As we hit yet another anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on January 22, 1973, it might be good time to look back even farther, to 70 years ago when George Orwell wrote a trenchant essay on how language is misused and manipulated to, as he said, defend the indefensible. Calling his work “Politics and the English Language,” he probably could not anticipate how truly his words could be applied today.
By now, arguments from both sides of the abortion debate are familiar, but there’s one aspect rarely discussed: the way the pro-abortion side abuses and debases language to justify its position. I deliberately used the term pro-abortion, by the way, because the term pro-choice is their primary dodge.
One is hard-pressed to find a political philosophy more vacuous. No political system short of anarchy elevates personal choice to an ultimate good, yet the so-called pro-choicers would have us think it trumps every other consideration, whether scientific, medical, or moral. They know they can’t win the debate on any of those grounds, so they hide behind pleasant-sounding words.
Such wordplay is not without cost. Our language, Orwell noted, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Freedom to Choose—to Hurt Someone
Consider how true that is today. Abortion defenders defend choice but never want to talk about the specifics of what is being chosen. They’ll refer to the unborn child as “the product of conception” or “a blob of tissue.” What about the construction used by Kate Michelman, president of the NARAL Pro-Choice America, who referred to the end of abortion as “fetal demise”? During a partial-birth abortion, they don’t suck out the baby’s brains; they “evacuate the intracranial contents.”
For that matter, partial-birth abortion is a perfectly descriptive term they run from like scalded cats. Yes, they’ll point out there is no such medical procedure. It’s really “intact dilation and extraction.” There’s no such technical medical term as heart attack, either, but that doesn’t stop people, including doctors, from using the perfectly descriptive term in everyday language. Mike Tyson certainly induced his share of epistaxis, but I don’t recall any sports writers putting it quite that way.
This is one reason the undercover videos by The Center for Medical Progress shocked so many. We are not accustomed to hearing abortion professionals speak so bluntly about crushing and cutting and actual human organs. We’re used to the smooth euphemisms they hide behind when they know they’re being watched. They hide behind a clot of turgid terminology to avoid the truth. As Orwell wrote:
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all details. . . . When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
The Words We Hide Behind
This is not merely a case of a language snob sniffing at words he doesn’t like. This misuse of language eventually leads to a loss of truth. J. Budziszewski, a political philosopher at the University of Texas, wrote in “The Revenge of Conscience”:
As any sin passes through its stages from temptation, to toleration, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten. A colleague tells me that some of his fellow scholars call child molestation ‘intergenerational intimacy’: that’s euphemism. A good-hearted editor tried to talk me out of using the term ‘sodomy’: that’s avoidance. My students don’t know the word ‘fornication’ at all: that’s forgetfulness.
Let’s look at the word euphemism. It’s been described as a verbal fig leaf. The metaphor comes from the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who, after sinning, instinctively hid their shame and nakedness with these leaves. God confronted them and asked, “Who told you that you were naked?”
Who indeed? Why do abortion defenders instinctively hide behind verbal fig leaves? What inner voice tells them that what they defend is shameful? How do they know they’re morally naked? That is the question they need to face.