Friday, September 19, 2008

Words Matter

Recently someone I was discussing abortion with accused people who are pro-life of deliberately misusing language to support the untenable position of “it’s OK to kill babies”. She insisted that the terms zygote, embryo and fetus are really just euphemisms to dehumanize a baby and make it all right to kill babies.  I want to point out that first of all, it’s not true that Pro-choice people are using misleading terms.  Furthermore, it’s the people who call themselves “Pro-life” when they really mean Anti-choice who are using a misleading euphemism.
Zygote, Embryo, Fetus, Baby
One of the things I love about the English language is its richness.  Yes, we have a thousand ways to say the same thing.  But, more importantly, we have the language to express differences both subtle and massive.  We  can call a two year old a child, a baby or a toddler.  They’re all basically the same thing although you could argue there are slight differences between the meanings of the words.  We could say that a child is the same as an adult in that they are both human, they both have thoughts, feelings, emotions, can experience pain and pleasure. Yet, there are differences as well.  My point to this woman is that while a zygote, an embryo and a fetus do share some tings in common with a “baby”, in other very important ways they are very, very different.  Different enough to merit a different word.  I do not discount the anti-choice person’s arguments that a human life is human life whether it be a two-celled organism or an 80 year old man.  But, my point is this, a very good argument can be made for why a zygote (a collection of just a few cells with no ability to think, feel, experience pain, sustain its own life, breathe or any number of other things we think of as “human”) is very different from a fully developed human being.  While the pro-choice person would agree that an embryo or a zygote is a potential human life, we would not agree that is it human life. 

We use medical terms because we know the term “baby” is an emotionally charged term and because we also believe it is not the best descriptor for what the organism is and to call the undeveloped, potential being a “baby” is misleading.  A point I made earlier is many people seem to think that at the moment of conception a teeny, tiny baby is formed in the woman’s womb. That is simply not what happens.  At the point of conception, two very special cells, a spermatozoa and an ovum, come together and form another type of cell that begins to multiply and one day can potentially become human life.  When that collection of cells actually becomes a human being is beyond my pay grade. But, I have no difficulty differentiating between a collection of a few cells that can be stored in a Petri dish or frozen away for years and a human being.  Saying that making that distinction is disingenuous is a.) not productive in how we can come together to work on the abortion issue and b.) insulting to good, reasonable people who happen to disagree that the issue of exactly when human life begins is as simple as calling a zygote a baby.  The terms are not used to muddle the argument, to mislead or to cover up a deep down desire to kill babies.  The terms are used to be clear about exactly what we are talking about.  If you want to argue that a zygote is human life, fine.  If you want to argue that a fetus at 12 weeks or 22 weeks or whatever is a human life, fine.  But, a fetus is still a fetus and a zygote is a zygote and neither is a baby, in the normal sense of the word.

Secondly, as to how words matter, is the terms pro-life and pro-choice. I have to say that in the labeling department, the pro-life definitely won this skirmish in the war.  Pro-life.  Sounds so wonderful.  Doesn’t it?  Who wouldn’t want to be pro-life.  If you-re not pro-life, what are you?  Pro-death? Anti-life?  Who wants to be pro-death?  Not me.  Pro-choice.  That sounds pretty good, but not as good as pro-life.  Saying “I’m pro-life and you’re not.” automatically puts the pro-life person on superior moral ground.  If you have to choose between being for life and being for choice, it’s obvious which is the better position.  Isn’t it?  But, I would argue that pro-choice does not mean you are not pro-life.  Rather, being “pro-life”, as the term is commonly used, really means “anti-choice”.   Let’s juxtapose a couple of possible positions.

  • Pro-life versus Antil-life (or Pro-death)
  • Pro-abortion versus Anti-abortion
  • Pro-choice versus Anti-choice

We all know what that Pro-life commonly is known to mean. But, I say it’s a misnomer as commonly used.  My friend Debra made this point the other day when she pointed out herself as an example of what I have always said.  Debra has said she herself would never have an abortion.  In that sense, she considers herself Pro-life.  However, she also does not feel qualified to make that decision for all women, for all time and in all circumstances.  While her personal opinion is that women should not have abortions, she is not willing to impose that opinion on other people.  I would argue that Debra is both Pro-life and Pro-Choice, a position that would be impossible, if Pro-life really meant what it has been used to mean and Pro-Life were an antonym to Pro-Choice.

Just as a quick aside, does anyone else see the irony in the fact that so many who are “pro-life” and complain about our culture of death support capital punishment?   They have no problem with the putting to death of (as a friend put it) the “captive in chains”.  The deliberate and premedidated killing of a thinking, feeling human being is something that people who are “pro-life” has no problem with.  So, just how “Pro life" are those who support capital punishment?

Now, so what should be the antonym for Pro-life?  Maybe Pro-death or Anti-life?  I’ll also cover the other term that is less often used and is solely used by “Pro-life” people at the same time. That term is “Pro-abortion”.  I don’t know anyone who is either “Pro-abortion”, Anti-life or Pro-death when it comes to the issue of abortion.  I don’t know of anyone who says they want to see the number of abortions increase.  I made this statement a few months ago and someone pointed out that possibly people who run abortion clinics could be pro-abortion.  But, that would be an example of a financial incentive distorting what would otherwise be the position most reasonable people would take.  It is similar to a cigarette company wanting more people to smoke.  It’s not a position taken on principle, rather it is a distorted position based on financial gain.  No one wants to see more abortions.  Every one wants to reduce the number of abortions.  So, stop the nonsense and stop labeling people who are “pro-choice” as being pro-abortion. 

Now let’s look at Pro-choice versus Anti-choice.  This is the real crux of the debate.  It’s not whether’ you’re for life or not.  It’s not whether you’re for abortion or not.  It’s whether you’re going to make the choice for every woman in the United States or you are going to allow her to make that choice on her own.  Instead of labeling ourselves Pro-choice and Pro-life, more descriptive labels would be Pro-choice and Anti-choice.  But, no one wants to  say they’re Anti-choice.  So, they use the euphemism “Pro-life”.  I’m not saying that no one is really Pro-life, just that one can be “Pro-life” and still be Pro-choice.  So, to make a clear distinction, the people who are really against a woman’s right to choose should state that clearly in the label they use for themselves.   Just say you are against a woman's right to choose.

Words matter.  Let’s call a thing what it is.  Only by first being clear and honest in the words we choose can we make any progress in any discussion.  I, for one, will not concede when people try to label me as being intellectually dishonest for using the correct terms for an undeveloped, potential human being.  And, I will not allow people to label me as “Pro-abortion” as I certainly am not “Pro-abortion”.  I think whether women should have abortions or not is, at the very least debatable, and as long as it is debatable, I do not have the right to impose my opinion in the debate on someone else’s behavior.

Someone asked me if I think Obama wants to help women who are considering abortions.  I think that Obama does want to work to improve the conditions that cause a lot of women to have abortions.  But, with all due respect, that is still not the point.  Sure, some women will have regrets after having had an abortion. Yes, PASS (Post Abortion Stress Syndrome) is a real syndrome.  But, my point is this. This should be a decision a woman makes with counseling, advice or whatever from her doctor, preacher, priest, spiritual advisor, husband, friends, etc.  The question is choice or no choice, not whether or not abortion is a good thing.  If we can counsel every woman out of the United States out of abortions and the demand goes to zero, I will celebrate that right along with every other Pro-Life person in the country.



MysticBlueRose said...

Well thought out article, thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

If you want to be picky about words, then you can't argue that there's a question of when human life begins. Human life begins at conception. Pick up any biology textbook. You can argue about when personhood begins, but biologically speaking human life begins at conception.

brian said...


Yes, any cell is "life" by a certain definition. But, we do not call a brain cell "human life". We do not call a kidney "human life". And, I would argue that a zygote is not a human being. It's potentially a human being.

There is no one universal definition of "life". Conventionally speaking a zygote or an embryo misses on several of the 7 characteristics that are widely accepted. Homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli and reproduction.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you go pick up a biology textbook. No, we do not call a kidney human life, because it is part of the whole. A zygote is not part of the whole. It is the whole. You weren't paying attention in biology class, were you? I challenge you to go pick up any college embryology textbook and look up when human life begins.

brian said...

I must have skipped the day when they told us a zygote was a self-sustaining organism.

Anonymous said...

So you're just going to avoid the issue, then? Nevermind that the scientific consensus is that life begins at conception, you have your own ideas, so to hell with reason and logic. Very open-minded of you.

brian said...

There is far from a scientific consensus that a zygote is a human life in any normal sense of what we consider to be a sentient being. The embryo is an organism that lacks many (most) of the features of what we would call human.

I'm not avoiding anything. However, Anonymous, you are presenting as fact things that simply are not fact. I didn't say that a zygote is not living. I said it's not what most people refer to when they say "life". A cell is alive, a kidney is alive. You say a zygote is a "whole". Try taking that "whole" out of the host and see how long it can sustain itself.

It's simply not scientific to say that a zygote represents "human life" in most meanings of the word. It does not feel, does not think, cannot survive on its own, etc., etc. In term of its structure, well into the embryo stage a developing human is more like a frog than a human being with the exception that is has the potential to develop into human life.