Reflections on “Abortion: The Silent Holocaust”: Does anyone see what I see?

By Dave Andrusko

National Right to Life is commemorating 50 years of service to unborn babies, babies born with disabilities, and the medical frail elderly increasing the target of the “right to die” movement. In the 45 days until the annual National Right to Life convention begins in Kansas City, I’m going to post some stories from the past that speak as loudly today as they did when I first composed them. We’re going to begin with a review I wrote 30 years ago of “Abortion: The Silent Holocaust,” a pro-life classic if ever there was one. The book is still very, very much worth reading.

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We are now one-third into 1998 — the silver anniversary of the wicked Roe v. Wade decision. It’s nice to report that our readers are grateful and appreciative of the pivotal documents we’ve been reprinting that led up to the legal earthquake as well as of those early pro-life classics, such as Dr. Jean Garton’s “Who Broke the Baby?” which we’ve revisited. But no survey would be complete without “Abortion: The Silent Holocaust.”

Fr. John Powell’s little masterpiece has lost none of its power to move readers to tears and to action. Written from the heart, the book takes us through the valleys that Fr. Powell walked before he — and we — emerges on the other side wiser and stronger.

Powell was a bestselling author of a number of books when he took a sabbatical from Loyola University to devote the entire 1976-77 academic year to the pro-life cause. A passionate, charismatic speaker, Fr. Powell is credited with energizing many priests to be more actively pro-life. In the ensuing years he lectured at countless pro-life conventions, including National Right to Life’s.

This book is his most extended and personal exposition of why he was compelled to join the fight. It makes for riveting reading.

What would it profit the reader to sit down with a book first published in 1981? Think of it this way.

Many of those who today champion the unborn were not even born in 1973. It’s like coming in during the second act. Often it can be next to impossible for them to appreciate what a shock, what a body blow the unleashing of the killing machine was to pro-lifers.

But to read Fr. Powell’s provocative book is almost like being there the day the judicial sword was lowered on the necks of helpless unborn babies. His personal sojourn offers the contemporary reader a window into how Roe’s vicious assault on human life could simultaneously deeply dishearten and magnificently motivate those sensitive to what Powell called the “fragile mystery of life.”

For instance, describing the culmination of his own journey, he writes in Chapter One that, “With all my mind and heart and strength I am pro-life: Wherever there is a flower of life I want it to bloom, to reveal its beauty for all the world to see.”

But this wonderfully affirmative declaration came at the end of a long, difficult stretch that began for Powell in the 1960s. The book reads almost like a diary that Fr. Powell shares with us to deepen our own commitment just as the events described in it matured and sustained his.

For Powell, Roe was “Black Monday,” a catastrophe that figuratively knocked Powell to his knees. Part of the reason he was so devastated was because not everyone else was! Powell couldn’t fathom how anyone could not be sent reeling by Roe.

To convey something of how he felt at that point, Powell called up lines from the then-very popular stage production “1776” in which a lonely, deeply apprehensive John Adams worries that the American experiment would fail.

In the play Adams asks himself three questions that serve as the backdrop for Powell’s exploration of his own and our society’s response to the anti-life ethos: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anyone see what I see?”

Powell rhetorically asks himself why a heavily trained academic [Powell says he had so many degrees he felt like “Father Fahrenheit”] would be so burdened by Roe. He concludes it was because of two formative experiences that had left Powell with an “acute sensitivity to the value of every human life.”

One came about as a result of his short stint as a hospital chaplain in Akron, Ohio. He quickly realized that “scenes of suffering and raw grief had been quarantined out of my academic experience.” It dawns on him that he had never even seen someone die or be born.

A hospital setting offers a crash course in death. But it was when he witnessed the birth of a baby that Powell was profoundly changed.

He was “utterly overwhelmed by the beauty and sacredness of that moment and what I was seeing.”

He already knew that “The child had come as no surprise to God.” But watching that baby boy’s birth illuminated the abstract truths of his training, particularly the uniqueness of every human being.

Powell is most eloquent when, as it were, he reads God’s mind.

“Theologically I felt as if I had touched the smiling face of God who had lovingly dreamed of that little boy from all eternity and who had conferred upon him the inestimable gift of life,” he writes.

In that precious moment Powell truly understood–and wants us to understand–that none of us are “carbon copies,” that each of us has an absolutely essential part to play, that none of us are accidents, and that God could have created the world without a place for us but didn’t want to.

“No one else can speak my message,” Powell writes, “or sing my song, or bestow my act of love. These have been entrusted only to me.”

The other formative experience for Powell, also before Roe, came when he went to Europe for further studies. While there, Powell visited the remains of the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

There he learned firsthand of the utilitarian ethic of the Nazi regime, its utter disregard for those who were frail or “unproductive,” and the silence of many Germans to the unspeakable monstrosities that were taking place.

He notes that the words “Never again” are printed on the gate in five languages. It’s a memory that haunts Powell when the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed the abortion holocaust.

Both experiences left him numb. One was too beautiful, too sacred. The other too violent, too shattering.

Yet troubled as he was by these experiences, it was something else that persuaded Powell to take a year’s sabbatical to serve as a pro-life speaker: his counseling experience with three young women.

The first had aborted and was deeply sorry. The life had seemed to have gone out of her eyes and as she left her visage seemed to say, “How can I ever forget?”

The second–a bubble gum-smacking teenager–represented the polar opposite extreme. She was as casual about her impending abortion as the first woman was devastated by the abortion she now bitterly regretted. But it was the third woman whose attitude nearly struck him dumb.

Laboratory tests had confirmed her pregnancy. In response, she told Powell that she had even stopped smoking and drinking; those “can affect the baby,” she remarked. Then in the next breath, she offhandedly remarks, “But I have an appointment to kill this baby next Thursday morning.”

While rocked back on his heels, Powell didn’t blame her for her wildly inconsistent statements. This new ethic of “utility and convenience” was in the very air she breathed, air remarkably like that which permeated Nazi-era Germany.

In vivid, memorable colors “Abortion: The Silent Holocaust” paints the contest between the Sanctity of Life Ethic and the New Utilitarian Quality-of-Life Ethic. For those who have not delved into the history of the decade immediately after Roe, the book can be very heavy going.

Powell reviews the repulsive train of stories that surfaced about ghastly fetal experimentations and hideous late-term abortions and the grotesque neglect of babies unfortunate enough to be born imperfect. All this followed Roe like train cars hooked onto a train engine.

As well as any book could, “Abortion: The Silent Holocaust” also demonstrates that pro- abortionists–let alone abortionists themselves –really do know the unborn is one of us.

I first read the book about 15 years ago and I still remember the abortionist Powell quotes, the one who fantasizes during every abortion about “the fetus hanging onto the walls of the uterus with tiny fingernails, resisting the abortion with all its strength.” But his conscience ultimately comes in a distant second to his pocketbook.

“I don’t get paid for my feelings,” he told a writer for the New York Times Magazine. “I get paid for my skills.”

Powell brilliantly explores the meaning of suffering and the need for mountains in our lives which we do not wish to climb. He does so through a loving remembrance of the time he spent with his mother during her last 10 bedridden years.

During those many hours of conversation, characterized by “complete openness,” Powell was “introduced to parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.” He adds, “If I had to pick out the most humanizing, maturing, and life-transforming days of my life,” they would include his mother’s last 24 hours.

“What a terrible and personal loss I would have suffered,” he writes, “if she had been ‘put out of her misery’ because the supposedly meaningful and productive days of her life were over.”

Let me close with remarks from the late attorney Victor Rosenblum which Powell paraphrases. They summarize as well anything what animates pro-lifers not just then but today.

Rosenblum was asked at a hearing, if he would allow for an abortion if prenatal tests revealed that a baby would be born with “retardation.” (The questioner did not know that Rosenblum had such a special child and loved him very much.)

His response was, “Oh, no, no, no,” to which he added,

“Do you believe in love? I don’t mean simple lip service to love. I am talking about life service. Do you really believe that we are here to love one another? If you do, then you don’t say, “I will love you because you have your mental faculties, and you because you are healthy, but not you because you have only one arm.” True love does not discriminate in this way.

“If we really believe in love, and find that a baby will be born having no arms, we would say, “Baby, we are going to love you. We will make arms for you. We have many new skills now for doing this. And, Baby, if these arms don’t work, we will be your arms. We will take care of you. You can be sure of that. You are one of us, a member of our human family, and we will always love you.”