white males, but rather the protection of the unborn. We may prudently wave the flags of the victims’ various identities, so to speak, but our ultimate goal is life for all the unborn.
The other avenue of elaboration is the effort to understand the political and ideological context of the agents of violence. Students of the Holocaust learn about fascism and the peculiarly vicious racism of National Socialism in Germany. They may learn how medieval anti-Semitism or circumstance of the Protestant Reformation contributed to the rise of Nazis. They may explore the extent to which Communists, Pope Pius XII, the Confessing Church, and western liberal democracies mitigated or failed to mitigate the Holocaust.
But of course, given the gruesome reality of the Holocaust, everything in Europe’s past may be seen as contributing, one way or another, to its realization. And no one did “enough” to stop it, or it would never have happened. Again at the Holocaust Museum, the choice against the national flags of the liberating powers in favor of the liberating military units reminds the visitor of the supervening demand of conscience: Protect the innocent, no matter your politics.
The lesson applies also to prolifers. I happen to write from the congressional district of former U.S. Representative Tim Murphy, who resigned recently in a scandal of which the climax was journalistic evidence that his pro-life stance was fraudulent. I, for one, don’t know the whole story, but the affair seems to be a plausible example of how the pro-life cause can go astray when it elevates political alliance over principle.
Yes, political alliances there must be, if anything at all is to be accomplished in law or governance. But an authentic pro-life stand must value the protection of the unborn over the long-term crafting of pro-life alliances, lest the long-term alliances ultimately fail to be pro-life. Prolifers may engage in politics, campaign for a more robustly pro-life political party, or advocate for the best judges, but we must remain vigilant that the means of political action do not themselves become the ends.
Whole-lifers, too, may profit from the lesson. We may understand that the same principles compelling us to oppose legalized abortion also compel us toward other policy positions in favor of weak or vulnerable persons. We may understand that these additional principled positions lend credibility to our pro-life stance. That is right and good.
But whenever our whole-life stance inclines us to scorn prolifers we deem inadequate, we’ve left the simple good behind and entered a political tangle. Worse, when we are tempted to compromise the legal protection of the unborn in order to win some other point, we’ve betrayed the kernel of the purpose of all law and government—again, the protection of the weak.
So wave the flags of victims, wave the flags of political parties and causes, but remember the sobering flags at the entrance to the Holocaust Museum. Politics is secondary. What really counts is the protection of the innocent. The pro-life movement exists to restore the protection of the law to the unborn. Do not be distracted.
—Fr. David Poecking is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.