In George Orwell’s novel 1984, one of the ways the dystopian, totalitarian state of Oceania controls its citizens is through the manipulation of language, particularly through the use of euphemisms that mask the government’s authoritarianism. This kind of language is now called “doublespeak,” and a description of it can be found in Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which was published three years before 1984:
Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. . . . Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. . . . if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.
Ironically, the version of Orwell’s essay I’m citing is hosted at the website of National Public Radio, which, along with other media outlets, is engaging in its own doublespeak when it comes to reporting on abortion. Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for Standards and Practices, recently published a reminder of “best practices” when it comes to reporting on abortion, given how much it’s been in the news lately. Here are some highlights that would make Orwell proud:
The term partial-birth is used by those opposed to the procedure; simply using the phrase so-called partial birth abortion is not sufficient without explaining who’s calling it that. Partial-birth is not a medical term and has no exact parallel in medical terminology.
If reporters can’t use common terms that express medical truths, then maybe NPR should change the title of its April 14th article “High Stress Drives Up Your Risk Of A Heart Attack. Here’s How To Chill Out” to ““High Stress Drives Up Your Risk Of Myocardial Infarction. Here’s How To Chill Out.” Partial-birth abortion fairly summarizes the essence of this procedure, especially when we compare it to how medical providers who favor its legality describe it. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the procedure ends with the “partial evacuation of the intracranial contents of a living fetus to effect vaginal delivery of a dead but otherwise intact fetus.”
In other words, the abortionist cuts a hole in the fetus’s skull and uses a vacuum to suck the brain out. He then delivers the child’s dead body, since without a brain the head is small enough to pass through the cervix. Sounds like a “partial birth” abortion to me. And though the procedure is widely believed to be illegal due to the Supreme Court’s 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart decision, there is virtually no oversight of abortion clinics, so it is difficult to know if these are still happening and, if so, how often.
NPR doesn’t use the term “abortion clinics.” We say instead, “medical or health clinics that perform abortions.” The point is to not to use abortion before the word clinic. The clinics perform other procedures and not just abortions.
Tell that to Warren Hern, whose website describes his work at “Boulder Abortion Clinic” and where the only services that are offered are first-, second-, and third-trimester abortions. NPR doesn’t use this roundabout language when describing fertility clinics, though I agree that “abortion clinic” should be avoided, if only because clinics are places where people are healed and not killed. “Abortion facility” would be a more appropriate term to use.
The term “unborn” implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born. They’re fetuses. Incorrectly calling a fetus a “baby” or “the unborn” is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.
This would be on par with a defender of infanticide saying, “The term ‘newborn’ implies that there is a baby in the NICU. Babies are not babies until they can recognize their parents. They’re neonates.” A “fetus” is just a human being at an early stage of development, such as an infant or toddler, and the word itself means “offspring” or “young one.”
The only people engaged in a cynical linguistic strategy are pro-choicers who use the term “fetus” to describe unwanted unborn humans. Wanted unborn children, on the other hand, are graced with the title of “baby.” Or at least, that seems to be the case when you read other NPR stories that describe concerns of pregnant women that “the baby won’t be born too soon” or how to “push the baby down the birth canal.” CNN is also guilty of this kind of subterfuge when it describes the “fetus” who is the focus of “heartbeat bills” that ban abortion but then, in articles published at the same time, reports of a murdered pregnant woman, “her unborn baby was cut out of her.”
Whether it’s on social media or in conversation, remember to ask for clarification when you are faced with this kind of doublespeak. For example, when someone talks about the “right to choose,” ask in response, “The right to choose what?” When he switches to abortion, ask him, “What do you mean by the word abortion? What does abortion exactly do?”
But no matter what you do, always get the conversation back to this single question: “What are the unborn?” If someone obstinately refers only to “fetuses” or “pregnancies,” ask him, “What is a fetus? What is the difference between a pregnant woman and a non-pregnant woman?”
In short, make the pro-choice advocate defend the indefensible: that it is morally appropriate to kill a developing human being just because he is unwanted, smaller, and more dependent than the rest of us.