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William Murchison

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William Murchison discusses how the corruption of language affects how we think about protecting human life.

When, not many years after Roe v. Wade, the physically handicapped became the "differently abled," and Indians turned mysteriously into "Native Americans" or "indigenous peoples," critics of abortion might have sensed what trouble they were really in.

Some did, no doubt; but then it was late in the day. The weapon of language had obviously fallen into hands primed to use it against no-longer-fashionable understandings. Americans had begun to talk in new ways about old realities. They might not understand every implication of those new ways. However..."native Americans," hmmmmm. Indians had been born here; that made them "native," so...

And in due course the priority of "Native American" culture over the imposed culture of the white settlers became an accepted, if unpondered, fact.

No more "Indians" around here. Dumb name anyway, conferred by an Italian who didn't know where he was. (Not that there's anything wrong with Italians!) "Native American" confers a certain grandeur, a distinct priority over latecomers: Englishmen, Spaniards, yes, and Italians. Got here first? Means you've got some basic rights: which you may have anyway, as a plain old American citizen, but "nativity," if nothing else, enhances stature.

So language--the conveyor belt of meaning--operates: sliding along from Person A to Person B a word or a phrase. Oh (says Person B), that's what all this means. Do tell. On to Person C, the word retaining its coloration, consensus growing about what we mean when we say something. From Person C to Person D, and on and on. Orthodoxy takes shape: Never mind what you mean; here is what we mean. The most everyday words--war, peace, love, hate, happy, sad, rich, poor--take their meaning from usage.

There is not the slightest reason to censure a process as natural as digestion. Talking, writing, cooking--this is how we live. A given society shapes language the same way it influences the content of menus. In wrong, or merely misguided, hands, naturally, the power to shape becomes the power to distort--and thus to lie and cheat and deceive and defraud, yes, and even kill.

George Orwell's stress on the distortive possibilities available in language remains fresh because of his descriptive and prophetic powers. Nineteen Eighty-Four sears the recollection, notwithstanding that when the title-year in question actually got here, the distorters--the Soviets--were stumbling toward ruin. Orwell's lesson is clear: Language shapes thinking; thinking shapes action. When language means other than it must, for a particular possibility to reach fruition, somebody is going to propose a new way of talking, and of understanding.

Inevitably, the titanic struggle over abortion affects the way Americans talk about human life. From the moment Roe v. Wade was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the combatants in this life-or-death contest have wrestled for mastery of the English language. Early innings went to supporters of the decision. From Justice Harry Blackmun's language, they derived the gleaming and invaluable word "right." A "right" is something subtly different from a "decision." You have to "decide," of course, to exercise a right; but once you do, no one is supposed to call your hand, to suggest you've done something bad or unfortunate. It was your right, right?

Opponents of Roe v. Wade recovered sufficiently in due course to advertise that they were defending nothing less than the "right to life." Not just one shimmering word here: two, rather; both of them dear to American hearts. "Life" led the list of "unalienable" rights that Americans, in 1776, supposed they were entrenching against King George's opposition. Those who fought against the "right to life" were the "pro-abortion" faction--or in the great Jim McFadden's cogent reductions, the "pro-aborts."

However, the pro-aborts were having none of this. They weren't for abortion; they were for choice--a thing wholly different, might it please the court of public opinion; a thing deeply American, embedded in this country's institutions.

Wait. The choice of death? That choice was embedded in our institutions? Shhhh, shhhhh, returned the pro-aborts. Choice. That was all we were talking about--the same thing you exercised in a shoe store. Whereby, in American political discourse, unborn children came to share equal status with alligator shoes. The feat was more prophetic than it may have seemed, given the commercial possibilities (medical research, etc.) endemic today in "fetuses."

All this was just before political correctness: the attempt which began in the '80s, and continues, to structure and impose an orthodoxy for talking about racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and other imputedly oppressed classes. "Homosexuals," I said. No more: it's "gays." The style-panjandrums say so, no less decisively than when they first cast "Indians" into outer darkness. The conveyor belt of meaning moves faster and faster and faster.

Political correctness is less visible as an issue in 1999 than it was a few years ago, when its exponents, mainly on college campuses, were Native-Americanizing and people-of-colorizing the landscape. The new invisibility results partly because of all the victories won by the politically correct. What they wanted, they pretty much got, linguistically speaking. It's for them now to enjoy.

A whole new vocabulary masks the deadly operations of the abortion clinic. In the context of abortion we have witnessed over the past decade or so what could be called "semanticide"--the murder of meaning itself. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., spoke of "verbicide"--word murder.) In the verbicided--or semanticided--society, traditional meanings lose their edge, if not their very existence. The new meanings...but wait a moment. There are no new meanings present in the abortion context, just the old familiar ones: life, love, death, breath, man, woman...and God. That means the new language has a vital function, provided the "right" of abortion is to endure.

The new language must wall off the old realities insofar as possible from public view. Or, say that we catch momentary sight of them, like some crazy aunt peeking out from behind her attic curtains. There must in that event be soothing words, exculpatory phrases, suggesting, yes, never mind how things look, it's really fine. Really, it is!

Such a plot seems to suggest the presence of a criminal mastermind--ring leader in the murder of meaning. There would be no use looking for him, or, likelier--given the feminist antecedents of abortion--her. The murder of meaning, in terms of abortion and, more recently, of euthanasia, has been the death of a thousand cuts, most inflicted slyly, lightly, with emphasis on concealment. A word here, a phrase there: so the process goes.

The process seems the easier, and the more natural, in view of the reluctance modern folk bring to discussions of death. Evelyn Waugh, in The Loved One, had great sport with the modern (it was the later 1940s then) disinclination to look death in the eye, calling it by its right name.

As lifespans lengthen and exercise rooms fill--and, more to the point, perhaps, as the religious view of life and death diminishes--so moderns wrap the whole business in linguistic gauze, viewing it as a thing too unpleasant to talk about with any clarity.

People don't "die;" they "pass away" or "succumb." To judge from the obituary pages, a lot of succumbing goes on every day. Still, we don't like it. (We also discover, from family-submitted obituaries, that in the normal course of things, when someone does succumb, he heads straight for heaven, to be reunited with deceased loved ones.)

I have no desire to mock. The most awful reality in life is the leaving of it. The awfulness of it all does cultivate in everyone an appreciation of euphemism--of "good speech" that softens the reality, makes it easier to swallow. We are made for euphemism, it would seem; or, if not, where is the historical precedent suggesting otherwise?

The most natural thing in the world, perhaps, is to smooth down the hard-edged reality of abortion, using language. Say it's not so, Dr. Joe! Say we're not doing what we're doing!

OK--we're not. They say we're killing? Of course not. We're exercising a constitutional right, a right inhering in all free-born women. ("Free-born," hmmmmmm: potential misunderstanding there--distinguishes "born" from "unborn;" implies more than maybe we want to imply.) Yes, a right inhering in...free women. (How's that?) Nor are we "killing." The Constitution, as any fool knows, doesn't hold with murder. What we are doing is evacuating an unwanted product of conception. There--you see? No use getting weepy and guilty about the exercise of this valued and long-prayed-for constitutional right. Be proud! Be assertive! Be--yes, be American!

Would Orwell, who died (that word again!) in 1950, have felt the earth tremble as he read such lines? One can certainly say he would not have read with any great astonishment. He had seen it all--before it was there to be seen.

In his famous 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell observed that "Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." The language of the abortion controversy is painfully political; this, because the Supreme Court dealt politically with the issue in removing it from the purview of elected state legislatures. Necessarily political efforts to reverse that outcome have met with political stalemate.

Orwell, in the same essay, noted with satisfaction the possibility of a course-correction. One could "change one's own habits," he wrote, from time to time sending "some worn-out and useless phrase...into the dustbin where it belongs." Whether one could be persuaded to do so remained the open question Orwell neglected, for one reason or another, to address.

There is another question, in the context of abortion: What habits of speech need reversing? What worn-out and useless phrases should we get rid of? What are we saying when we talk about abortion, sometimes without knowing what we say?

Herewith an abortion glossary for the Semanticide Era--however long it may afflict us. Without actually committing the glossary to paper, I have compiled it over the years, adding, subtracting, modifying as occasion seemed to demand. I make bold now to share it.

The euthanasia movement, a direct outgrowth of the abortion movement, has suggested a whole new class of entries. As abortion has familiarized us with the unspoken right to kill, so it has encouraged us to expand the range of potential victims: not just the unborn but also the worn-out. Dr. Kevorkian has played a role here, as has his former lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger.

Language, including abortion-language, is a living thing. Which is more than can be said for the "products of conception" (see below) whose viability Roe v. Wade renders forecloseable, indeed foreclose-worthy.


abortion: a. constitutional right, under the penumbra and responsive to the emanations, of the right to privacy, as spelled out in Roe v. Wade and inhering in female citizens of the United States, to elect the termination of a pregnancy prior to natural term. b. (obsolete) Medical destruction, inside the mother's womb, of a child yet unborn, possessed of soul and human properties.

abortionist: (obsolete), pejorative term used to describe health providers assisting women in exercising anticipated right to terminate a pregnancy. (See "health provider.")

anti-choice: useful name for right-wing fanatics seeking to deprive American women of right to choose termination of a pregnancy. Often associated with narrow fundamentalist churches; also with Roman Catholics in sympathy with outlook and purposes of Vatican. (See "choice.")

abortion mill: (obsolete) Medical office where dirty, unsafe abortions were performed; pejorative term used before restoration of right to choose termination of a pregnancy, 1973, in Roe v. Wade.

baby: name for former occupant of womb. Not to be used during occupant's stay in womb.

Bible: book formerly deemed authoritative by Christians and Jews; used to disparage exercise of right to choose termination of pregnancy. Passages affirming "right to life" widely regarded as strained in meaning and application. Widely discredited for failure to demonstrate understanding of quest for justice and equality.

Blackmun, Harry. Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 1970-93. Author of Roe v. Wade. Hero of struggle for right to choose the termination of a pregnancy. (See "choice.")

clinic: (see "abortion mill"). Medical office where clean, safe, loving abortions are performed under direction of trained and compassionate health providers. Sites often become focal points for mob action by fundamentalist opponents of choice.

compassion: supreme virtue of late 20th century. Generally connotes acceptance of right to terminate pregnancy.

death with dignity: outcome desired by patients of Dr. Jack Kevorkian (q.v.).

embryo: golliwog-like organism in early stages of development, how early depending on stage at which abortion is performed. Preferred for reference to womb-occupants unless advanced age of same makes "fetus" (q.v.) more appropriate.

fetus (see also "product of conception"): alternative name for embryo. Technical name applied to womb-occupant where embryo may be deemed inappropriate, generally because of advanced age.

fundamentalist: member of narrow religious sect seeking to impose on American women anti-modern view of family, parenthood, and submission to Bible (q.v.) and its standards. Can refer to Roman Catholics as well as evangelicals. Adherents often take part in demonstrations intended to deprive women of constitutional right to termination of pregnancy.

health provider: doctor sensitive to constitutional rights of women, as established under Roe v. Wade. Terminates pregnancies on request, with few if any questions asked. Disclaims knowledge of Hippocratic Oath or at least of those sections frowning on abortion. Often risks life to bring health and hope. Is frequent target for redneck fundamentalist gunmen with grudge against women and/or misplaced patriarchal feelings of protection toward them.

Kevorkian, Jack. Medical pioneer noted for compassion to incurably ill and despondent. Victim of patriarchalist justice sytsem. Imprisoned (1998) for efforts to defend right of choice in extension or non-extension of life.

product of conception: term for fetus, especially in articles written for the New York Times Op-Ed page and similar venues.

right to die: American constitutional right, traceable to Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence, though not officially affirmed by U.S. Supreme Court. Strenuously affirmed by compassionate citizens.

termination: outcome of procedure accomplished in clinic (q.v.) by health provider (q.v.) despite opposition of fundamentalists (q.v.).

women: class historically discriminated against by males through assertion of brute strength and cruelty; caused, against their will, to carry embryos to term, prior to intervention of Harry Blackmun (q.v.) and U.S. Supreme Court.

My glossary expands yearly, monthly, daily, as semanticide takes its toll on American society: intellectually, emotionally, physically. The linguistic politics of abortion roars on, to every appearance inexhaustible.

As if in anticipation of it all, Dr. Johnson once delivered a succulent piece of counsel: "Clear your mind of cant." But so many -- by this stage in our development -- can't.

This article can be found on the Human Life Review website. Reprinted with permission.

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Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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