Jewish World Review March 30, 2005 / 19 Adar II 5765
A failure to communicate
What a mouthful: Vice President for Community Affairs, Arkansas, of Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, Inc.
It wasn't easy to recognize an old, easygoing friend behind that title.
He'd come by the newspaper office here in Little Rock, accompanied by a couple of distinguished colleagues, to make the case for (or maybe against) reproductive life.
He started off by lecturing us ignorant editorial writers on what words we should be using. We weren't really pro-life, he explained, but anti-choice.
One could as easily contend that the opposite of pro-life isn't really pro-choice, but pro-death. But to what end? What would that have accomplished? We were already passing one another like ships in the night, each heavily freighted with its own vocabulary. Shades of Cool Hand Luke! What we had here was . . . a failure to communicate.
The language lesson went downhill from there as the delegation from Planned Parenthood explained that abortion, or at least the form of it that's done before implantation in the uterus, isn't abortion at all.
What is it then?
It took a long moment for another member of the delegation, a Ph.D., to come up with the proper euphemism: a Blighted Ovum.
Somehow I don't think the term is going to catch on.
Indeed, our visitors conducted the entire interview sermon and orientation process in some language other than English. I'm not sure what to call it. Medicanto? It was full of scientific-sounding terms that seemed designed to sanitize, or at least obscure, what was actually going on.
Blighted Ovum, Unwed Birth Prevention, Termination of Pregnancy, Reproductive Health Needs, Decision-Making Skill in a School Setting, Community-Wide Initiative . . . . The euphemisms flowed with scarcely a pause.
The jargon has become familiar by now, all these years after Roe v. Wade.
It's not easy to get the hang of it. It might help to remember that we're not starving a severely brain-damaged woman to death in Florida. We're just terminating a persistent vegetative state. Since she can't feel pain, we're told, it's inaccurate to speak of her "being starved to death," with its connotation of suffering. (Then why is she being given morphine? Don't ask.)
We don't kill in modern America; we only make a Choice.
If there is a single reason the pro-Choice side of this debate is losing the now decades-old struggle for the American conscience, maybe it's because it can't justify its views in plain English. Instead it has to take refuge in euphemisms, lest it have to face what it's advocating.
The language our visitors were speaking wasn't easy to pin down, but slowly it occurred to me that the spirit was familiar. It had the ring, or rather thud, of the German of the 1930s, when there was much talk about lebensunwerten Lebens, or life unworthy of living. ("Nazi Plan to Kill Incurables to End Pain; German Religious Groups Oppose Move" The New York Times, Oct. 10, 1933.)
Once the modern, secularized concept, Quality of Life, replaces the old, religious idea of the Sanctity of Life, anything becomes permissible.
The process only begins with high-minded appeals to kill excuse me, terminate the congenitally deformed, the mentally retarded, the Down's syndrome babies, the senile who have lived too long, and the blighted ova who, we are assured, were never alive at all.
From there the list of those to be eliminated can be expanded to social undesirables: blacks, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, half-breeds and the racially impure in general, idiots and morons not affiliated with the National Socialist Party . . . .
It will all be done, to quote that old story in the Times, which really hasn't changed all that much since the 1930s, "in the interest of true humanity."
The list can grow indefinitely under the right, or rather wrong, political circumstances. As it did in the 1930s.
The trick is never, never to recognize those being killed, uh, terminated as human. Call them anything but. Devise new names for them that distances them from us. Untermenschen, permanent vegetative state, fetus, bighted ovum, blastocyst . . . . Once their human identity is lost, they can be stamped out without scruple. Verbicide always precedes homicide.
Sitting around a conference table in oh-so-civilized 2005, one of our highly refined visitors explains that we should have the kindness to treat our old, sick and suffering the way veterinarians do our pets put them out of their misery.
At one point the delegation from Planned Parenthood explains that the purpose of our meeting is to find common ground for projects aimed at preventing/terminating teenage pregnancy, with especial attention to a couple of sub-groups, African-American and Hispanic girls. It all sounds eerily familiar.
As they file out, I thank our visitors for the time and trouble they've taken to pay us a visit, and suppress a shudder.
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