Defending the Indefensible by David Mills

Defending the Indefensible

David Mills on the Language of Abortion

In a recent column, George Will described how USA Today and the New York Times both refused to run a pointed but visually inoffensive ad against partial-birth abortion. Placed by Focus on the Family, the cartoon’s first four panels showed a baby being born, but the fifth showed him with his eyes closed and the caption, “Then he felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull! He jerked violently! And then . . . it was over!”

The Times thought the ad “too graphic,” said Focus on the Family, and Will noted that USA Today “must have considered the ad in poor taste,” since it was not fraudulent or libelous, the newspaper’s other two reasons for turning down an ad. “If that moving but mild ad is objectionable to USA Today and the Times, then they probably consider any criticism of partial-birth abortion unfit for public consumption. Such censorship—in the name of compassion protecting the public’s tender sensibilities—represents a novel understanding of the duties of journalistic institutions.”

Transforming Reality

I do not believe, any more than George Will seems to, that these papers truly found the ad objectionable. It is not plausible, given the ads they do run and the stories they publish. They were acting, as a pro-choice media has acted for some time, to keep the reality of abortion out of public discourse.

But there is another way to hide a reality from others, and that is to lie about it. The most effective lies do not deny the reality, because to deny it implies that it might exist. The most effective lies transform the reality into something else entirely.

Something in us makes us give good names to the bad things we want to do, after which the good names keep us from feeling guilty when we do the bad things. In C. S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the senior devil Screwtape explains to the graduates of the Tempters’ Training College how the competent devil uses language in his work of encouraging a human soul to damn himself.

The work begins, Screwtape says, when the subject’s “consciousness hardly exists apart from the atmosphere that surrounds [him],” so that he does not quite realize what he is doing when he sins. To take advantage of this ignorance, he tells the graduate devils, “We have contrived that their very language should be all smudge and blur; what would be a bribe in someone else’s profession is a tip or a present in theirs.”

The tempter must then work to turn these not quite conscious choices to sin into habits and these habits into principles, and again he does so by encouraging the subject to change his language. The unconscious desire to be like everyone else “now becomes an unacknowledged creed or ideal of Togetherness or Being like Folks. Mere ignorance of the law they break now turns into a vague theory about it—remember they know no history—a theory expressed by calling it conventional or puritan or bourgeois ‘morality.’”

We see people doing this sort of thing all the time, and most of us do it ourselves. In public life we see people doing it, not surprisingly, to the most vulnerable. People who would never hit a child or raise their voices even to a defiantly disobedient child, will speak of an unborn child as “tissue” or “the product of conception” or even more abstractly of “a woman’s right to control her own body,” in explaining why the “tissue” must be removed and the pregnancy (not the baby) “terminated.”

“Improving” the Race


David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

Online
Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.


more on abortion from the online archives

19.1—January/February 2006

As If We Were to Be Immortal

on Death & Seven of the Last Words of Socrates by Graeme Hunter

30.3—May/June 2017

Known Trespassing

on the Misuse of Property Rights to Justify Slavery & Abortion by Robert Hart

24.1—January/February 2011

Sanger's Victory

How Planned Parenthood's Founder Played the Christians, and Won by Allan C. Carlson


more from the online archives

32.3—May/June 2019

Theodicies & Messy Desks

on the Infinite Problem of Goods & Evil by Hugh Hunter

18.3—April 2005

Lions of Succession

on Being a Free Narnian & the Joy of Subordination by Donald T. Williams

32.4—July/August 2019

An Alien Warfare

Today's Culture Wars Are Both Ancient & Modern by Allan C. Carlson

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

00