May 19th, 2022


Language in the Service of Life

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Oct. 20, 2014

In the past few weeks, two prominent "letters" have been disseminated by their authors to the world, in which they announced their intention to kill. And the world has applauded, awed by the sensitivity and pathos in their writing.

Two weeks ago Brittany Maynard announced via People magazine that she intends to kill herself on Nov. 1 with the assistance of a physician who will prescribe lethal medication for her to take. Maynard was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma multiforme — a very aggressive brain tumor — earlier this year, and has been given very little time to live. She wants to live, but knows that death is imminent and professes the desire to die "on her own terms," as opposed to what she has had described for her as the cancer's inevitable trajectory. She and her entire family moved to Oregon so that she could exercise the right to assisted suicide (which is legal only in Oregon and four other states).

Maynard's essay and the campaign she has kicked off to make assisted suicide legal for all Americans, has received widespread acclaim.

Last week, an anonymous author published a letter on Reddit to her unborn child, whom she addressed tenderly as "Little Thing." In the letter, she expressed her love for her child — and her reasons for aborting it the following Friday. Cosmopolitan republished the letter under the headline, "Woman posts heartwarming letter before abortion."

"Heartbreaking," I might understand; but "heartwarming"???

Humans are capable of creating extraordinary beauty and appreciating it. Among our primary tools for doing so are our words. It is dismaying, therefore, to see the extent to which beautiful words are being used to justify the destruction of life, without regard to the larger consequences.

America has become oddly schizophrenic on this point. With climate change, for example, the standard line is that our smallest daily decisions have global repercussions. And yet in matters as consequential — albeit personal — as birth and death, we're told that other people's choices don't affect us.

With all due respect, 57 million aborted children in America (nearly 1 billion worldwide) affects us all, in ways we cannot possibly even imagine. And a nationwide push for assisted suicide while the government presses to take complete control over health care is, to say the least, profoundly concerning (as Europe's experience with legalized euthanasia demonstrates).

The justification used for these decisions is frequently "choice." This is certainly the mantra of abortion advocates. Brittany Maynard claims that her "choice IS ethical, because it is a choice." But not all choices are "ethical." And what of those who have no choice? Aborted children do not choose to die. When people cannot make choices, society's ethical obligation is to protect them, not stand by and applaud while others destroy them, even when that destruction is accompanied by powerful sympathy and prosaic sentiment.

The same can be said when those we love are afflicted with debilitating disease or depression. "Love," in these cases, should mean treatment and care, curative when possible, and palliative if not.

No one wants to suffer or die, or to see a loved one face those things. But we must consider the societal effects that our actions — and our words — have. Are we inspiring and supporting those who are facing difficult pregnancies? Are we telling them that they — and their children — have value? Are we showing those fighting for their lives that every day has meaning, to them and to us? Or are we telling them to give up; that anything they "choose" to do is fine, as long as they express their reasons for doing so, beautifully?

Are we using our language in service to life? Or being taken in by intoxicating paeans to death?

10/09/14: Why does his administration refuse to protect us?
10/02/14: Toward a More Productive Policy Discourse
09/25/14: That burden called 'motherhood'
09/23/14: Obama's Johnny Bravo Moment

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.