Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2003 / 24 Mar-Cheshvan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Vocabulary is all in the abortion debate | Vocabulary remains the Little Round Top of any political or even moral debate - the strategic ground that each of the contenders seeks to seize and hold, knowing the position could be crucial to the whole battle.

That's why those opposed to abortion describe themselves as pro-life (who would want to be anti-life?) while those on the other side prefer to be known not as anti-life but pro-choice, Choice being a word with all kinds of positive, American connotations. (Shop at Jones Supermarket for a wider choice!)

It's not politic for those who favor legalized abortion even to refer to abortion. Like the deed, the word is so . . . ugly. If they must say the Word, they prefer to speak of "abortion rights," as if it were mentioned in the Constitution instead of being insinuated there by Roe vs. Wade.

By now this debate has gone on for so long that there are all kinds of hills to take in this semantic war. Soon they'll have to be numbered, as in the Korean Conflict, itself a political and legal euphemism for the Korean War.

Long before this president signed this bill outlawing partial-birth abortion, a particularly gruesome kind, those on the other side of this issue began looking for softer words to describe it. A nice, scientific-sounding Latinate term might take the onus off, something like "dilation and extraction" or "intact dilation and evacuation" or whatever - just as long as it had lots of syllables and wasn't too exact. So you won't actually picture what's being done. No need to go into detail about removing the baby/fetus halfway, then sucking its brains out, before removing the remains.

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Besides, if "dilation and extraction" were the procedure outlawed, a canny abortionist could just add his own twist to the procedure, literally, and say he was practicing some other quite different - and still legal - operation, even if the baby was just as dead. (Excuse me, the fetus or unperson or whatever euphemism is currently employed.)

That's why those supporting this bill defined it in plain English: A partial-birth abortion is any abortion in which the baby is delivered "past the (baby's) navel . . . outside the body of the mother," or "in the case of head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother," before being killed. It's not soothing language, but it's clear - unlike the vague technical jargon those in favor of it would like to hide behind.

The opposition to a ban on partial-birth abortion had to find some other way to refer to it - anything but admit that what was happening was a partial-birth abortion. Indeed, it is a partial birth. A partial birth aborted. But never call it partial-birth abortion. Too clear. Partial Birth Abortion may be good enough for the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, but you won't find it in the bowdlerized vocabulary of those trying to keep it legal. Too accurate.

Some of the pro-abortion commentators - excuse me, pro-choice news analysts - don't just go around the barn to describe what they're talking about, they go around the whole farm. My favorite example was supplied by the imitable Dan Rather. You couldn't have got the words "partial-birth abortion" out of him with a forceps. Instead, he resorted to this torturous path around the subject on the CBS Evening News:

"Abortion rights take a historic hit from Congress. What do women face? . . . Good evening. It is one of the biggest developments in the battle over abortion rights since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling supporting a woman's right to choose 30 years ago. Congress tonight gave final approval to legislation making it a crime for doctors to perform certain types of late-term abortions, legislation President Bush says he will sign into law."

Certain types of late-term abortions. Beautiful. Not very accurate but politically effective. A partial abortion may be performed as early as 26 weeks into the pregnancy, and most are done in the second trimester - in the fifth and sixth months. But, hey, Dan Rather avoided the verboten term, Partial Birth Abortion, and that's what the game is all about, isn't it? Seizing the verbal high ground, which is quite different from the moral high ground.

An old editor around the shop smiled at all the fuss about how to get around calling a partial birth abortion a partial birth abortion. "You know what this reminds me of?" he asked. I didn't. "It reminds me of those small Southern newspapers back in the '50s who couldn't bring themselves to say civil rights. They used to refer to 'so-called civil rights' bills.'"

That's it. That's the perfect analogy. Ol' Dan Rather and various wire services and NARAL and all the other euphemizers are looking for a construction that hints at the truth while discreetly distancing themselves from it. I can hear Mr. Rather's mellifluous Texas accent even now: "Today the debate over so-called partial birth abortions escalated when the Supreme Court . . . ." At least the listener would know what the heck he was talking about.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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