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Prevarications About Abortion in the Highest Places

The New York Times is typical of secular progressive media outlets in routinely accusing Donald Trump and various other “right-wing extremists” of “pushing a false narrative” and simply lying. While it is undeniable that Mr. Trump and some of his more zealous supporters are hardly paragons of veracity, the Times likewise fails to meet the standard of reliable truthfulness. The principal difference is that the Times is adept at manipulating its readers’ perception of a contested issue in more subtle and elusive ways.

Mr. Trump, for instance, is not above asserting as facts propositions of which the falsity may be easily ascertained. The Times, however, usually offers any number of true statements, but with so many tactical omissions of relevant details and a general distortion of the overall context that the effect is as misleading as a direct lie and even more insidious, because the falsehood is more difficult to detect. Perhaps the best term for this is prevarication, which, in the pertinent sense, is defined as, “To deviate from straightforwardness; to speak or act in an evasive way; to quibble, equivocate.” Although the nation’s “newspaper of record” has prevaricated about a myriad of subjects in the interest of extreme, secular progressivism, it has done so inveterately and vehemently on no issue so much as abortion.

No piece illustrates this practice more decisively than a “guest essay” by Gary Wills, “The Bishops Are Wrong About Biden—and Abortion” (June 27, 2021). Many of the pro-abortion essays in the Times and similar publications are written by individuals who appear to be so ignorant and inept that they may actually believe, more or less, what they are saying, but no such excuse is available to Mr. Wills. The heading of the Times article identifies him as the author of “more than 50 books on Catholicism, the history of Christianity, and American history and politics.” Mr. Wills is, then, the best the Times has to offer in defense of legalized abortion and President Biden’s aggressive promulgation of it. When Mr. Wills’s carefully loomed fabric of sophistry frays and falls apart under scrutiny, the barrenness of pro-abortion arguments is manifest.

A Mendacious Screed

Mr. Wills begins by asking, “What is the worst crime a society can commit?” After offering the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II as his own answer, he then remarks, “Some Catholics and evangelicals” maintain that “the deliberate killing of untold millions of unborn babies by abortion” is a worse crime. “They have determined that the fetus is a person and abortion is therefore murder. This is a crime of such magnitude that some Catholic bishops are trying to deny the reception of Holy Communion by the president of the United States for not working to prevent it.”

Mr. Wills then proceeds to treat this as a complete novelty in Catholic teaching, acknowledging no Catholic opposition to abortion (and contraception) before Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii in 1930. Dante did not put abortionists in the lowest circle of hell, Mr. Wills observes. Abortion is not condemned as the “sin of all sins” by any New Testament author, and neither Moses nor Jesus nor “any of the major definitive creeds” are on record “as opposing abortion.” St. Augustine professes not to know when “in the procreative process personal life begins.” St. Thomas Aquinas, however, following Aristotle, maintains that it begins late in pregnancy with the acquisition of a rational soul, until which time the fetus “is not a human being.”

There are, to be sure, any number of factual statements included in this screed, but the overall effect is thoroughly mendacious. In the first place, although Mr. Wills may have found some Catholic or evangelical who has said that abortion is “the worst crime a society can commit,” this is not the position of the American bishops or most pro-lifers. Their point is that the horror of abortion is currently the most egregious example of the killing of the innocent on a mass scale in a manner that has not only been legalized by the government, but actively and ruthlessly promoted.

Mr. Biden, for example, is not only “not working to prevent it”; he has signed executive orders and sought legislation that make it mandatory for almost all employers, large and small, to fund abortion through health insurance, and that effectively exclude from the medical profession anyone unwilling to participate in abortion. Abortion is thus a singular example of the shedding of innocent blood, which has always been condemned by Christians as a sin “crying to heaven for vengeance” (Gen. 4:8-12).

Devious on the Fetus’s Humanity

Further, opponents of abortion do not generally make a point of insisting that a fetus is a “person” or make his right to life contingent upon attaining personhood. The key term is not “person” but rather “human being.” Persona is the Latin rendering of the Greek word prosopon, which originally names the mask worn by performers in ancient drama. In classical Latin, persona came to mean the role, function, office, or status that a man might assume in life, but it did not designate his humanity as such. This usage does not develop in English, and then only casually, until the sixteenth century.

R. V. Young is Professor of English Emeritus at North Carolina State University, and a former editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. His Shakespeare & the Idea of Western Civilization is forthcoming in January from Catholic University of America Press. He and his wife are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dunedin, Florida. They have five grown children, 15 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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