A pro-life Democrat on why language matters in the abortion debate
Jan. 13, 2019
The language that people choose to use in reference to unborn children and ideological opponents is at the crux of the abortion debate, a pro-life Democrat argued in a New York Times op-ed this week.
“The struggle in the abortion debate is, in many ways, a struggle over language,” wrote Charles C. Camosy, who serves on the advisory board for pro-life group Democrats for Life and is an associate professor at Fordham University.
“For example, I am pro-life. I strongly support rights and protections for mothers and children, including prenatal children, and other vulnerable populations. I want to see the laws of this country protect these people as well. In my view, this makes me pro-life. That’s why I use the phrase ‘prenatal child’ where other people would say ‘fetus,’” he said.
However, in the view of pro-choice people and of many mainstream media outlets, “I am not pro-life; I am anti-abortion. This language allows critics to dismiss me and fellow pro-lifers as single-issue obsessives, which we are not.”
Camosy noted that in recent years, those in favor of legal abortion have shifted their language from more neutral words like “autonomy” and “choice” and have used stronger, “stigma-defying” words that refer to abortion as “care” or as a “family value” or something about which one should shout.
Language choice becomes even more harmful when it is used as a tactic to dehumanize the unborn, he said. “The New York Times editorial board, for instance, recently used the phrase ‘clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings,’ in a discussion of rights being extended to a fetus in the womb, or what I call a prenatal child.
“Language like this ignores the fact that each of us once existed as ‘clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings.’ It seeks to hide the fact that by the time most surgical abortions take place, a prenatal child has electrical activity in the brain and a beating heart,” Camosy wrote.
Other terms used to dehumanize the unborn include: “tissue,” “part of the mother,” “parasite,” and “potential life,” he noted.
These words are biased because they are not used to refer to the unborn outside of an abortion context, he added. The word “baby” is used for almost everything else - doctor’s visits, baby showers, baby bumps, etc.
“We have shifted our language in ways that hide the dignity of the vulnerable, in this instance and on issues far from the abortion debate as well,” Camosy said, which “deadens one’s capacity to show concern for those who need it most.”
This language shifting, which objectifies humans and seeks to decrease their dignity, is part of what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture,” he noted.
Often, when Pope Francis speaks of the throwaway culture, he is referring to unbridled consumerism which dismisses the human dignity of those considered inconvenient, Camosy said, but Francis typically reserves his strongest words on the subject for the topic of abortion.
Research from Rehumanize International, a pro-life group, “has found tragic patterns in which marginalized populations are referred to as sub-humans, defective humans, parasites — and in the process become thought of as objects, things and products.”
This is limited not to unborn children, but to other vulnerable populations like immigrants, racial minorities, the elderly, people with disabilities, and prisoners, among others, he wrote.
“The Trump administration’s forced separation of immigrant children from their parents is a classic example of using people as objects. The administration’s ill-conceived attempt to use the profound suffering of children to deter illegal immigration failed to respect these children as human beings deserving of care and respect, not objects to be used as a means to an end,” he said.
Immigrants have also been dismissed or dehumanized using terms such as “illegals,” “swarms” of “undesirables,” “parasites,” or even “rapists” and “animals,” Camosy said.
He urged everyone who has genuine concern for vulnerable people to resist the urge to use dehumanizing language “intended to confirm biases and serve the interests of those who hold power over the weak.”
“If we are to avoid the hopelessly stale culture-war debates of the 1970s, then we must refuse the false choice between supporting vulnerable women and protecting vulnerable prenatal children,” he said.
“It will mean genuinely wrestling with the complexity of doing both. And it will mean engaging the arguments of our perceived opponents in good faith.”
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