"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Debunking the “Pro-Choice” Euphemism

Shameless Popery

To no great surprise, it turns out “pro-choice” just means the choice to abort your kid, not the choice to, say, have an incandescent light bulb or drink a large soda. This reality was highlighted by a recent Reason TV video in which Democratic delegates and supporters were interviewed about “choice” at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte:

In other words, most of the people claiming to be “pro-choice” are pledging fealty to a set of principles (about individual bodily autonomy and the like) that they don’t actually hold outside of the realm of abortion. It’s inaccurate to refer to this as “pro-choice,” and far more accurate to refer to it as “pro-abortion,” or (to use the AP style guide) being an “abortion rights supporter.”

Perhaps this is semantics, but I think not. I would suggest that there are two reasons that this is important. First, because the use of euphemism tells us something about the reality of abortion. I’ve been reading D. Q. McInery’s book Being Logical, in which he says:

The user shapes language, but language shapes the user as well. If we consistently use language that serves to distort reality, we can eventually come to believe our own twisted rhetoric. Such is the power of language. At first hearing, terms like “cultural revolution” and “reeducation” might sound quite harmless. Then one learns that they masked totalitarian brutality at its worst. 

It is juvenile to use language simply to shock. But shocking language is preferable to evasive language, if it can disabuse people of hazy ideas and acquaint them with the truth.

I think that this power of language was visible in the above video. The people being interviewed were not, as far as I can tell, trying to deceive the interviewer. They almost certainly thought of themselves as “pro-choice,” of having a live-and-let-live attitude towards what other people do with their bodies. They had, in other words, been fooled by their own language.

So the question that this video should raise (in my opinion) is: what sort of a thing is “intentional abortion” that it has to be referred to by its supporters in overly-technical or euphemistic language? This linguistic practice alone should be sending up all sorts of red flags to listeners. And yes, the exact same point can be made about those who advocate for torture under euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation.” If you’re re-defining what a term means, or refusing to use the ordinary term for the act in question, chances are good that you’re advocating for something pernicious.

The second reason is the obvious hypocrisy. Supporters of legalized abortion use a set of essentially-libertarian arguments that they reject in almost every other context. It really is hypocrisy at its rankest. There are essentially three principled ways out:

1. Stop supporting abortion, and take the positive principles of liberalism (like a belief that we’re all in this together, and a concern for the weakest among us), and apply those to the unborn;
2. Stop supporting liberalism, and become libertarians across the board, or
3. Find some non-hypocritical defense for abortion.

As a pro-life Catholic, I’d advocate (1), while I suspect that the producers of the Reason TV video would advocate (2), and principled abortion supporters would advocate (3). But I think all three groups should concede that the standard positions being used to defend abortion now are embarrassingly contradictory. The Reason video just demonstrated this reality in a particularly effective way.


P.S. So what’s the answer to the response that pro-lifers are also equally guilty of intellectual inconsistency, and are really pro-fetus, not pro-life? Even if it were correct, this argument is guilty of the tu quoque fallacy. That is, it doesn’t actually make it okay to use disingenuous arguments, just because you think your opponents use them, and that mentality is a race to the bottom.

But even as a tu quoque, it fails. Pro-lifers really do hold to a consistent set of intellectual principles. As a “lowest common denominator” principle, I’d point to the principle that innocent human life should never be intentionally taken. Given any public policy issue, if it involves the intentional taking of innocent human life (whether we’re talking about abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, targeting civilians in war, or some other form of murder), the views of pro-lifers can be determined from applying this principle.

But this principle doesn’t dictate (although it may inform) how pro-lifers feel about issues like the minimum wage, universal health care, or the size of government. I agree that it would be better if all pro-lifers also had a high view of the dignity of, say, workers or immigrants. But that’s a separate issue, related to “quality of life” rather than the basic issue of life and death. Someone could, therefore, take an absolutely libertarian, no-government-assistance view of the role of government, and still acknowledge an intrinsic right to life, and the duty of the government to protect that basic right. But even here, pro-lifers areprobably a lot more self-giving than you imagine.

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