August 24, 2000
Abortion and the English Language
by Joseph Sobran
In his famous essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell analyzed the corrupting influence of dishonest politics on the way we speak and think. There is no better example than the effect abortion has had on our language.
Though abortion -- including the killing of viable infants at the verge of birth -- is now a sacrament of the Democratic Party, nobody admits to being "pro-abortion"; they are "pro-choice." This is an obvious lie. The right to choose anything presupposes the right to live. The child, fetus, embryo, or whatever you want to call the entity growing within its mother's womb has no "choice" about being killed. It will never have a choice about anything.
The pro-abortion side is pro-abortion in the same way that advocates of slavery were pro-slavery. "Oh," they protest, "but we don't insist that everyone get an abortion; we only want people" -- that is, mothers -- "to have a choice!" Then nobody was pro-slavery either, since nobody insisted that every white man own a slave; they were "pro-choice." They wanted each white man to be "free" to decide whether to buy slaves; or they wanted every state to decide whether to permit slavery. Of course they overlooked the obvious fact that the slaves themselves had no choice; in their minds this was irrelevant.
The bad conscience of the pro-aborters shows in their studious avoidance of the word kill to describe what abortion is. Why be coy about it? We don't mind speaking of "killing" when we kill lower life forms. Lawn products kill weeds; mouthwashes kill germs; insecticides kill bugs; mousetraps kill mice. If the human fetus is an insignificant little thing, why shrink from saying an abortion kills it? But the pro-abortion side prefers the evasive euphemism that abortion "terminates a pregnancy."
As Orwell noted, dishonest people instinctively prefer the abstract to the concrete. Abstract language avoids creating unpleasant mental images that might cause horror and shame; concrete language may remind us of what we are really doing. This is why military jargon dehumanizes the targets of bombs and artillery: so that soldiers and pilots won't vividly imagine the men, women, and children they are killing. Part of the job of military leadership is to anesthetize the consciences of fighting men. And political leaders (who usually start the wars in the first place) do their part by describing the bombing of cities as "defending freedom."
In the modern world people are trained to avoid looking directly at the effects of violence they commit or sanction. If possible, the killing is delegated to specialists, who themselves are increasingly remote from their victims -- as in recent U.S. bombings of Iraq and Yugoslavia, where American casualties were nearly zero. Most of us don't mind if our military kills people on the other side of the world; we feel no pain, even vicariously. We may even buy the official explanation that our bombs are "preventing another Holocaust." It may seem otherwise to the Iraqis and Slavs on whose homes those bombs are falling.
But just as the news media refrain from showing us what those bombs actually do, they never show us what an abortion looks like. They even refuse to carry ads by abortion opponents, on grounds that pictures of slaughtered fetuses are in "bad taste." They certainly are in bad taste; all atrocities are. But the media are willing to show some atrocities, as in the killing fields of Rwanda a few years ago. Since we're forever debating abortion, why not let us see one? Why the blackout?
The answer, of course, is that the news media themselves are pro-abortion. They adopt the dishonest language of the pro-abortion side: pro-choice, fetus, terminate, and -- my favorite -- abortion provider (to make the abortionist sound like a humanitarian).
A few years ago NBC produced a sympathetic movie about a woman seeking an abortion -- Norma McCorvey, the "Roe" of Roe v. Wade. But when Mrs. McCorvey later changed her mind and became an active opponent of abortion, did NBC do a sequel? Unimaginable.
We have to keep our guard up at all times against political language, especially in seemingly bland journalism, that is subtly infected with propagandistic purposes.