The abortion-friendly Washington Post recently provided a revealing look into a debate taking place in the world of abortion advocacy. The issue, in short, is whether to call abortion “abortion” or call it something else.
According to the Post’s Caroline Kitchener, the argument has heated up in response to legislative activity looking to a Supreme Court decision–expected in June–that many think will either overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion, or allow meaningful restrictions on the practice.
Until recently, conventional wisdom among abortion activists has been to sidestep naming the procedure. But now, Kitchener writes, “as Democrats seek to mobilize voters…a rhetorical divide has emerged around the one word at the center of the debate.”
“Many far-left liberals will say ‘abortion’ every time they talk about the issue, while some Democrats who will face competitive raises in 2022 and 2024–including the president–have rarely used it, relying instead on broader terms such as ‘reproductive freedom’ and ‘a constitutional right,’” she says.
Biden, Kitchener notes, didn’t use the word in his State of the Union address but called instead for protecting “the constitutional right affirmed by Roe v. Wade.”
She quotes Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s lead pollsters in 2020, saying that “the broadest possible abortion rights coalition” requires using language people feel comfortable with. Most pro-abortion politicians, Lake says, “have realized, particularly in more marginal districts, that you should talk much more about the shared value than the medical procedure.”
Avoiding the word “abortion” isn’t the only word game abortion advocates play. Another favored tactic is the use of high-flown language to cloak the reality of what abortion actually does.
Post columnist Karen Tumulty quotes Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is currently seeking an advisory opinion from her state supreme court that abortion is a protected right under the state constitution. What’s at stake in abortion, Whitmer loftily declares, are “privacy rights, health rights, and bodily autonomy.”
The words sound swell–until you recall that what’s most directly at stake in an abortion is the life of a unique, unborn human being whom the abortion will kill.
The argument among abortion advocates over naming abortion occurs against the background of a dismayingly common corruption of language–and therefore of thought–via political propaganda, some forms of advertising, and various other more or less systematic efforts to abuse words so as to confer respectability upon things that otherwise are flagrantly unacceptable.
Lately we’ve had an especially ugly illustration in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated description of his brutal war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” or –heaven help us!– a “peacekeeping mission.”
Most individuals with reasonable intelligence and a command of the facts have no trouble discerning the obscene absurdity of rhetoric like that. But the situation is different with abortion– an issue on which people have been brainwashed by media like the Washington Post into thinking killing the unborn is an innocuous procedure serving noble ends.
Many years ago George Orwell, author of anti-authoritarian classics Animal Farm and 1984, skewered systematic abuse of language, whether calculated or merely careless, in a famous essay called “Politics and the English Language.” What he said deserves recalling in the context of outrages like abortion and Putin’s war: “Political language [and what pro-choice politicians say about abortion falls into that category] is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearances of solidity to pure wind.”
Orwell was an honest person. Too bad more people aren’t.