When Nikolas T. Nikas first entered the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland, something did not compute.
The Phoenix attorney knew from his reading of history that 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, had been exterminated in the gas chambers there during WWII, but the warehouse of death, as chilling and silent as it was, seemed too small to have accommodated genocide on such a massive scale.
“Going to Auschwitz is like walking around hell, even on the most beautiful day,” Nikas said. “But you look at it and it’s a small camp. How could 1.1 million people be murdered there? It just seems too small – and it is too small, until you go a half-mile away, because it’s not just Auschwitz. The camp is called Auschwitz-Birkenau. And when you go to Birkenau, you see square miles of industrial murder.”
The pro-life attorney who in 2005 founded the Bioethics Defense Fund (BDF) with local attorney Dorinda Bordlee said the experience shook him to the core, an experience the two share regularly with the most skeptical audiences possible – young medical students and lawyers-in-training at the most prestigious medical and law schools in the United States.
The BDF is a nonprofit, public interest, pro-life law firm that advances strategies supporting the cause of life, and Nikas and Bordlee accomplish part of their mission by appealing logically and intellectually to the young adults who will be the future Supreme Court justices, U.S. senators and elite medical specialists in America – people to whom arguments based on religion or Scripture often are hollow and unconvincing.
Instead, Nikas appeals to the natural law.
“Everyone as a human being shares the same human nature,” Nikas said. “Even if they don’t accept the same religious principles or moral principles, as human beings, there are certain things they can’t not know, because we all share a conscience, we all share our participation in the natural law. We can plant a seed that they’ve never heard.”
It would be less effective, especially in attempting to persuade an audience of young intellectuals to think about something in a new way, to initiate the pro-life argument by appealing to St. John Paul II or “faith and reason when faith is really suspect,” he said.
“If I said, ‘St. John Paul II said in “Evangelium Vitae”…’ well then, you know, 99 percent of their faces are going to go in the computer, Facebook, leave, whatever,” Nikas said. “If I say, ‘Scripture says…’ they’re going to leave.”
Nikas begins by talking about something the students do know – Venn diagrams – which are circles that visually depict where common principles intersect. The BDF, Nikas said, works at the intersection of three circles: law; morality and ethics; and science and medicine.
Then, he tells the story of his Auschwitz experience.
“I say, ‘Look, I’m bringing up Auschwitz not because I think people who do cloning are Nazis – I’m not making that argument – but I’m bringing it up because it says something about the nature of law. At the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II, the victorious allies tried the Nazi judges – that is, the Nazi lawyers – the Nazi doctors and the Nazi officers for crimes against humanity.
“And, you know what the defense was at Auschwitz – we were only following orders. Another way of saying that is that we were only following the law of the Third Reich. They did say at Nuremberg, not only did the law not prohibit us from doing it, in some sense it commanded us to do it. So, if we were following the law of our country, how can you prosecute us?”
Nikas said even a person without an Ivy League law degree would have to understand the following scenario: If yesterday, a person walked into someone’s house and sat in a particular chair and then the state passed a law today saying that such action was a Class 5 felony, “that would be fundamentally unfair. How can you make it a crime after the fact? It was not a crime when I did it. That’s just a sense of fundamental justice.”
“But, wait a minute – that’s exactly what we did at Nuremberg. It wasn’t a crime when the Nazis did it under their law, and now we’re saying we’re holding you to a different standard. Isn’t that ex post facto? Isn’t that unjust?
“I know from doing this hundreds of times that no one thinks what the Nazis did was right or correct. So, I make the point that either Nuremberg was the greatest act of injustice, trying somebody for something that wasn’t a crime, or there’s a higher law that every single human being on the face of the earth who’s ever lived – a thousand years in the past, a thousand years in the future, no matter where that person has lived in time or space – shares the same human nature, and there are certain things you know.
“I tell the law students all the time, even a thief doesn’t like to be stolen from. You could be a Mafia hit man and murder with impunity, but if someone murders your wife, you react like every other person in the history of the world would react. You know it’s wrong. And that’s what Nuremberg stands for – that there is a higher law, the law that’s written on your heart, that says you can’t take a little girl because she’s Jewish and gas her to death and burn her body. You have to know that, no matter what the positive, written, enacted law says.
“This gives us great hope in the abortion debate – because once you say that and everyone’s head is shaking and no one’s saying what the Nazis did was good – you can say it without saying it. Well, how about abortion? How about these other things that are wrong? Even though the positive law allows it – the law of the Supreme Court, the statutes of what we all think of as law – there’s a higher law.”
Nikas also addresses the evil of slavery and how it was legally protected for generations, and he examines the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
“That’s how you bring people along who have never heard these arguments,” Nikas said. “And you say nothing about religious arguments. I will tell you, it’s very powerful to make these arguments.”
Nikas said the payoff comes after he stops talking.
“I had one medical student come up to me and say, ‘I’m not sure I agree with you on your position against the legalization of abortion, but you’ve now convinced me that what’s at stake is a human being,” Nikas said.
Catholics can appreciate the sacred intersection of another Venn diagram: St. John Paul II was archbishop of Krakow, about 90 minutes away from Auschwitz.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.