Fighting the language battle for prenatal justice
(OSV News) -- One of the primary ways throwaway culture works -- especially in a consumer culture like ours, which tries to hide the equal dignity of those found to be too burdensome or otherwise inconvenient -- is by using language that makes them easier to discard. It is easier to deport an "illegal alien" to a war zone where they are marked for death, for instance, than it is to abandon a refugee fleeing violence. It is easier to dehydrate someone to death if they are a "vegetable" rather than a disabled person with a catastrophic brain injury. And it is, of course, much easier to discard a "product of conception" or "embryo" or "fetus" via abortion than it is to discard a "baby" or "child."
Professors often like to believe that the detailed and sometimes esoteric arguments we make on a daily basis drive the broader cultural debate over topics like immigration, euthanasia and abortion. But we would do well to face the humbling truth that it is far closer to the truth to say that whoever wins the battle over which words get used in what context will win the day.
Much has been made, especially in our post-Dobbs moment, of how most of our elite institutions (health care, higher education, media, etc.) have been captured by a pro-abortion ideology. This has little to do with facts or arguments, and has mostly to do with the fact that abortion is perceived in such circles as necessary for the functioning of the dominant sexual culture (especially when contraception fails) and for the economic and social equality of women forced to participate in said culture. These are bad arguments, and they have been refuted many times before.
But it is important to know that, in the circles of our elite institutions, abortion is in a very real sense "too big to fail." Lacking the necessary arguments to make this happen, language must therefore be shifted to reflect the desired reality. The prenatal human child simply must be described in terms that are dehumanizing (at least when unwanted) so as to make her easier to throw away. There is no other option.
This has been going on informally for decades within these elite institutions, but the Associated Press recently took formal steps to impose language rules in this regard with their most recent "style guide" of terms related to abortion. One might initially feel pretty good about language like this: "The context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases where fetus could seem clinical or cold." Except that it turns out what the AP has in mind here is -- wait for it -- a context in which the child is wanted: "Weiss said her love for her unborn baby was the strongest feeling she had ever felt. The expectant mother lost her baby in the seventh month of pregnancy." The clear implication here is that terms like "fetus" are more appropriate in the context of abortion, when the baby is unwanted and needs to be easier to discard.
In addition, the AP seems to be particularly concerned about using language making sure very young prenatal human beings are easier to discard, especially given that most abortions take place fairly early in pregnancy. The phrase "late-term abortion" is not to be used. And before week 10, even the term "fetus" is forbidden in favor of "embryo." The term embryo, of course, conjures up images of eight-celled organisms in petri dishes -- not babies with arms, legs, and (working) hearts, who are large enough to cause a small baby bump! (Significantly, not a "fetus" or "embryo" bump.)
Oh, and speaking of heartbeats, the AP has bought into the biologically ignorant claims of abortion rights activists on this issue. In describing legislation that bans abortion after a prenatal child's heartbeat can be detected, we are told not to use terms like "fetal heartbeat bill" and "heartbeat bill." The reasons are spurious, circular and silly.
For instance, they say that "cardiac activity" (more on this in a moment) can take place around the sixth week of pregnancy, and that -- as we just learned -- is a time in pregnancy when we are to (arbitrarily) refer to the baby as an embryo and not a fetus. The AP goes on to say that "advanced technology" can detect a "flickering" in an embryo, which "has only begun forming a rudimentary heart."
But this is misleading at best and biological nonsense at worst. My wife and I -- along with many others who have lost a prenatal child -- learned the hard way (though widely available technology, even available to hear through a smartphone attachment and app) that the heartbeat is super important for the health of the early prenatal child. The "flickering" one hears at week six and beyond comes from the movement of a four-chambered heart pumping blood unidirectionally.
Secular Pro-Life has been a light shining in the darkness of the kind of misinformation coming from the AP. This Twitter thread, for instance, is worth reading in its entirety, and this image from the 10th edition of the embryology textbook "The Developing Human" corrects the AP's nonsense here almost all by itself. This not merely cells with "cardiac activity," but rather a heart that beats:
"There are more problems with the AP's new guidance than space permits me to address in a piece of this length. (The section which insists that journalists should put 'crisis pregnancy centers' in quotation marks is particularly embarrassing and revealing.) I wish I could say these guides merely reflect the esoteric emoting of coastal elites who are wedded to pro-abortion ideology. These style guides unfortunately have profound effects on journalism more broadly, and not just with the widely used pieces which come from the Associated Press."
Indeed, I've had my share of disagreements with editors in secular publications over this kind of language, and they most often simply ignore the case I'm making in favor of one simple response that is intended to end the conversation: "I'm sorry, but we just always go by the AP style guide." This really is a power move intended to paper over the reality of abortion in ways that deny this vulnerable population access to prenatal justice.
It is therefore essential for pro-lifers to fight back by directly resisting the use of this language and calling it out at every turn. For inspiration, we might draw on the example of Pope Francis, who, when it comes to abortion, insists that we be very direct and clear in our language:
"[Abortion is] homicide, whoever has an abortion, kills. No mincing words. Take any book on embryology for medical students. The third week after conception, all the organs are already there, even the DNA ... it is a human life, this human life must be respected, this principle is so clear! To those who cannot understand, I would ask this question: Is it right to kill a human life to solve a problem? Is it right to hire a hitman to kill a human life? Scientifically, it is a human life."
Inspired by Pope Francis, let us take the fight to those who would try to change our language to make prenatal human beings easier to discard. The battle must be joined on this front in particular, for it is how such language is used that may place the most significant role of all in determining whether prenatal children are ultimately granted or denied equal justice under law.
Charles C. Camosy is a professor of medical humanities at the Creighton University School of Medicine and the author of "Resisting Throwaway Culture" (New City Press, $19.95). This story has been reprinted with permission of Our Sunday Visitor.
- Charles C. Camosy, though a native of very rural Wisconsin, has spent more than the last decade as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of five books, including, most recently, "Resisting Throwaway Culture." He is the father of four children, three of whom were adopted from the Philippines.