Pro-abortion writer Robin Marty is distressed that both liberal and conservative media sources are routinely using the phrase “late-term abortion.” Writing in Cosmopolitan Magazine this week, in response to the U.S. House vote to ban most abortions after 20 weeks, she laments, “There is no specific medical definition for a ‘late-term abortion,’ and because of that abortion opponents are using it to mean anything they want.”
Marty argues that the use of the term “late” is medically “inaccurate” because some medical textbooks only refer to “late-term” pregnancies as those that have reached “41 weeks to 41 weeks, 6 days.” Presumably Marty dislikes the term “late” because it invokes emotionally fraught images of fully-formed babies being aborted – the sort of thing that tends to turn the public’s stomachs (and opinions) against abortion.
Now, medical professionals may well have their own reasons for only referring to a pregnancy as “late” at around 41 weeks. But polls show that the average person instinctively understands that when an abortion happens after, say, around 18 weeks, this is very, very late indeed. “Early” and “late” are entirely relative terms, but it’s the rare person who thinks any abortion that involves tearing limbs off a living baby with all his organs and features fully developed is anything but “late.”
Contrary to Marty’s concerns, the most depressing thing about the debate over “late-term” abortion is that it is even happening in the 21st century, when medical advances have revealed the unborn child to public view through the power of the ultrasound, and when children born as early as 22 weeks gestation routinely survive.
Calling Things by Their Proper Names
Unfortunately, part of the reason that we are still having this debate is that abortion supporters have a history of being devilishly clever at controlling the debate by controlling the language we use. If language is power (and it is), then abortion supporters have at times held the trump card. Pope St. John Paul II eloquently identified this phenomenon in Evangelium Vitae, writing:
[W]e need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20). Especially in the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as “interruption of pregnancy”, which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience. But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence… (Evangelium Vitae, 58)
Just consider the following stock pro-abortion phrases: blob of tissue, products of pregnancy, terminate a pregnancy, interrupt a pregnancy, evacuate the contents of the uterus, reproductive freedom, reproductive health care, reproductive choice, potential life, incompatible with life, my body my choice, a woman’s right to choose, I’m ‘personally’ against abortion but…anti-choice.
Death Peddlers Hope You Will Ignore the Truth
Every one of these phrases is nothing more than a clever euphemism designed for one purpose: to divert the attention of the listener from the real thing [act] behind the words. The purpose of language is to convey meaning. But rather than transmitting meaning, these phrases are veils, smoke screens. Their sole purpose is to bypass the critical faculties of the listener, and instead to appeal to emotion or ideology.
Consider, for instance, “products of pregnancy.” Abortion supporters insist that this is the “correct” term for what the abortionist removes from the womb of the woman on whom he is performing an abortion. In one sense, the term is accurate. The abortionist does indeed remove the “products of pregnancy.” But the natural follow-up question is, “What are the products of pregnancy?”
The answer – “a baby”! Which is highly inconvenient for the pro-abortion cause and why abortion supporters are careful to ensure that nobody ever asks that question.
We’ve heard an exact replica of Marty’s argument before. In 2003, Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation in 2003, complained about the widespread use of the term “partial-birth abortion,” saying that it “has no precise medical meaning and cannot be found in any medical text.”
Maybe you won’t find it in any medical textbook, but if the purpose of language is to convey meaning, then the term “partial-birth abortion” is far more precise. Certainly it is preferable to Pollitt’s preferred alternative – “dilation and extraction (D&E)” – which means almost nothing to the average person.
In fact, if Pollitt really wanted “accuracy,” it would have been far better simply to describe the procedure itself. Perhaps something like this: a baby’s mother is induced; the baby is half delivered such that his torso is outside of his mother’s birth canal but the head still in, at which point the abortionist punctures the skull of the living baby, and vacuums out his brain, then delivers the corpse to be disposed of in the trash.
If the media had used this description every time they used the term “partial-birth abortion,” I suspect the debate over partial-birth abortion would have been much shorter than it was.
Woe to Them That Call Evil Good and Good Evil
Language matters. Christ is described by St. John as “the Word.” The Word had the power to radically change the course of human history, to have a profound effect upon our own salvation. The Word is Truth. And insofar as our words are true, they participate in the Word.
When we speak of abortion, then, let us take care to speak the truth, to – as St. Pope John Paul II said – “call things by their proper names.” The products of pregnancy are a “baby.” To “evacuate the contents of the uterus” is to kill a living human child. To perform a “late” abortion is to kill a baby with all of his organs perfectly developed, and, in many cases, so developed that he could live outside the womb, and kick, and cry, and suck his thumb: a baby that science shows will likely feel the excruciating pain of being ripped apart, limb from limb, by the abortionist.
Truth be told, every single abortion that takes place after the moment of conception is a “late” abortion. That is because, when it comes to the intrinsic value of a human being, there is no “early” or “late.” A ninety-year-old has no more innate human dignity or right to life than a one-year-old, or an unborn baby at 10 weeks gestation, or a baby just conceived. To kill any one of these is to destroy a universe unto itself: an autonomous, individual, utterly unique human person with an immortal soul created by God.
Fortunately, during this recent debate in the U.S. House, there were those who were unafraid to speak truth, like Rep. Sean Duffy, who castigated pro-abortion Democrats for speaking endlessly about “compassion,” whilst ignoring the plight of the unborn.
“Can’t we come together and say we are going to stand with little babies that feel pain, that survive outside the womb?” he told Congress. “Ones that don’t have lobbyists and money? Don’t we stand with those little babies?”
He added: “If you stand with the defenseless, with the voiceless, you have to stand with little babies. Don’t talk to me about cruelty in our bill – when you look at little babies being dismembered, feeling excruciating pain, if we can’t stand to defend these children, what do we stand for in this institution?”