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“Before World War II, Dr. Gisella Perl was a successful and renowned gynecologist in her Romanian town. In 1944, after the Nazis invaded, she was sent to Auschwitz. But becoming a prisoner did not mean that Perl ever stopped being a doctor. On the contrary, she was conscripted to work with Josef Mengele, who determined which incoming prisoners would be immediately murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival to Auschwitz, who would be sent to hard, fruitless labor, and who would join his vicious “medical research” and be subjected to his “experiments.” Dr. Mengele tortured his victims, including children and pregnant women, with freezing baths, chemical injections, starvation, and unimaginably violent deaths.
But rather than join Mengele in his butchery, Perl saved the lives of hundreds of pregnant women, defying orders to report them to Mengele. In doing so, she was protecting a uniquely vulnerable population: During the Holocaust, pregnant women were sent to gas chambers upon arrival at concentration camps. Rape and sexual coercion were common in concentration camps and when women became pregnant they were desperate to survive and escape detection. To help them, Perl began secretly performing abortions in extraordinarily difficult conditions, with no anesthesia, no bandages, and no instruments, using her bare hands. Perl had only her words to comfort her patients telling them stories of a beautiful future where they could sing and celebrate holidays together. She defied her orders and risked her life to save hundreds of women’s lives.
All of which makes the use of the Holocaust by pro-life anti-abortion groups particularly grotesque.
American women are facing an assault on our right to choose and on our reproductive health. Several states including Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama have passed legislation to ban abortions, jail women and doctors, and even charge women with second-degree murder for miscarriages. These laws are designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, and given the court’s current balance, it is far from assured that Roe will be upheld if challenged again.
While American Jewish women face attacks on our freedom and rising anti-Semitism, abortion opponents are appropriating Jewish history in order to push an agenda that hurts women. The pro-life anti-abortion movement has been appropriating the Holocaust since the 1970s, with leaders such as Right to Life founder and President Dr. J.C. Willke, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and Ronald Reagan using Holocaust imagery to promote and justify their views on abortion throughout the 1980s. Koop even once wrote that “legalized abortion was the beginning of a ‘slide to Auschwitz.’” The Christian anti-abortion group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust centers its mission on pushing this trope and has even protested outside a Holocaust museum demanding that they create an anti-abortion exhibit. This group posits that anyone who was born after 1972 is a survivor of the “abortion holocaust”—belittling the horror that Holocaust survivors experienced and their trauma.”
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