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 The Missing Word 

January 23, 2003

In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Orwell added that “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them....

“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

I think of this passage often when I hear liberals and feminists defending abortion. They instinctively avoid plain words like kill. Tearing an unborn child to pieces or scalding it to death with chemicals is called terminating a pregnancy or exercising reproductive choice.

[Breaker quote: Orwell and abortion]The “pro-choice” faction (they can’t even bear to be called “pro-abortion”) not only avoid summoning mental pictures; they really hate actual photos of the bloody, mangled corpse that is all that remains of an aborted child. They consider it a foul tactic for their opponents to show what abortion looks like. Only evasive euphemisms are permitted.

They also consider it terribly coarse to call abortion “baby-killing.” Here too they prefer a Latin word: it’s not a child, it’s a mere “fetus.” As if a clinical term somehow changes the nature of the act. As for killing, that too is excessively direct for their taste. We speak of killing crabgrass and cockroaches without compunction, because they are low and disposable forms of life; but there is no denying that they live. But a human child, growing, developing, even kicking? Apparently we’re to believe it’s not alive, so destroying it isn’t killing.

The great pagan philosopher Aristotle was more honest. He said plainly that deformed infants should be killed, for the general good of the community. And infanticide was a general practice among the ancient Greeks and Romans before the Christian era. They did it with a good conscience, and they didn’t try to pretend they weren’t killing their children by giving the act a fancy name.

Their candor, at least, is refreshing, compared with the lies of the “pro-choice” faction, who use every circumlocution they can think of to distract us from what they are really talking about. “Reproductive freedom,” “abortion providers,” “a woman’s right to control her own body” — when a pregnant woman feels that baby kicking, does she think it’s her own body kicking her? Of course not. She says, “The baby is kicking!” It already has its own body, its own will. She can’t control it.

In recent days I’ve read three “pro-choice” articles. None of the authors could bring himself (or herself) to use the word kill. One of them, as it happens, was the British writer Christopher Hitchens, whose most recent book, ironically enough, is a celebration of George Orwell.

But the original Orwell is there to insist that systematically evasive language is a sign of bad faith and bad conscience. If abortion is a “right,” it’s an oddly sneaking and shameful sort of right. Our Bill of Rights is a set of proud claims by free men. They didn’t need to avoid naming the freedoms they wanted.

The alleged right to abortion, by contrast, had to be tortured out of the Constitution by dubious reasoning and expressed in legalistic gobbledygook. The Supreme Court’s fateful decision, written in cuttlefish ink by Justice Harry Blackmun, avoided any mention of killing, blood, or children. It would have drawn a grim smile from Orwell.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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