Philippa Taylor

Lessons in Language

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

I was intrigued to read the following short tweet a couple of weeks ago by the pro-abortion organisation, ‘Education for Choice’, during the recent discussion in the media on reducing the legal time limits for abortion. This tweet was aimed at journalists:

‘Journos, can we stop saying ‘risk to the mother’s health when talking about women accessing abortion? Thanks.’

The emphasis in bold was included in the original tweet. The writer was clearly concerned about the messaging of the phrase ‘mother’s health’, which (rightly) says that pregnant women are already mothers. The writer would presumably have preferred the phrase ‘woman’s health’, in order to avoid any hint that a baby is already in existence, and in order to make the debate simply one about women’s rights generally.

This tweet is a reminder of the importance and power of language. Words can take on different meanings, and give different messages, depending on their use and how we as a society hear them. Language can be manipulated to both tell and distort the truth, and mask or expose the scientific and ethical reality of serious issues.

We therefore need to be both careful and clever with our language.

We must be careful not to be false, misleading or to cause unnecessary offence. We must be careful not to be drawn into the language of those who are twisting and manipulating language for their own means. But we must also be clever with our own use of language and remember the messages that it is sending. We can frame the debate in our own terms too.

Here are some examples with abortion.

Abortion proponents often prefer to avoid use of the word ‘abortion,’ so they use ‘choice’. Either they are ‘pro-choice’ or their opponents are ‘anti-choice’.  Yet, as Charles Colson argues, the expression is nonsense.  What does it mean to be ‘anti-choice’? Everyone makes hundreds of choices each day, some of which are insignificant, like what to have for breakfast, while others involve choosing between right and wrong, such as whether or not to tell the truth. No one who opposes abortion opposes these kinds of human freedom. Moreover its use in this context is hypocritical because those who claim to be for the protection of ‘choice’ are happy for choice to be restricted for others on other controversial issues eg. for smoking or for talking on mobiles while driving.

The truth is, as Colson goes on to say, the use of the term ‘anti-choice’ aims to divert attention from what is being chosen. ‘Choice’ is a morally empty concept as the morality of a choice lies in what we choose. It is easier and sounds more ‘acceptable’ to say ‘pro-choice’ than ‘pro-abortion’. Similarly, calling people ‘anti-abortion’ focuses attention on the reality of abortion, so it’s better to call them ‘anti-choice.’

The baby in the womb is sometimes referred to as a ‘product of conception’, or a clump of cells and tissue. Here a writer talks about a ‘mass of splitting and differentiating cells’.  Yet how often do we say to a pregnant woman, whether or not her baby is ‘wanted’: ‘Is this your first clump of cells?

Do we refer to a ‘baby’ or a ‘fetus’? Calling an unborn child a fetus, while medically accurate, can also de-personalise the growing baby, allowing members of the public to rationalise abortion. The context of use is important here.

When a woman is pregnant, people often say she is ‘expecting a child’ or is ‘going to have a baby’ or is ‘going to be a mother.’ We all use these expressions from force of habit, and using them has no reflection on our convictions on abortion. Nevertheless, some have argued that we should not use these phrases as they do not accurately describe what is happening. A woman who is pregnant is not ‘expecting’ a child, she already has one. The pregnant woman is not ‘going to be’ a mother, she already is a mother.

When referring to a human embryo, some prefer to use the term ‘fertilised egg’, implying that there is no life yet, it is not an embryonic human being. Or they refer to the embryo as ‘it’ rather than ‘him/her’.  These subtle word changes are small but carry a message.

Is the term ‘therapeutic abortion’ really the right term to use when pregnancy is not a disease needing therapy, and when abortion does not ‘cure’ the ‘disease’?

In the US, during debates on partial-birth abortion, some journalists called the procedure by its direct name, ‘partial-birth abortion,’ however many others used the unwieldy and more subversive phrase: ‘what opponents of the procedure call partial-birth abortion.’

There are similar examples with the language of eugenics too.

In 1968 eugenicist, Frederick Osborn wrote: ‘Eugenic goals are most likely to be achieved under another name than eugenics’. The power of eugenic ideology lies partly in its ability to not draw attention to itself, to appear commonplace.

Savulescu has recently pointed out that the Nazis would have fully approved of the current system of eugenics (his use of words), which focuses on removing embryos with diseases, including genetic disorders that cause intellectual disability, such as Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome. Eugenics is less overt now, but it is still there, hidden behind the practice of genetic testing for diseases to select the ‘best’ embryos possible, to carry out sex selection and to destroy embryos with genetic defects.

John Wyatt in a recent public debate suggested that instead of the term ‘slippery slope’ we could use the more accurate term ‘incremental extension’ when referring to concerns over extending the application of genetic testing and the legalising of assisted suicide.

Which brings us to end of life issues, where language plays a highly emotive and influential role. Here are one or two examples:

Most readers will recall that a few years ago the ‘Voluntary Euthanasia Society’ renamed itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ in order to gain wider public acceptability. The purpose of the organisation itself is unchanged as a Daily Telegraph article commented at the time: ‘In this case…it is hard to shake off the suspicion that euthanasiasts are shy of spelling out what they are really about, viz killing people’.

The words ‘assisted dying’ have come to replace the traditional (and more accurate) terms ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’. However assisted dying in reality means acts of medical killing – one person taking the life of another.

The US States of Oregon and Washington now have Bills that legalise physician-assisted suicide yet they are called ‘Death with Dignity’ Bills. The goal of promoters of these laws is to use them as a model for other US States. In California similar legal changes were proposed in 2007 under an Act called the ‘Compassionate Choices Act’.  We can expect more of the same language of compassion and dignity as the legal debates continue on the end of life.

There are many more examples that could be cited, that illustrate the ‘linguistic fog that obscures what’s really the issue’. Going back to my first example, on the use of the word ‘choice’, when we hear ‘choice’ being used in public debate these days, we need to remember that nobody is objecting to choice of itself, but rather to what is being chosen.  It is then up to us to point out that with the freedom to choose comes the responsibility to choose justly.

And we should not forget that whenever we write or speak on access to abortion, we should ensure that we highlight the risk to the mother’s health from accessing abortion.

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy

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