“The distance between life and death,” wrote columnist Paul Greenberg, “can be as small as a word.” His comment jogged my memory as to how a single word at a particular time had fashioned my own personal journey through the doublespeak of abortion.
Some twenty years ago, when I joined an organization of abortion advocates, it was the word “right”-as in “a woman’s right to choose”-that shaped my views. A few years later it was again the word “right”-as in the “the right to life”-that drew me into the pro-life movement.
As an abortion advocate, I had learned never to give humanity to what was in the womb of a pregnant woman. “Don’t use the words ‘child’ or ‘baby,’” we were told. Talk instead about “a mass of tissue” or “the product of conception.”
Mass of tissue? Who isn’t? Product of conception? Aren’t we all? If what is aborted is not a living human being with a claim to legal protection then why couldn’t we defend abortion with words that were less generic? It seemed to me a strange kind of truth that required deception to promulgate it.
After months of seeking such words, I found none. I realized I either had to change my mind or continue to change reality by disguising the truth.
In America today the lives of unborn children have come to depend not on scientific fact but on the use of misleading words. “Fetus” is one of those. It is a good word, a medical word, but a Latin word. Why has a word from a “dead” language been resurrected for use in everyday conversation? After all, we don’t congratulate parents on the birth of their “neonate.”
Verbal smoke screens have long been used to accustom people to accept ideas, actions, and policies they would otherwise find obnoxious. “Fetus” serves the manipulative purpose of dehumanizing those in the womb who are unwanted, while words like “unborn children” or “child before birth” call forth an emotional and relational response.
A few years ago, in a high-profile trial of an abortion doctor, a picture was shown of an unborn child the same gestational age as the one who had been aborted. The press called it a “fetus.” The doctor’s lawyer called it a “fetus.” The jury, though, called what they saw a “premature baby.”
Shakespeare understood that it is easier to kill a snake than to kill a human being. Thus in Julius Caesar he has Brutus set the stage for Caesar’s murder by using words that would dehumanize him: “Think him as a serpent’s egg . . . and kill him in the shell.”
Yet women throughout the ages have always known that what they carry are children. Before ever there was a pro-life movement there were baby showers, not fetus showers. Pregnant women are asked by friend and stranger alike, “When is your baby due?” Fathers say, “I heard the baby’s heartbeat,” and mothers say, “I felt the baby move.” Expectant parents are quick to show ultrasound pictures of their baby in the womb. Women who miscarry grieve the loss of a child not of a fetus.
Over thirty years ago Planned Parenthood pamphlets warned that “an abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun.” To pretend that what is in the womb is anything but a child is, as George Will once said, “a revolution against the judgment of generations.”
The unborn child, of course, is not the same as the child sleeping in a crib or playing in a sandbox. Yet, if someone were to say he or she had at home an infant and an adolescent, we surely would not wonder if that person was referring to different kinds of pets or variations of plants. Infant and adolescent are terms that describe human beings at various stages of development. That is all the word “fetus” does. It tells us where a child is on the life spectrum. Is the adolescent less human than the adult? Is the infant less human then the adolescent? Is the fetus less human than the infant? They are different only in terms of development and dependence.
Columnist Joan Beck, writing in the Chicago Tribune, said that “Obstetricians understand better than anyone else that an unborn baby isn’t a blob of tissue or a growing tumor or an unnecessary appendix. Whatever the euphemisms, they know that it is living, that it is human, that it is unique, and that abortion kills it.”
Children know it, too, and they know it instinctively. Late one night, as I viewed an abortion slide, my youngest child, then a sleepy three-
year old, unexpectedly entered the room. I heard his sharp intake of breath as he saw the body of a three-month old, dismembered by a D & C abortion. With great sadness in his voice he asked, “Who broke the baby?” Here was a child too young to have his sight clouded by semantic subterfuge, and, with a wisdom that often escapes the learned, he could mentally assemble the body parts and call what he saw a broken baby.
What, then, is this thing called abortion? If a living human child is killed by it, is abortion murder? Not now. Not since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. “Murder,” by dictionary definition, is “the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another.” Abortion qualifies as premeditated in that it is contracted for and carried out at a set time and place. What abortion is not is unlawful, but that does not change the nature of what abortion is or does.
There are some who taunt pro-lifers by saying that if we really believe abortion kills children, if what is in the womb is really a child, then we ought to commend, not condemn, the killing of abortion providers. They don’t understand that it is possible to be anti-abortion but not pro-life, that pro-lifers oppose violence whether inside or outside abortion centers, that the goading of pro-lifers to respond in kind is more of a provocation to violence than are words that speak of a child’s right to be born. Pro-lifers know that violence is too weak a weapon against the evil that is abortion. They know it cannot be called murder in a legal sense but that it can be called a holocaust.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. While historically and socially the Nazi Holocaust was a unique episode in human history, the forces that created it are alive and well today. Those forces, the coupling of dehumanizing language with technology that dispatched victims in an efficient assembly-line manner, characterized the Third Reich. If we think that kind of evil is safely frozen in the past, we ignore the unpleasant truth about human nature: that the potential for great evil exists in each of us. And the human mind is never more resourceful than when it is involved in self-justification.
The Holocaust of half a century ago is too singular to be watered down by comparisons. But so, too, is the American holocaust of over thirty-
two million children who have been killed and buried beneath words that have been emptied of their meaning. The words of Scripture, though, are clear and precise when they say of a pregnant woman simply that she is “with child.” That is why, after twenty-two years, the Supreme Court’s decision that was touted as having “settled” the abortion issue has not because those who oppose it think in terms of reverence rather than rights.
Jean Garton is cofounder and President of Lutherans for Life, which has more than three hundred chapters in the U.S.