In the great battle between word and image, readers of First Things, an unabashedly text-centric publication, probably tend to side with the word. I know I do, although around this time of year I’m reminded how sometimes words are not my friend and pictures are.
On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade here in late January, we read a lot about abortion rights, abortion foes, abortion this, anti-abortion that. The speech rules pertaining to this issue are well established by now. In their style guides, mainstream news organizations disallow the terms pro-life and pro-choice, having concluded, rightly, that they’re biased. Their alternative, as you have probably noticed, is to call me anti-abortion and to call those who disagree with me supporters of abortion rights—that is, to identify me in terms of what I’m against and to identify the other party in terms of what they’re for, to describe what they’re for as rights, and to ignore that those rights conflict with the right that I’m for, which is the right to survive gestation.
The idea behind that right is plain enough, but reporters writing for national newspapers and wire services are helpless to name it. The official vocabulary available to them leaves them hamstrung in their effort to explain the cause that motivates tens of thousands of us to march on Washington every year in the dead of winter.
Laws that protect you from being aborted are laws that restrict you from having an abortion. So what are they? Protective? Or restrictive? In reality, obviously, they’re both. In newspeak, however, they can be only restrictive, as in this recent, entirely unexceptional example from the front page of Saturday’s New York Times.
You’ll note that here, as throughout mainstream journalism, the aborted one is never you, me, our siblings, or our children. It’s “the fetus.” You could argue that consistency demands that the clinical terminology be applied to the mother, or pregnant woman, if you like, who would become “the gravida.” But you shouldn’t argue that, because the term has such a strongly disagreeable connotation.
It’s the same connotation that, when you see it in the word fetus, stings your eyes a little, although these days less than twenty years ago. It’s not so much that pro-lifers—I mean abortion foes—have claimed, appropriated, and humanized the term. They still overwhelmingly prefer unborn child, which is respectful and Anglo-Saxon where fetus is barbed and Latinate. It’s more a matter of people having gradually come to understand fetus as the accepted word for what they see in the ultrasound scan, and what they see in the ultrasound scan they instinctively identify really not as a what at all but as a who.
“Nothing,” the pollster Harrison Hickman told NARAL back in 1989, “has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did fifteen years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.” These twenty-two years later, that developing fetus is all grown up and about to graduate from college, and Hickman was right: She has seen plenty of unborn-baby pictures by now, some of them perhaps even of herself, if her parents kept them for posterity, and, insofar as the polls accurately reflect her thoughts on the subject, she’s less likely now than they were then to support their right to have aborted her.