David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).
Two elderly priests I know have offered complementary insights into our current cultural crisis: “Social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering,” and “Those who win the language wars win the culture wars.” Language carefully hones, shapes—or distorts—our culture. And, since language is our medium for comprehension, our use of language directly impacts our ability to know the truth.
Today abortion supporters are using language in unprecedented ways that sickens our culture with ever new doses of moral relativism.
Linguistic gymnastics have long been used to disguise the gruesome reality of abortion. In the early years after Roe v. Wade, abortion supporters embraced the term “pro-choice” as an enticing euphemism: “pro” is positive sounding, and everyone likes choice. Yet this term failed to move public opinion on the morality and on the legality of abortion.
Hence, as the decades passed and the culture wars evolved, abortion supporters sought new terminology to bolster their social engineering project. “Pro-choice” slipped out of usage and “abortion rights” took its place. Rights are fundamental to our being and to our nation, as we find in our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Surely this linguistic cocktail would tip the scales.
It did not. It still carried that one word in touch with reality—abortion—which some people still abhor. So the language again shifted, to “reproductive rights” and “reproductive freedom.” But “reproductive” is not a strong buzz word, so abortion supporters created the misleading phrase of “women’s health.” This was a shrewd move, since it concealed abortion in the penumbras of women’s rights and of health care. No reasonable person would oppose women’s rights, and surely all people deserve healthcare.
As evidence of these shifts, consider the naming odyssey of the country’s oldest abortion advocacy organization: what was once the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws rebranded itself as the National Abortion Rights Action League; it renamed itself again as National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League before settling on its current appellation: NARAL Pro-Choice America, where the opening acronym conceals the action it advocates.
It’s bad enough to play linguistic games with induced abortion, the deliberate destruction of an innocent child before she is able to draw her first breath. Recently abortion supporters have made a more insidious turn by playing linguistic games with the child inside the womb. This move, prompted by new state laws severely restricting abortion, has gone beyond the usual dehumanization of the child in the womb that has been going on for decades—the “it’s just a clump of cells” line—to the pulse of human life itself: the human heart.
The New York Times, doyen of abortion supporters, is a case in point: In drilling into state laws that prohibit abortion upon detection of the baby’s heartbeat, the Times appeals to “the experts” for help in manipulating what most would consider a straightforward phenomenon: the human heartbeat. “[I]t isn’t medically correct to call that pulsing a heartbeat. Rather, they say, it is the vibration or ‘embryonic cardiac activity’ of the fetal pole, a tubelike structure that will become the heart.” The Times’s wordsmiths kept up the attack just a few weeks later: “Louisiana lawmakers voted on Wednesday to ban the procedure after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’s heart can be detected.”
Beyond this the Times has taken aim at granting the child inside the womb legal protection from harm that children outside it have. In addition to its typical employment of scare tactics to induce an emotional response, the Times gave space to a psychotherapist who argued that what is in the womb is relative—it depends on the perception of the mother: “It by no means follows that I believe every pregnancy creates a ‘baby’ or indeed a legal person that needs protecting by law.”
“Baby” conveys age, but it is more a relational term—just like child, daughter, son, mother, father, sister, brother, and so on. “Baby” can even be used as a pet name for a spouse or significant other. “Fetus” is a medical term that connotes a stage of human growth, and it is used appropriately in conversations with doctors and researchers, or to mark distinctions in age, just as infant, toddler, adolescent, middle-aged, and elder. In times of mourning, for instance, we use the relational terms: “My daughter is in the hospital,” or “My brother passed away.” The Times psychotherapist argues that adopting relational terms depends on what we imagine the child in utero to be.
The Times and other abortion supporters specialize in using “fetus” in nearly all circumstances, especially when directly discussing abortion. No decent individual would ever kill a baby or any other innocent person. Therefore they seek first to dehumanize the person with language tricks to justify the dirty deed to themselves. “Aborting the fetus” sounds abstract and impersonal enough to convince them that they are not killing anyone.
In order to keep abortion legal and justified in all instances whatsoever, abortion supporters will continue to play language games that will slide us deeper down the bottomless hole of moral relativism. As our country slowly imbibes the notion that heartbeats are not signs of human life, that a baby is in the eye of the beholder, or that one’s status as a person depends on one’s location, then it becomes more difficult to uphold the dignity of human life “from womb to tomb,” since life is being undermined by linguistic gimmicks.
By chipping away at the essence of human beings, it makes it easier to dispose of any whom we deem inconvenient. We do not have to look too far into history to find other horrifying results that followed such campaigns of verbal dehumanization.
Defenders of life have reality on our side. Language connotes truth when it conforms to reality, a fact that makes the culture wars easier for us to win.