Earlier this month we received an email from a supporter named Sarah, who wrote in with a suggestion for a blog topic:
I don’t know if anyone’s done a piece on Gisella Perl, but I find her to be fascinating. She was a Jewish gynecologist forced to work as a doctor in Auschwitz, and one of her tasks was to report every pregnant woman in Auschwitz to Josef Mengele. Of course, we know that Mengele would use pregnant women for vivisections before killing them and disposing of them because he had a particular fascination with experimenting on pregnant females (as well as twins, people with physical abnormalities, dwarves, etc). Gisella Perl revealed that she would secretly perform abortions on Jewish women in Auschwitz in order to protect them from torture by human experimentation.
My first, immediate thought was: “Yes– this is protecting someone from cruel and unusual (as well as unwarranted) punishment, and she saved so many lives by doing so. The tragedy lies not in the fact that there were abortions necessarily (though that is a tragedy!), but in that hiding pregnancies by destroying the fetus was the only way for these women to escape vivisection and experimentation.”
I felt pretty okay about this until someone commented on the post where I learned about Gisella Perl: “I want to nail this to the forehead of every anti-abortionist who uses the word ‘Holocaust’ when talking about legal abortions.” It really got me thinking about language and Gisella Perl.
I’m in complete agreement with Sarah that Gisella Perl’s actions were not immoral. The circumstances of the Holocaust were so unimaginably twisted, and its victims’ options were so limited, that the normal framework of rights and responsibilities is utterly useless here. Survival comes first. I would go so far as to say that Gisella Perl didn’t kill those children; Mengele did.
I’m also baffled by the abortion supporter’s comment. How, exactly, does this horrible story advance the cause of “choice,” when there was no real choice to speak of, no possibility that the babies would live?
Mengele’s torture didn’t end with pregnant mothers. He also had a sick fascination with twins and performed horrific, painful, lethal experiments on them. If Mengele were about to go after a pair of school-aged twins, would it be wrong to kill the twins quickly and painlessly? That’s not an easy question.* But I know one thing for sure: the answer wouldn’t tell us a damn thing about the morality of killing twins in general.
Pro-lifers are fond of pointing out that after World War II, Joseph Mengele became an abortionist. But so did Holocaust survivor Henry Morgantaler, best known for eliminating all abortion laws in Canada. I posit that, again, this tells us next to nothing.
Ultimately, Gisella Perl’s story is worth learning about in its own right, rather than because it teaches us some great lesson about abortion (which it doesn’t). We should learn as much as we can about the Holocaust in order to honor the memories of those who perished, and for no other reason; certainly not to gain political points.
The Holocaust is sui generis. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, the only appropriate reaction is horror.
*I’m inclined to say no, it wouldn’t be wrong.