Last weekend Pope Francis set aside his notes during a talk to an Italian family association and spoke from the heart about abortion. Perhaps he had been stung by suggestions that he should have intervened in last month’s referendum in Ireland and this month’s abortion debate in his homeland, Argentina. But whatever the reason, he spoke out last Saturday in the strongest terms since his election, comparing the abortion of children with disabilities to Nazi efforts to “improve” German stock. “Last century, the whole world was scandalised by what the Nazis did to purify the race,” he said. “Today, we do the same thing but with white gloves.”

His comments were picked up by newspapers across the world. Not, it must be said, because of his denunciation of abortion, but because of his reference to Nazism. He is not, however, the first pope to invoke the Third Reich when presenting the pro-life case. As early as 1951, Pope Pius XII argued that those who sought the destruction of what they considered “life without value” had the same mindset as the Nazis who eliminated those with “some physical or mental defect”. And in a letter to an American cardinal in 1997, Pope John Paul II described abortion as a “continuing holocaust of innocent human lives”.

The media reaction to Pope Francis’s comments showed that linking abortion to Nazism still has shock value. Yet this may be diminishing as the Holocaust passes from living memory. Also, the so-called reductio ad Hitlerum – however valid – is nowadays regarded as a sign of desperation.

Pope Francis did not simply equate present-day practices with Nazism. Rather, he said that society tolerated a “white glove” version of eugenics. This was an intriguing phrase, suggesting both aristocratic fastidiousness and clinical coldness.

Perhaps Francis was thinking of countries such as Iceland where people with Down’s syndrome have been almost eliminated via pre-natal testing. Or maybe he had in mind England, where eugenics flourished in the 19th century and where today abortion of disabled children is permitted up to birth. Regardless, the Pope’s words are likely to rattle consciences which, even after decades of legal abortion, remain uneasy. He has identified an unresolved tension in Western societies between the conviction that all human beings are equally valuable and an emphasis on physical perfection. Pursuing the latter, through ever more accurate pre-natal tests, undermines the former.

Even if the Church were able to persuade society that abortion on the grounds of disability was morally wrong, much work would remain. Such abortions only account for a small number of the 194,668 terminations that took place in England and Wales in 2017. According to Government records, 3,158 of those were “due to the risk that the child would be born seriously handicapped”.

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