by Sam Hoel
The pro-abortion movement has come out against abortion – the word, that is. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, didn’t say the “A-word” once during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Caroline Kennedy made waves by endorsing abortion “as a Catholic woman,” but deftly managed to avoid actually saying the word “abortion.” Rising pro-choice star Sandra Fluke followed suit. Perhaps Richards, Kennedy, and Fluke were taking cues from the party’s most prominent advocate President Obama, who commemorated the anniversary of Roe v. Wade last year with a statement that replaced “abortion” with the less brutal-sounding “reproductive freedoms.” From the President to the grassroots, it would seem that the pro-abortion movement has embraced vague euphemisms in place of plain language, making abortion the procedure that dare not speak its name.
It is not hard to decipher why abortion supporters shy away from candid language. A majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-life, and the strengthening of the movement among young Americans indicates that that majority will continue to grow. In the face of growing opposition, the abortion industry is doing what any good used car salesman would do – rename the product to trick the customer. Just as “used” is replaced with “pre-owned” at a secondhand lot, the term “abortion” has given way to a variety of euphemisms, including “choice,” “reproductive justice,” or “women’s rights.”
So what’s the problem with the pro-abortion movement disowning the word abortion and embracing euphemisms? First, and most obviously, it’s dishonest, hiding the grisly remains of millions of terminated babies under a sanitary layer of meaningless pabulum. Listening to leading abortion supporters at the Democratic National Convention was downright Orwellian, a “defense of the indefensible,” using a combination of newspeak and doublethink.
In fact, Orwell had much to say on the subject of obfuscating language. In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell noted that “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Orwell’s metaphor is particularly apt; euphemistic language, like the cuttlefish’s ink, is meant to obscure the subject and eliminate clarity.
There’s an element of genius in the disingenuous labeling. After all, if you don’t reveal what you stand for, it’s hard to argue against you. This line of thought goes all the way back to ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, who advised movement leaders to “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”
But there is a second reason to decry the pro-abortion movement’s manipulative use of language. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion has been a legal issue definitively contested in the courts rather than in the legislature or society more broadly. Nevertheless, the courts have consistently justified their decisions to uphold Roe by referring to widespread societal acceptance of abortion. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the landmark 1992 case upholding Roe, the court repeatedly referenced the public’s opinion of abortion, concluding that the decision was not “a doctrinal anachronism discounted by society.” In fact, the court argued that acceptance of abortion was so strong that it created societal reliance on Roe. According to the Court, people “have ordered their thinking and living around [Roe].”
But if societal acceptance of abortion is so fragile that it must be preserved by the careful sterilization of public discourse to avoid any mention of the act itself, can it be considered accepted at all? Certainly most Americans support vaguely defined “women’s rights” but do they support abortion in all its gory reality? Pro-abortionists have always tried to sterilize the physical repulsiveness of abortion through seemingly innocuous terms like “pro-choice.” (A ludicrous label for a predominantly anti-choice movement.) In doing so, it would appear that the pro-abortion movement itself has no confidence in the answer being affirmative.
Ultimately, the problem with the abortion movement’s manipulation of language is that it is not only linguistically and politically dishonest (which is to be expected), but that it has inevitably metastasized into the law. A “social acceptance” propped up by obfuscation and manipulative language has become a tool for the courts to establish the continuing viability of a dubious constitutional right.
It is also interesting to note that the courts are not immune to the tendency to adopt misleading euphemisms. In Casey, for example, the court noted “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Of course, by “ability to control their reproductive lives,” the court here is not speaking about birth control pills or IUD’s, but abortion.
Abortion supporters face significant challenges as they try to defend a procedure that is aesthetically and culturally unappealing. (There’s a reason that the Abortion Pride movement never took off.) Unfortunately, it appears that the pro-abortion camp has decided the main avenue to respectability for abortion is through obfuscation, red herrings and euphemisms. But as Bobbie Gentry once put it, a euphemism is just a euphemism for lying.