Appeared in Vol. XI, No. 3, 4 Download PDF here
A large number of contemporary words have been disassociated from the reality and truth they were meant to convey. Language serves as a mediator between the mind of man and the “extra-mental” world. to misuse words is to destroy that vital link with the truth. It frustrates the function of the word which is to communicate reality. this is a major problem in the contemporary debate over abortion. In this thought provoking article, Dr. DeMarco studies the rhetoric of the debate and demon- strates how the divorcing of words from the truth they were intended to convey promotes a pro-abortion ideology since it implicitly denies a world of objective values.
Words (Les mots) is the title of Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography. It could just as well be the countersignature of our present age. Just as Sartre’s “words” present an image of alienation from the flesh and blood existence of their author, so too, much of the verbiage that floods our civilized landscape exists without bearing any discernible connection with the substantial world it is meant to signify. Words have lost their link with the world. They have become little more than momentary stimulants for the unthinking masses whose apparent need for stimulation is limitless. Words are processed, circulated, consumed, absorbed, and then forgotten-a pattern whose endless repetition is best typified by the daily press and commercial advertising. Words influence, but fail to nourish; they arouse but do not enlighten.
Thus, when a major moral controversy arises, such as abortion, a numbing war between words prevents any discussion concerning which view is more moral or realistic. A formidable impasse has existed for sometime now precisely because words no longer direct us toward a common reality or a common moral vision, but lock us in a futile verbal struggle which prohibits understanding and perpetuates division.
On one side of the abortion issue is the organization that identifies itself as “pro-life.” This identification label rankles the opposition for two fundamental reasons: 1) because it insinuates that the opposition is not fully sensitive to the value of life, an insinuation the opposition vehemently rejects; 2) because it suggests that “pro-lifers” are in full support of all life, an unconvincing claim in the light of what is perceived to be their less than pure attitudes on issues involving war, capital punishment, and the rights of animals.
The “pro-life” group identifies the opposition as “pro-abortion,” a label which the opposition also rejects, maintaining that it does not promote abortion in individual cases, but merely its availability. Once the availability [ abortion is secured, individual women are then free to choose abortion for themselves.
Those labelled as “pro-abortionists” are understandably emphatic in identifying their position as “pro-choice,” and strongly disavow the “prolife” charge that they are “anti-life.” “Pro-choice” advocates take pride in their rhetoric of choice, for it conveys a liberal frame of mind which is neither dogmatic nor judgmental, and suggests a compassionate and humanitarian disposition that is fully accepting of the pregnant woman and whatever choice she makes concerning her pregnancy. Moreover, it allows them to intensify their negative portrayal of their opposition from “antiabortion” (a source of annoyance to the opposition which prefers to be viewed by the more positive sounding expression, “pro-life”) to “antichoice” which carries the rhetorically strategic implications of being anti-freedom and virtually anti-human.
Both sides have adopted a rhetoric that casts themselves as being in favor of something good and their opposition as being against something good. This verbal stand-off is confusing to people who are not committed to either side. Such a stalemate, however, plays into the hands of the “pro-choice” allegiance, for, if it is impossible to determine which side has the superior moral vision, the only fair thing to do seems to be to allow women to choose for themselves. When there is genuine doubt in a moral issue, moralizing or legislating takes on the appearance of authoritarianism. If it cannot be decided what is moral, then it must be moral not to decide. This victory by default for the “pro-choice” side effectively makes irrelevant any discussion of real issues such as the nature of the unborn, the physical and psychological sequelae to induced abortion, the trivialization of sex and procreation, and the effect abortion has on the integrity of the family.
A purely rhetorical debate, which does not get beyond words, is a victory for “pro-choice” because “pro-choice” seems more neutral than either “pro-” or “anti-abortion.” But a “pro-choice” position is not really neutral. As a matter of fact, it is decidedly inclined toward abortion. Whenever a pregnant woman makes her “conscientious” choice, which is also said to be “anguished” or “agonizing,” it is invariably for abortion. Although “prochoice” rhetoric logically implies that a woman’s conscience or her anguished or agonizing choice is equally disposed toward birth as well as abortion-the myth of neutrality- in actual practice it is not. Andre Hellegers makes the point that “any such `agonizing decision’ which results so consistently in the death of the fetus should not be described as an `agonizing choice’.”1 And Joseph Sobran asks the question that he says “never gets answered”: “Why it should be the decision to kill the child, rather than the decision to let it live, that is represented as the triumph of conscience?”2 The answer, of course, is that “pro-choice” is a rhetorical ploy that covers the reality of “pro-abortion.” And this is precisely why “pro-choice” advocates want to keep the discussion away from reality and permanently on the level of verbal rhetoric.
By insisting that the discussion remain on a purely verbal plane, “prochoice” enthusiasts adopt the curious position that reality actually interferes with moral decision-making. Their belief that a position of “moral neutrality” is really morally neutral and does not affect their decision betrays an ignorance of the most fundamental law of the cosmos, namely, that nothing stands still. Existence abhors neutrality more firmly than nature abhors a vacuum. A log in the water is carried downstream. Untreated silver tarnishes, unprotected iron rusts. Muscles that are not exercised, atrophy. Moral indifference is not a virtue but a vice. Indecision and ignorance are liabilities. Nowhere in the physical world or in the moral sphere are there any points of neutrality. Everything is either developing or decaying; nothing is at rest. In the absence of a positive effort there is a negative slide. The Law of Entropy describes a cosmic fact and offers a parable by which we gain insight into the dynamics of our own moral condition. Without grace, gravity reigns. If one takes a neutral stand on the abortion issue, he becomes-by force of gravity-drawn toward abortion. That is the reality of it. And as long as words are kept disconnected from reality, this fundamental axiom which describes the inherent dynamism of all things, remains ignored.
Physicians have called attention to the fact that showing a pregnant woman the image of her fetus on an ultrasound screen, even before quickening, can help complete the bonding process between that mother and her child, and influence her against abortion.3 In such cases, the real image of the fetus is like grace acting against the gravity toward abortion that sets in when such forms of grace are withheld. Nonetheless, the question has arisen as to whether ultrasound viewing would give an unfair advantage to those who represented the interests of the fetus. Ultrasound would seem an unfair maneuver since it violates a context of “neutrality.” As doctors have reasoned: “Ultrasound examination may thus result in fewer abortions and more desired pregnancies.”4 The truth of the matter, of course, is that ultrasound provides what words should ordinarily provide, that is, an insight into reality. And the more one knows about the reality of the issue, the better able he is to make the right decision. Reality does not interfere with moral decision-making, it is merely indispensable if the moral decision is going to be a wise one. The criticism that ultrasound is unfair because it violates neutrality is made by those who try to conceal their pro-abortion bias under a camouflage of “pro-choice” neutrality, realizing that if all positive realities are withheld, abortion will eventuate just as surely as the release of one’s supporting grip will cause a ball to drop to the ground. By keeping the abortion debate on a verbal leel and thereby excluding the pertinent realities, “pro-choice” rhetoric-under the guise of neutrality-effectively promotes abortion.
But abortion is more than a verbal issue that is to be fought the way sales wars are waged between competing brands of soft drinks and laundry detergents. Abortion is a real issue, involving flesh and blood people and far reaching consequences. Tradition knew this well and its prohibitions and restrictions of abortion reflected a stubborn realism. “Pro-life” people evidence their sensitivity to this tradition in their fondness of citing Edmund Burke’s remark that in order for evil to triumph all that is necessary is that good people do nothing.
The “pro-choice” insistence on severing rhetoric from realism reveals the inherent weakness in its position, but it also reveals culture’s woeful lack of respect for the real, truth-communicating function of the word. And the “pro-choice” movement is taking full advantage of this lamentable state the word has reached. Words fulfill their proper function when they are subordinated to and measured by the things they name. “All education,” writes Richard Weaver, “is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals.5 When words are no longer measured by the truth of things, they become instruments of deception. “The rectification of names,” said Confucius, is perhaps the main business of government: “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”6 The sentiment is by no means uncommon and we find it echoed throughout Western history from Heraclitus to Hammarskjold. Heraclitus, anticipating John the Evangelist’s lofty use of the Word, stated: “One ought to follow the lead of that which is common to all men. But although the Word logos is common to all, yet most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own.”7 And Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, remarked:
Respect for the word is the first commandment in the discipline by which a man can be educated to maturity-intellectual, emotional, and moral.
Respect for the word-to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth-is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.
To misuse the word is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells. It causes Man to regress down the long path of his evolution.8
For Hammarskjold, words, when properly employed, represent avenues to grace; when they are misused, they serve the cause of gravity. The first responsibility of the writer involves an uncompromisable integrity in his use of words, an insistence that there must always be a fidelity between the word and the reality it signifies. This is why Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who knows a great deal about the misuse of the word in the hands of a totalitarian regime, says that he studies the words in his Russian dictionary “as if they were precious stones, each so precious that I would not exchange one for an other.”
The function of the word is to mediate the world. Language is a bridge that connects the mind of man with the extra-mental world that lies beyond words. The fact that man does not always use his words in a way that is commensurate with what they signify is only too evident. Blasphemy is a case in point. As Chesterton has remarked:
Blasphemy is not wild; blasphemy is in its nature prosaic. It consists in regarding in a commonplace manner something which other and happier people regard in a rapturous and imaginative manner.9
Blasphemy is a lie inasmuch as it speaks of grace in terms of gravity. The public may have come to associate blasphemy with excitement, but that is because they have lost their sense of proportion between the word and the reality it represents. “Our words have wings,” George Eliot reminds us,”But fly not where they would.” Chesterton’s intention in asserting that blasphemy is not wild-when everyone knows it is-is to startle people in the hope that they might rectify their use of words and better align whem with reality.
The ideologue offers another example of trying to give the word more importance than the reality it is supposed to mediate. His aim is to substitute the word for the world and his strategy is an expression of faith in verbal magic: “I want the world to be a different way than it is. I will insist that people speak as if it is that way-this will bring it about.” For the ideologue, the word does not mediate the created world; rather, the world is created by the word.
When the late Dr. Alan Guttmacher, former president of the American Planned Parenthood Association, was involved in preparing a series of television programs on physical and mental health for teenagers, he urged that in at least sixteen of these programs the word abortion be employed in such a way as to “detoxify the viewing audiences from cultural shock at the word.10
Similarly, a moral theologian once complained that “adultery” is a “negative” word that should be replaced by the more positive sounding “flexible monogamy” in order to invest marital infidelity with a more positive reality. Man’s belief in the magical properties of words notwithstanding, Limberger has the same disagreeable odor no matter what appellation it receives.
DISRESPECT FOR THE WORD
In general, the dissociation of the word from the world follows a diversified pattern. Of particular interest among these forms of dissociation include the following: 1) Deification, 2) Devaluation, 3) Devitalization, 4) Deterioration, 5) Deception, and 6) Doublethink. In each of these forms there is a failure of the word to unite the mind with the truth. To the extent that these forms are prevalent in culture, a fruitful debate on abortion, or any other moral issue, becomes increasingly unlikely. Fruitful debate presupposes a link between word and world.
The story is told of a woman from Siam who decided to abort when she learned that she was carrying twins; she could not face the prospect of giving birth to Siamese twins. The woman, needless to say, was reacting to the word rather than the reality. Another story centers around a Canadian farmer who lived close to the American border. When authorities surveyed his property for legal purposes, they discovered that the actual site of the farm was in the United States. Upon learning this, the farmer was greatly relieved, commenting that he didn’t think he could take another one of those Canadian winters! The winters, naturally, would be no different because of the change in the word which describes their geographical location. Nonetheless, as the word becomes mightier than the reality it signifies, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. A television weatherman solemnly predicts “rain tonight in some official areas.”11 An anxious mother decides to bed her infant in a play-pen in order to avert “crib death.” A youngster stitches a Levi label on his Brand-X jeans so that he can be accepted by his peers.
The folly of mistaking words for things, of abandoning the world for the word is perfectly exemplified in commercial advertising, an enterprise whose annual budget in the United States alone is estimated at fifty billion dollars. Advertising can be, as George Orwell has remarked, “the rattling of a stick inside the swill bucket,” but the rattling itself is often hypnotic. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” is a sacrosanct first principle in the advertising industry. When admen identify a certain shade of lipstick as “Pizzicato Pink,” they are banking on verbal magic to sell their product. “Pizzicato” has nothing to do with the plucking of string instruments; it is exotica, pizzazz, intoxication, romance, sensuousness, frivolity, and pseudo-elegance. Likewise, “Apricot Shimmer” is not a lipstick color but the lushness of tropical fruit or surrender to sexual passion. Advertising uses words not to convey meanings but to create illusions.
The philosopher Usener, alluding to the capacity words have to overwhelm people, speaks of them as “momentary deities.” Literary critic George Steiner has pointed out in his book, Extraterritorial, that eleventh century theologian Peter Damian believed man fell into paganism through a grammatical flaw: Because heathen speech has a plural for the word `deity,’ wretched humankind came to conceive of many gods.” The very existence of the “deities,” for Peter Damian, was enough to convince people that it must denote a reality. Words can be as large, if not larger, than reality itself. The United States government plays on the assumption that the word itself is the reality when it recruits comic strip character Snoopy to exort the public to “savEnergy.”12 By allying the two words together, an entire “e” is saved. Presumably, we can savEven morEnergy if we bind more words together.
The modern writer who is perhaps best identified with dissociating words from the world in order to make them into “deities” unto themselves, is Gertrude Stein. A brief excerpt from her book, Tender Buttons, is sufficient to illustrate the point:
The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.
Stein uses words not as windows that open to the world, but as walls that exclude the outer landscape. Her experiment in separating words from the world strips words of meaning and leaves her reader with a profound sense of alienation-between author and language, language and reality, author and reader. Stein’s deified language decomposes into a loose assortment of atomic units-reminiscent of the cubism of her close friend, Picasso-that no longer has the capacity to convey an integrated meaning.
“Pro-choice” rhetoric continues this modern penchant for deifying words and abandoning reality. “Pro-choice” is like “Pizzicato Pink”; it sounds good. And there it rests its case. In addition, it is consistent with the modern process of fragmentation which reduces organic structures to collections of discontinuous bits and pieces. In the world of abortion, society reduces to a collection of private and isolated individuals.
It is fatal in art as well as in thinking to abandon the world for the word; but it can also be fatal in life. Some “pro-choice” supporters have proposed the deification of words as a “possible solution to the abortion situation.” This “solution” consists in subsituting the letters “MR” (for “menstrual regulation”) for the more problematic word “abortion.” Professor Luke Lee and John Paxman write: “MR can be performed with or without confirmation of pregnancy, an important difference between MR and conventional abortion… .For many women, not knowing whether amenorrhea is a result of conception may be of great psychological value.”13 The reality of abortion can be conveniently obscured by calling it MR. But the fact remains that a blanket of words is not an adequate protection against the force of reality. Words should reflect reality. If they are to have psychological value, that value should be grounded in the truth they convey. Psychological value uprooted from truth is fraudulent and, at best, can confer only temporary and superficial benefits. We are not just to people if we are concerned about their psychological comfort and nothing more. The deification of words makes the preposterous claim that the word is more important than the world and that ideology is more real than reality.
The deification of words elevates them to a greater importance than reality itself. The devaluation of words, on the other hand, reduces them to less importance than what they are naturally as conveyors of meaning. Nonetheless, the two processes are closely related. It is axiomatic that whenever something is elevated above its nature, it is, in the final analysis, degraded. For, in trying to make something fulfill a function for which it has no aptitude, one makes a mockery of it-like the horse who tried to sing like a nightingale and lost its ability to whinny like a horse. People invariably lose faith in what appears ridiculous. Hence, the deification of words leads to their devaluation.
The facile use of superlatives to advertise mediocre commercial products, illustrates the point. Not only does such a practice empty the language of words to express true excellence, but it devalues the superlative. If all movies are “great,” the word “great” loses its credibility, becomes devalued, and finally means nothing. If every experience is “fantastic,” the word soon becomes bankrupt.
News reporting is often as irresponsible as commercial advertising in its use of words. A few years ago, in 1979, the media created a sensation out of a malfunction that occurred at a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. No one was killed and public-health damage, if any, was unmeasured. The New York Post, however, ran banner headlines on its front page: one day it was, NUKE LEAK GOES OUT OF CONTROL; the next day, RACE WITH NUCLEAR DISASTER.14 Even after the hydrogen bubble began to dissolve, one network referred to the incident at Three Mile Island as a “calamity,” a description which prompted George Will to ask the man Edwin Newman to quip that couples may soon be marrying each other “for better or for worse, in sickness and in wellness, until negative patient care outcome do us part.”
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher…” But in one new translation the words become, “A vapor of vapors! Thinnest of vapors! All is vapor!”moving one critic to decry the “turning of the most passionate cry in the literature of nihilism into a spiritual weather report.”18
In order to devitalize the word “recession,” the United States government, according to William Safire, has experimented with more tepid alternatives such as “a mild downturn” and a “soft landing.”
The poet, on the other hand, being more attuned to the pulse of truth and tragedy, assumes the important task of preserving language’s vitality. In his hands, words evoke a presence, make their subject live in the listener’s imagination. His contribution in restoring life to language becomes all the more urgent as the subordination of words to various political and practical needs continues to erode their power. American poet Robert Penn Warren sees the poet as a sublime gadfly, an ever-vigilant ombudsman who keeps what Santayana called “the prestige of the infinite,” the boast of technology, from overshadowing the prestige of the intimate, which is the business of poetry.”19
In the abortion discussion, however, “pro-choice” defenders regard the neutralization of language as an ideal. A child that is developing in its mother’s womb, therefore, becomes a “fetus,” or a “product of conception,” or simply a “conceptus.” Even Bernard Nathanson, now an apologist for the right to life of the unborn, prefers the word “alpha,” in the interest of what he calls “neutralizing the discussion.” In addition, “life” becomes “potential life,” and abortion becomes the “termination of pregnancy” (which is also what birth is) or the “interruption of pregnancy” (as if the pregnancy were to be resumed after a brief pause). “VIP” is a canonized code word for “Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy.”
When words are devitalized, bled of their life substance, their power to elicit an awareness of the value they signify weakens. The neutralization of words in the abortion debate, therefore, is a capitulation to the “pro-choice” position. For words that no longer convey objective values present the image of a world without values that can be altered according to one’s own values. A neutral discussion is tantamount to an inducement to interpose one’s own values. M.J. Sobran writes:
To say that a woman is “with child” is to affirm that what she carries in her womb is a member of the human family, akin to all of us: it is to speak not with the forceps of analysis, but with the embrace of metaphor. But to call the child a “fetus” is to pickle it in a kind of rhetorical formaldehyde, and to accept the burden of proving what cannot be proved by empirical methodology: that the pickled thing had a right to live.20
A dead language cannot evoke live values. Words ought not to be devitalized-in the interest of fairness-because reality itself is vitalized. Martin Heidegger spoke repeatedly of language as “the house of Being.” We cannot get to Being, to the reality of things, through a language whose relationship with Being has been dissolved. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein alluded to the same dilemma when he remarked that “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
The word “life” itself loses at least some of its objective meaning in a mental climate which accepts that it is a popular soft-drink which “adds life,”21 or makes one “come alive.” And what tragic implication can the word “murder” have for Magda Denes who says that “Abortion is murder of a most necessary sort?”22 If there is more “life” in a soft drink than in a developing fetus, and if murder is “a necessity” whereas protection for the unborn is a “violation of a woman’s rights,” it is only because words have undergone a process of devitalization whereby they have lost their capacity to direct the mind to a world of objective values that transcend one’s arbitrary will or private dispositions, a truth Shakespeare expressed when he stated that “Value dwells not in particular will.”23
Since there is nothing neutral in reality, neutrality should not be an ideal when it comes to using language in order to discuss real moral values. There can be no poetry that defends or celebrates abortion because poetry, in respecting the vitality of words, unites us with the vitality inherent in existing things. To treat something which is vital as if it were neutral is to relinquish care for it and allow it to be overtaken by the force of gravity-a neutral language must ultimately become a dead language. And a dead language cannot inspire moral action.
“Stix Hix Nix Pix” is a famous newspaper headline and a prime example of newspaper-speak. Translated into “normal” English it means that the citizens of a certain rural community have rejected a particular motion picture. This unorthodox and even unnatural use of language illustrates the extent to which newspapers are prepared to go in order to accommodate themselves to space limitations and the need to catch the reader’s eye. In this regard, a newspaper has something in common with the wild proliferation of commercial signs customarily found in a city’s shopping district-both truncate and glamorize language for the purpose of competing more successfully for their readers’ attention. Traffic signs, product labels, thirtysecond commercials, billboards, sky-writing, T-shirts, and bumper stickers are a few more of many instances in which language must be severely altered in order to fit space, time, and attention needs. The binary language of the computer forces upon us its own dipolar rhythm: feed-back, in-put, out-put, leg-work, sit-in, etc.. Police prose offers an amusing Burlesque of administration jargon: “I apprehended the alleged perpetrator.” A United States handbook refers to a shovel as a “combat emplacement evacuator” and the CIA uses the expression “non-discernable micro-bio-innoculator” to describe a poison dart.
We are all familiar with political blather, bureaucratic gobbledygook, the surreal boobspeak of commercial advertising, the sludge of academic writing, sledgehammer slogans, medical officialese, and the yahoo erudition of Howard Cosell (“I am impressed by the continuity of his physical presence.”). These exemplify practices that contribute to the growing deterioration of words, rendering language dense and confusing, robbing it of its artistry and grace. Much of what passes for education, complains one educator, takes on the rhetorical form of “para-sense”24-verbal constructions that sound like sense but are devoid of sense as well as reference. “The English language is dying,” moans another educator, because it is not being taught.”25
In J.M.G. LeClezio’s novel The Flood, the anti-hero succumbs to the deluge of words he encounters in his daily life. Even while strolling down the street minding his own business, words assault him from every direction: instructions (Walk-Don’t Walk), threats (Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted), and newsstand alarms (Plane Crash at Tel Aviv). All words blur together and become a meaningless buzz in his ears. Finally, in self-defense he suffers what might be called semantic aphasia-a numbness to the meaning of words. His malady is symbolic of a cultural epidemic of semantic aphasia that results from a prolonged and ubiquitous deterioration of words.
Semantic aphasia may be best associated with the use of acronyms, word initials that do not even hint at what they conceal. At some abortion clinics, aborted fetuses are routinely called P.O.C.’s (standing for “products of conception”). In some hospitals, the term for patients believed to have no hope of recovery is “GORK,” the acronym for “God Only Really Knows.”26
Neuro-surgeon Harley Smyth decries the use of medical officialese to justify abortion, such as “therapeutic,” which treats no disease and cures no symptom or “reactive depression in pregnancy” which he says “must represent one of the most serious of all prostitutions of psychiatric diagnostic language.”27
One of the most inventive expressions of medical officialese is related to an abortion performed in 1981 at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital. In this case, an expectant mother was carrying twins, one of whom was diagnosed to have Down’s syndrome. Doctors offered her the unusual option of destroying the Down’s syndrome fetus in the womb by drawing out its blood through a needle. The prenatal procedure was performed and the mother delivered one healthy baby and one papery vestige of the fetus that had been.28 The expression coined to obscure the purpose of the procedure was “selective delivery of discordant twins,” an expression that omits reference to the selective killing, and fabricates a “discordant” relationship between twins who are merely different from each other.
The deterioration of words represents a linguistic counterpart to Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics-a Second Law of Verbal-dynamics according to which words drift downward toward a sea of incomprehension. The character in LeClezio’s novel is a victim of this downward drift and represents the predicament of many others who suffer from the same phenomenon.
“Pro-life” writers consistently complain about the deterioration of words and many ardently seek to restore them to a condition of grace. “Pro-choice” writers have a different complaint: not that words are deteriorating, but that “pro-life” people are trying to impose their own values on others. The “pro-life” position recognizes clearly that the values they uphold are not “their values,” but objective values that extend to all human beings. In order to make this point in a cogent and convincing way, however, demands a language that is healthy. At a certain point in the deterioration of words, it is no longer possible for language to communicate values that are universal and objective. At this stage, the only values that language can communicate are those of the individual. The deterioration of words, then, is necessary in order to allow the “pro-choice” position to survive as a cultural force, for a deteriorated language provides an effective barrier against all moral values that transcend those of the mere individual.
The processes of deification, devaluation, devitalization, and deterioration by which words are dissociated from their proper meanings facilitates deception. Although deception involves an intent to mislead, it is relatively easy to conceal such an intent when using words whose popular usage is already misleading. While “pro-life” writers and speakers are trying to restore language to health,their adversaries are taking advantage of the weakness of language in order to deceive the public even further. And because language is currently in so weakened a state, there seems to be no limit to the amount of deception that is possible.
American abortionist William Baird, in a documentary produced for closed circuit television and shown to thousands of college students, explains in reassuring tones to a young woman who is nine weeks pregnant how her “pre-fetus” will be removed and how she will feel strong enough by that evening to dine with her boyfriend.29 Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler complains to a news reporter that, “People who say the heart starts beating 18 days after conception are crazy. At ten weeks, the embryo still only weighs one ounce, so how could it have a fully formed heart’?”30 It is a matter of scientific fact that at four weeks the embryo’s skin is so transparent that one can observe blood pumping through its heart. At eight weeks the heartbeat is sufficiently strong and clear that it can be taped and played on an inexpensive cassette recorder. Can Baird, Morgentaler, and others be as ignorant about their career specialty as they claim?
The abortionist is sometimes called a “health care provider” and the clinic where he works is a “health care facility.” Such appellations suggest that pregnancy is unhealthy when, in actuality, the pregnancy is merely undesired. Dr. Elizabeth Connell, president-elect of the Association of Planned Parenthood Physicians and associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation, told her audience at an APPP conference that “pregnancy is a kind of nasty communicable disease, too.”31 Her remark had been buttressed by the opening paper at the conference-prepared by three employees of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta-entitled, “Unwanted pregnancy: a sexually transmitted disease.” To blur the distinction between pregnancy and the intellectuals that eventually all people would speak directly from the larynx without thinking at all.
Orwellian doublethink has been a normal strategy for “pro-choice” rhetoricians since the earliest days of the debate when they sought to identify abortion with contraception. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has alluded to the terms “postconceptive contraception” and “postconceptive fertility control”-promulgated as synonyms for abortion-as “doublethink of the highest magnitude.”34 As abortion became more accepted in society, the attempt was made to identify infanticide with abortion. A physician and member of the University of Virginia Medical School, asserted three times in a brief article in The New York Times Magazine that parental refusal to allow a life-saving operation on a Down’s Syndrome baby is “a woman’s second chance to have an abortion.”35
Once the human fetus had been dehumanized through an assortment of “verbal abominations,”36 to use Gordon Zahn’s expression, “test tube” babies and fetal experimentation provided new reasons to re-humanize him. If a human being was conceived in a woman and subsequently aborted, even as late as the third trimester, it was described in a variety of ways ranging from “an inch of tissue” to “garbage.” But if a human being was conceived in a petri dish and spent no more than six days there, it metamorphosed into a human being-a “test tube” baby! The need for experimentation on human fetuses because knowledge so gained would have direct applicability to other human beings, also required the verbal re-humanization of the fetus. The subject that was and then was not human became human once again, perhaps outdoing doublethink with a new violation of thought and language-triplethink!
By using the word “doublethink,” Orwell’s characters were admitting that they were tampering with reality. But by a fresh act of doublethink, they could erase this recognition, the lie always being one step ahead of the truth. Although Orwell has aroused people to oppose doublethink in theory, he has not been nearly so successful in helping them to recognize it when it appears. Thus, many instances of doublethink, particularly in the case of “prochoice” rhetoric, go unnoticed while statements that are not contradictory are taken as prime examples of doublethink. From the file of a university language professor comes this presumed paragon of doublethink: “The U.S. navy has a warship, the Corpus Christi.” The name, however, was taken from the town in Texas and not from its Latin signification. In this instance, political ideology is one step behind the truth, the very verbal imprisonment which Orwell warned against. A similar victim to political myopia is a U.S. group called the Committee on Public Doublespeak of the National Council of the Teachers of English. Its annual Doublespeak award for 1983 went to President Reagan for his quote: “A vote against MX production today is a vote against arms reduction tomorrow.”37 The award could have been conferred posthumously to America’s first president who said: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving the peace.” Of course, Washington was merely echoing a maxim that is at least as old as the Roman Empire-Si vis pacem, para bellum.
Reagan is hardly guilty of authoring that year’s most perfect example of double-think. He was simply reiterating an ancient belief that an arms buildup can be a deterrent to war, and couching that belief in modem terminology. The belief may be paradoxical, but it is not illogical. Opponents may disagree on political or tactical grounds, but the remark, innocent as it is of logical or semantic contradiction, is no example at all of double-think, let alone the best example of its kind for the year.
The English Committee’s official Doublespeak Award for 1984 went again (as did its first award in 1974) to the U.S. state department, this time for its replacement of the word “killing” in its official reports on the status of human rights in countries around the world by the phrase “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life.” The state department, however, is merely clarifying the meaning of “killing” in a specific context by saying that it is unlawful or arbitrary (not all killing is unlawful or arbitrary). What results is a clarification, not a contradiction.
Consider a few other references to killing which were passed up by the Committee. The head of the crisis-intervention unit at Toronto East General Hospital has gone on record as saying that “If someone is confronted with certain knowledge that he or she is going to die a painful, undignified death through terminal illness (sic), then suicide can be a viable option.”38 Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler has argued that “abortion is necessary to protect the integrity of the family.” On a more recent occasion, he admonished Cardinal Carter for objecting to “the killing of innocents” by describing the Cardinal’s words as “the rhetoric of violence.”
Also, consider University of Alberta law professor Ellen Picard’s assertion that parents who interfere with their minor daughter’s (under the age of sixteen) attempt to obtain an abortion, would run the risk of being charged with “child neglect” and face the possibility of losing custody of the child to provincial child care authorities.
It may be impossible to imagine a better candidate for the 1984 doublethink award than the brain-child of Drs. Chervanak et al. which appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.39 In buttressing their “argument” for third trimester abortions, the doctors state: “Prenatal death does not constitute a harm, nor does the prenatal termination of the fetus’ life through induced abortion constitute an injury.” Could someone in any other field than medicine get away with such undiluted double-think? Imagine a scout carrying the following message back to his company: “We are happy to report that neither General Custer nor any of his men were either injured or harmed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Incidentally, they were all killed.”
When words are dissociated from the world and from truth in order to provide a neutral discussion, or to promote a particular ideology, or to further some private interest, genuine communication between opposing parties becomes impossible. In the abortion discussion, this communication stalemate represents an advantage to the “pro-choice” position and abortion, since failure to communicate a world of objective values leaves people unaided and without the inspiration that is needed to choose the more difficult path of protecting life. “Man is born broken,” writes the playwright Eugene O’Neill, “He lives by mending. The grace of life is glue.” Words are a mending grace, providing life with the possibility of higher levels of integration; but only when their connection with the world of truth and value is preserved.
The proper use of words is indispensable for the proper functioning of society, a truth well understood by the ancients. A Confucian maxim states with unarguable simplicity: “If language is incorrect, then what is said is not meant. If what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”
The use of words constitutes a moral action, and a person is as accountable for his words as he is for his deeds. The Bible offers stern warnings against the abuse and careless use of language, such as in Matthew 12:36: “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” Recalling his days as a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, a now chastened Malcolm Muggeridge confesses:
It is painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. I am more penitent for my false words-for the most part, mercifully lost for ever in the Media’s great slag-heaps-than for false deeds.40
The way we use words reveals our concern for truth as well as our concern for our fellow man. The abortion debate provides what appears to be an ideal opportunity-for anyone who can be objective about the matter-to assess which side of the debate is more faithful to these concerns. We cannot but be judged by our words, for they make all too clear, as much as do our actions, the kind of people we are.
1Andre Hellegers, “Abortion and Birth Control,” The Human Life Review, Winter, 1975, p. 22.
2 M.J. Sobran, “The Abortion Ethos,” The Human Life Review, Winter, 1977, p. 16.
3J.C. Fletcher, Ph.D. and M.I. Evans, M.D., “Maternal Bonding in Early Fetal Ultrasound Examination,” The New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 17, 1983, p.392.
5 Richard Weaver, “The Power of the Word,” Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 149.
6Quoted by Henry Fairlie in “The Language of Politics,” The Atlantic, January, 1975, p. 25.
7 Heraclitus, Fragment 2.
8 Dag Hammarsjold, Markings, tr. Leif Sjoberg and W.H. Auden (New York: Knopf, 1964), p. 112.
9G.K. Chesterton, William Blake (London: Duckworth, 1910), p. 178.
10 Quoted in Alliance for Life National Newsletter, Vol. 10, April, 1974, p. 4.
11Time, August 25, 1975, p. 57.
12Edwin Newman, Strictly Speaking (New York: Warner, 1974), p. 2.
13L.T. Lee and J.M. Paxman, “The Population Council,” Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 8, No. 10 (Quoted in Lifelines National, Fall 1978, Vol. 7, No. 3, p. 8.
14 “Covering Three Mile Island,” Newsweek, April 16, 1979, p. 93.
15 George Will, “As I Was Saying,” Newsweek, April 16, 1979, p. 100. 16Can’t Anyone Here Speak English?” Time, April 25, 1975, p. 56.
17 David Holbrook, “Letters to the Editor,” Spectator (London, 24 March 1961), 400.
18 Melvin Maddocks, “The Limitations of Language,” Time, March 8, 1971, p. 20.
19 Robert Penn Warren, Democracy and Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).
20 M.J. Sobran, “Rhetorical and Cultural War,” The Human Life Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1975, p. 93.
21See Karl G. Schmude, “Redeeming the Word,” Communio, Summer 1980, p. 159.
22 Magda Denes, In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
23Troilus and Cressida, I, iii, 52.
24J.M. Cameron, On the Idea of a(Jniversity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 33.
25 Leon Botstein, president of New York’s Bard College, quoted in Time, August 25, 1975, p. 56.
26A former nurse on trial in the death of a patient allegedly confessed she had discontinued the respirator of several patients but only if the were ‘gorks’-hospital slang for patients who showed no signs of life except breathing and heartbeat. See Pro-Life News/Canada, Vol. 4, No. 2, April 1979, p. 7.
27Harley S. Smyth, M.D., D. Phil. (Oxon.), F.R.C.S. (c), “Motive and Meaning in Medical Morals,” Alliance for Life Annual Conference, Univ. of Toronto, June 1976, p. 6.
28 Kerenyi and Chitkara, “Selective Birth in Twin Pregnancy with Discordancy for Down’s Syndrome,” 304 New England Journal of Medicine 1525 (1981).
29 Edwin A. Roberts, Jr., “What others say: About destruction called `abortion’,” The National Observer, n.d.
30 Lynda Hurst, “Pro-Abortionist: Decision is woman’s abortion doctor says,” The Toronto Star, Thursday, November 29, 1973, E1.
31Love, Life, Death, Issues, Vol. 2, No. 4, Dec. 15, 1976.
32Sir William Liley, “The Development of Life,” Quality of Life ed. D.K. Bonisch (Dunedin, N.Z.: The Guild of St. Luke, 1975), p. 80.
33George Orwell, 1984 (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1954), p. 171.
34C. Everett Koop, M.D., “A Physician Looks at Abortion,” Thou ShaltNot Kill (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1978), p. 9.
35Paul Ramsey, “Abortion: A Review Article,” The Thomist, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, January, 1973, p. 201.
36Gordon Zahn, “Abortion and the Corruption of Mind,” New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. Hilgers, Horan, and Mall (Frederick, Md.: Univ. Publications of America), p. 335.
37 “1984, Newspeak doesn’t call a spade a spade,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Sat. Dec. 31, 1983, El.
38 William Safire, William Safire on Language (New York: Avon, 1981), p. 288, quoted from Toronto’s Globe and Mail.
39Frank Chernak et al., “When is Termination of Pregnancy During the Third Trimester Morally Justified?” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 310, No. 8, p. 502.
40 Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. I (London: Collins, 1972), p. 171.