A California-based anti-abortion group visiting campus this week argued that abortion is genocide and that the American public is compliant. Campus genocide experts, scholars and abortion rights advocates, however, disagree with the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) and some think describing abortion as genocide could trivialize the term’s importance.
For some scholars and genocide experts, the term “genocide” hinges on whether a group of people is being killed programmatically, especially if said killing involves the work of a state. Many who don’t consider abortion to be genocide also don’t consider fetuses a group of people in the traditional sense, which usually identifies groups along racial, ethnic, linguistic, national or religious lines.
“Genocide has to include some kind of programmatic killing to erase a people,” said Tamara Zwick, USF assistant professor of modern German history. Zwick specializes in Holocaust historiography and gender history.
“There is some kind of program to eliminate people that is planned and that is intentional,” she said.
For killing to be considered genocide, it would depend on whether the perpetrators were trying erase a body of people from the planet, and it is unclear whether people who get abortions are trying to do this, Zwick said.
“The question is: Do they engage in some larger program whose programmatic aim is to abort fetuses?” she said. “I don’t think that a person who performs abortions or a person who decides to have an abortion decides at that moment to connect to some larger project, to some larger programmatic movement to eliminate babies.”
Zwick said that her opinion was not rooted in any personal beliefs she has about abortion rights, but rather, what she feels genocide entails as a historical concept. She said that the word “genocide” should not be used to describe abortion.
“Without even taking a position for or against choice, I don’t think that it’s appropriate to assign the word ‘genocide’ to access to abortion,” she said. “I think that in some ways it is undermining the devastation that genocide entails. Calling it a genocide is a political move.”
Edward Kissi, an assistant professor in Africana studies and author of Revolution and Genocide in Ethiopia and Cambodia, said genocide typically involves countries, in part because it requires a lot of resources to exterminate an entire group of people.
“A genocide is a deliberate attempt by a state, or an organized body acting on behalf of a state, to completely wipe out a group of people from the face of the Earth,” he said.
Kissi, who was commissioned by the U.N. to write an article titled “The Holocaust as a Guidepost for Genocide Detection and Prevention in Africa,” said that international law views genocide as having occurred when a state or other entity acting on behalf of said state deliberately targets an ethnic, religious or other group for annihilation. Genocide occurs when a group is terrorized by a state to the degree that the group is destroyed – by preventing access to food, for example.
Genocide can also be related to intentional prevention of reproduction in a population. For some, this is where the line sometimes blurs between genocide and abortion, he said.
“If a group determines to make a group go extinct, and if it’s a policy of the state to prevent the biological reproduction of a group, then it’s a clear act of genocide,” he said. “That is very, very different from individuals making their own decision to abort a fetus.”
Kissi, who didn’t see the exhibit, said he disagreed with the use of the word “genocide” to describe abortion, calling it a “misuse of the term ‘genocide'” and a “very loose interpretation of the word.”
He also said that misuse of the word could lead people to describe individual moral actions as a crime against humanity.
“We may conflict genocides as specific moral crime against humanity and the individual moral choices we do not like,” he said. “We have to use the word ‘genocide’ for the things that are truly genocidal, otherwise we banalize the term.”
Mike Harrington, executive director for the CBR, who also supervises the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) that visited campus this week, disagreed. He said he thinks that the term “genocide” is applicable to the practice of abortion in America, saying that abortion fits the definition of genocide.
“In this case we’re talking about the unwanted, unborn children,” he said.
He said that GAP was not comparing women to Nazis, but that comparing abortion to genocide was a “useful educational tool.”
“The display is trying to point out similarities,” he said. “There are differences, and we’ll be the first to admit it, but there are similarities and we’re drawing those out with the display.”
Specifically, Harrington said, the similarity stems from the concept of personhood. As Nazi Germany didn’t treat Jews, and as pre-Civil-War America didn’t see blacks, as people, but rather as undesirables and slaves, respectively, American policy doesn’t treat fetuses as people.
Once you strip the legal protection of personhood, he said, genocide follows.
Harrington said that the U.S. government is complicit, too, as it subsidizes Planned Parenthood operations, which include abortion.
“The unwanted children are the only ones who are being systematically destroyed,” he said. “And the government is involved, really.”
He also said he doesn’t think using the term “genocide” for abortion weakens the word’s significance.
“This scholar obviously doesn’t believe the unborn are persons, which is exactly the point,” he said. “If they’re blobs of tissue, then our comparison is doing harm. But they’re not.”
Shan Huunda, a senior sociology major and president of the African Students Association, said she did not think abortion should be compared to slavery or the Holocaust, and cautioned that abortion was a sensitive subject in general.
“I think it’s deplorable, the manner in which they’re trying to get their message across,” said Nicky Spivak, executive director of Hillel of Tampa Bay, an organization for Jewish college students.
“To equate the murder of millions by Nazis or the brutal slaughter of African Americans through United States history is disrespectful to the family members of all those victims.”
The Florida Holocaust Museum and the National Holocaust Museum did not comment. Calls to the National Slavery Museum were not returned, and an e-mail to the Tampa Bay NAACP was not answered.
Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, which on the local and national level is often the target of anti-abortion criticism, does not agree with the GAP’s methods, either.
“Planned Parenthood does not think abortion is genocide – I do not think many people do,” said Grassi Wendy, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.
“I think it’s absurd,” she said. “I’m sure people who were involved in an actual genocide would be appalled that they’re using that terminology. It’s a woman’s right to choose – to control her own body. No one has a right to tell a woman when she should have a child.”