Inflammatory Language

by Jay Johansen

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Pro-abortionists routinely accuse pro-lifers of using inflammatory language to describe abortion. They criticize us for using words like "killing" and "murder". They say it is highly inappropriate to show ugly pictures of the remains of aborted babies.

For example, when Ohio was debating a law forbidding partial-birth abortion (called "brain suction abortion" in the Ohio bill), I met with one of our legislators to discuss it. She was quite angry over our use of "graphic language" to describe the procedure and pictures such as the one at the right. Any medical procedure could be made to sound ugly through the use of graphic language or pictures, she insisted, so pro-lifers use of such things was a propaganda ploy to stir up opposition.

The flaw with this reasoning is that it confuses two very different kinds of unpleasantness.


An Accident or an Assault?

Suppose I told you that Sally fell down the stairs and was seriously hurt. You might feel sympathy for Sally. I don't doubt that a good writer could describe the accident in graphic terms so that you would be appalled at what she suffered and cringe just thinking about it. But assuming this was simply an accident, this would not lead you to be angry at anyone, or resolve that something must be done to stop people from doing this sort of thing. Stop who from doing what? There is no moral issue here.

But suppose instead I said that Fred became angry at Sally over some trivial incident -- she failed to get out of his way when he was in a hurry or something -- and so he pushed her down the stairs and she was seriously hurt. Now you might not only feel sympathy for Sally; you might also feel hostility toward Fred. A good writer could describe this incident in terms that not only make you feel the extent of Sally's pain, but also make you angry at Fred. You might well think that Fred should suffer some penalty for his actions. At the very least you would surely think that some steps should be taken to prevent Fred from doing this sort of thing again, or to protect others from such harm.

In both cases, a skillful writer could stir our emotions by using graphic language. But the two cases stir very different emotions.

Good Talkers

True, a good talker could make a trivial problem sound serious. I've occasionally seen "exposés" on TV news telling of how some poor person was terribly oppressed, and the story is told so skillfully that I'm really feeling sorry for this poor victim, and only later does it hit me, Hey, his big problem was that he was cheated out of thirty cents? That was the big scandal they're highlighting?

And let's concede that a good talker could make an accident sound like negligence or even deliberate assault. There have been plenty of court cases where there was a tragic accident, and the lawyers rush in to find someone to blame so they can collect big legal fees on a damage suit. (Like, Sally fell down the stairs because the builder of the staircase failed to post a sign warning of the dangers of falling down staircases, or because the shoe store sold her a pair of shoes with heels too high for her to balance properly, etc.)

But of course, while a skilled speaker can make a trivial issue sound important, a skilled speaker can also bring our attention to an issue that really is important. While a skilled speaker can make an innocent person sound guilty, a skilled speaker can also bring our attention to the crimes of a guilty person.

Causing or Curing?

A description of a disease or injury might sound ugly, but we do not condemn the doctor who treats it. Surely the reason for this is obvious: The doctor is not responsible for the ugliness of the disease. Quite the contrary, he is trying to cure it. A life-saving operation might sound ugly if described graphically, but still, the doctor is not doing what he is doing for the purpose of causing pain or ugliness. This is an unfortunate by-product of an attempt to do good.

In an abortion, though, it is not an accident or a by-product that the unborn baby's body is mutilated and the baby is killed. This is exactly what the abortionist set out to do. This is the purpose of abortion.

One could well argue that the only "propaganda" going on here is when someone describes abortion as "simply another medical procedure". For surely if abortion is a "medical procedure", it is very different from what we normally think of when we think of medicine. My dictionary defines "medicine" as "the science of treating and preventing disease", or "a substance used in or on the body to treat disease, lessen pain, or heal". Abortion does not fit this definition. In most cases, neither baby nor mother is sick. Abortion causes the baby pain; it does not "lessen" it. No one is healed of anything.

Extreme Language

If someone uses extreme language to deceive people, yes, that is propaganda and is wrong. But if someone uses extreme language to bring people's attention to a serious problem, surely that is a public service.

The question is not if the language is extreme. The question is if the statements being made are true or false.

In the partial birth abortion debate, were the language and pictures that pro-lifers used to describe partial birth abortion accurate? Yes, they were. The abortionist who invented the procedure, Martin Haskell, admitted in an interview with American Medical News that the pictures were accurate "from a technical point of view". The descriptions are clearly consistent with a paper Mr Haskell wrote describing the procedure.

The language and pictures pro-lifers used were true. If they were ugly, that is because the reality they were describing was ugly. Who is to blame for that? The pro-lifers? Or the abortionists?

If a picture of an abortion is too ugly to look at, perhaps the reality of abortion is too ugly to tolerate.


Posted 4 Sep 2000.

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Copyright 1997 by Ohio Right to Life. Used with permission.
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