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Death Illustrated

(Reprinted from The Wanderer, July 1, 1999, page 5)

The ever-annoying Margaret Carlson of Time magazine expresses her hope that “like most of us, [George W.] Bush may well have a more nuanced position” on abortion than simple opposition to it. The tony word nuanced, applied to abortion, means, of course, “not really against it in principle, or for that matter in practice.” Miss Carlson, by the way, calls one end of the spectrum “pro-choicers” and the other “the extremists.” How’s that for delicate nuance?

By the way, what’s the “nuanced” position on slavery?

Nuances are quickly dispelled by the sight of an aborted child, which is why the media never show the victims of abortion. This may be the single strongest taboo governing the news media these days. When you see a picture of an aborted child, you know instantly that some pro-life “extremist” wanted you to see it. Nobody else would be guilty of such bad taste. The abortion debate is supposed to be conducted without showing what we’re debating about. These little ones aren’t what Bill Clinton has in mind when he blubbers about “our children.”

I recently saw an extremely powerful picture — a bloodless one. It was a simple outline drawing of a child whose body had emerged from the birth canal while its head remained within. This of course is the position the child is in when a “partial-birth abortion” is committed. The child is actually already born in all but the most technical legal sense, which is the whole reason the procedure is used: it’s not really abortion, but barely legal infanticide, designed to protect the killer from the law.

If even that sketch were shown on television, it would change countless minds about abortion in general — which is exactly why it’s never shown on television. Or, for that matter, why it isn’t shown in the current issue of Time, which, however, offers grisly pictures and descriptions of “the horror” in Kosovo, complete with anecdotes underlining the pathos: “The sickly sweet smell of decaying flesh hangs in invisible clouds above the province, and the ground offers up body parts. Bits of ashen bone — a thigh, a rib cage — and chunks of roasted flesh litter the floors of burned-out houses. Corpses, left where they fell, putrefy in fields and farmyards amid the buzzing of flies and the howling of stray dogs.” A girl’s discovery of her father’s body is vividly described. The article features a two-page color photo of a woman’s gaping skull, matted with her hair. “I cannot tell you what it was like to see my father with bullets ripping him from head to toe,” one man is quoted as saying.

So the media can do a pretty good job of recreating physical sensation when they want to. And they usually want to. Even the print media, with full-color pictures, have become far more graphic than they used to be. When they want to be. Advances in technology naturally lead to greater explicitness. Usually.

But there’s one subject on which the media refrain from exercising their full First Amendment right to push our noses into reality — one lone subject on which they remain downright Victorian in their preference for circumlocution over imagery.

Before the sexual revolution, practically everyone participated in a benign conspiracy of silence about sex, and abortion was thought too sordid to mention, let alone describe, in polite company. The old taboos were observed in large part to shield the young from premature knowledge, as well as to respect the sensibilities of ladies and gentlemen. Protecting children, setting a good example, and observing standards of taste took priority over unbridled freedom of expression.

But the current taboo against showing abortion is hardly designed to protect children; just the opposite. It serves to protect the abortionist, as is his new title, the “abortion provider.” And it also protects those who are complicit with him. The media aren’t overly concerned about the impact of vivid images of sex and violence on children; as far as they’re concerned, kids are on their own. Shielding them is strictly their parents’ job, and the liberal society, in which the media play a central role, feels no obligation to help the parents.

Of course in the old days we didn’t see pictures of aborted children; they are certainly revolting, but there was no reason to show them when everyone agreed that abortion was evil. It’s interesting, and revealing, that this is about the only taboo that has survived from the days when American society was Christian; because this taboo just happens to serve the purposes of the sexual revolution, on which the media thrive.

So the media discuss abortion in bland and “nuanced” euphemisms and abstractions that pose no risk of horrifying the public, even as they dramatize carnage in the Balkans for the precise purpose of horrifying the public. Time wants us to have the most impassioned awareness of what’s going on in Kosovo; but it wants us to feel that nothing important is going on in America’s abortion clinics. In the television age, out of sight is indeed out of mind.

The bias of the media shows up not only in what information they report and in the slanted language they use, but most of all in what they choose to dramatize. Their choices are designed less to inform us than to move our passions and consciences in selected directions.

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