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.

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