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Antisemitism and the abortion debate

A common feature of the abortion debate is employing religious rhetoric to justify one’s position. This is especially true among the Religious Right, who frequently reference Christian values and religious teachings to support their position against abortion. However, the Religious Right doesn’t hold a monopoly on religious rhetoric. Although some religions hold a firm stance against abortion, there’s a wide variety of positions on the topic among different faiths. Like many issues, not every religion agrees on abortion. 

Regardless of the extent to which religion informs one’s position on abortion, religious rhetoric has an influential role in the political sphere. Religious language in advocacy has serious implications for policymaking and legal interpretations. If our arguments are rooted in religious teachings, then those values will be reflected in the text, analysis and enforcement of the laws that follow. For instance, consider Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that overturned a woman’s federal right to an abortion. In it, Justice Alito described a fetus as an “unborn human being” as opposed to the “potential life” terminology used in Roe v. Wade. Although not explicitly religious, Alito’s language instituted a narrative rooted in some religious traditions’ view of when life begins. When numerous states began criminalizing abortion in nearly all circumstances, part of their justification was found in this language. 

We know that religious rhetoric has a real effect on abortion policy, but it’s also important to note that the language we use can also affect perceptions towards different groups. How we frame an issue and our word choice can be rooted in dangerous rhetoric, even if that wasn’t our intention. In today’s column, my intention is to highlight this issue for Jews in the abortion debate. Because Judaism purports a more lenient stance on abortion than some faiths, at least in some circumstances, and American Jews are overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing abortion in all or most cases, it’s easy for antisemitism to manifest. I’ll discuss in two ways how some language in the abortion debate is rooted in antisemitism. 

The first aspect to consider is how some anti-abortion rhetoric is embedded in the blood libel accusation often levied against Jews. American Jewish Committee defines the blood libel as a “perpetuated accusation that Jews have murdered non-Jews (such as Christian children) in order to use their blood in rituals.” Despite blood rituals being expressly forbidden in the Torah and Jewish law, the allegation has persisted throughout history. The first identified case of the blood libel in medieval Europe was William of Norwich in 1144. After William, a young boy, was found stabbed to death in the woods, the Jews in the area were accused of engaging in a ritual murder of him. Despite no evidence to support the claim, the blood libel persisted across Europe during the Middle Ages. It continued into the Protestant Reformation as Eastern European Jews were subjected to pogroms or anti-Jewish riots. Arab Jews also experienced the blood libel, most notably with the 1840 Damascus Affair. During World War II, the Nazis frequently employed the blood libel in their propaganda. Even after the Holocaust, the blood libel has persisted to justify dehumanization, persecution and violence toward Jews. 

The connection between blood libel and abortion is found in language identifying abortion as “child sacrifice.” As the Anti-Defamation League notes, antisemites allege that Jews employ abortion as a means to participate in child sacrifices for Moloch, a Caananite deity. We see this dangerous rhetoric today. Following the Dobbs decision, writer E. Michael Jones equated child sacrifice to Jews. Moreover, choosing to describe abortion as child sacrifice is participation in the antisemitic trope, even if one doesn’t mention Jews. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently described the Democratic Party as “a child sacrifice cult” during an abortion segment. Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed Michigan nominee for secretary of state, claimed abortion constitutes “child sacrifice” and a “satanic practice.” Although neither explicitly mentioned Jews, their language is rooted in the history behind the antisemitic trope. 

The second aspect of antisemitism in the abortion debate is analogizing the Holocaust to aborted fetuses. Among opponents of abortion, some have employed comparisons to the Holocaust to justify a view that abortion is a moral tragedy. Republican politicians have routinely likened abortion to the Holocaust and Nazism. Jason Shepherd, a Republican state representative in Georgia, suggested that companies that provide abortion access for employees are similar to the Nazis persecuting Jews. The Republican nominee for Illinois governor, Darren Bailey, argued that the Holocaust “doesn’t even compare” to deaths from abortion. In 2019, Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed a law that compared abortion to the Holocaust in its text.

These Holocaust comparisons are antisemitic because of their underlying effect of distorting the reality of the tragic event. The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of six million European Jews and was the result of Nazi rhetoric meant to dehumanize the Jewish people. Any effort to liken the Holocaust to another event, no matter what it is, diminishes the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors. It ignores their suffering for political gain through cheap talking points. At the same time, it undermines efforts to emphasize the seriousness of the Holocaust. We should care about the Holocaust because it was the Holocaust, not because some other issue appears similar to it. 

The point of this column is not to take a stance on abortion. Rather, my intention is for readers to take careful note of the rhetoric they employ when they discuss abortion. The language we use to articulate our arguments matters and has serious implications. If we tolerate antisemitic rhetoric, even when it’s not clearly antisemitic, it normalizes those behaviors and spurs prejudiced attitudes towards Jews. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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