In the wake of the Dobbs decision, it was not surprising to see the proabortion lobby raising hell by, among other things, posthumously summoning Ruth Bader Ginsburg (in the form of “Ruth Sent Us”) and by the timely release of HBO’s George Carlin American Dream documentary—the latter being the pretext for this reflection on abortion and euphemism.1
Like his soulmate Joe Biden, George Carlin is one of “those Catholics,” at once famous and infamous—well-known, and well-known for the extreme dissonance between their Catholic credentials and their moral convictions. What distinguished Biden from Carlin, however, was that Biden incongruously insisted—and continues to insist—on the consonance of “his faith” with his moral predilections, while Carlin consistently stood “on principle” (his principles) and disavowed his faith. This familiar cleavage of Catholic identity and private moral conviction is particularly and most frequently evident regarding abortion and the related litany of what are called “pelvic issues.” In the 2022 HBO series, we see Carlin in some of his most virulent rants against the Catholic Church and prolifers. This being a family publication, I will refrain from quoting verbatim the offensive passages or doing the written equivalent of bleeping them out. That said, my aim is to wrest “Saint George’s” lance from him and slay a dragon that he would not—by critiquing the deployment of verbal camouflage to obscure the violence by which millions of the unborn die.
From “Shellshock” to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
No doubt Carlin would be grieved to see the tools of his comic genius appropriated, conscripting him posthumously into the service of a cause he so violently disavowed in life—namely, Life itself. However, in addition to his lurid pro-abortion advocacy, Carlin was a veritable “St. George” when it came to exposing any form of words that deliberately veils or disfigures the truth. His targets tended to be selective—and in one direction.
In an iconic “set” from his late career,2 Carlin mercilessly dissected a line of increasingly opaque euphemisms that were used to inure the American public, over a sixty-year period, to the awful reality of a combat-related nervous disorder originally termed “shellshock.”3
You can’t be afraid of words that speak the Truth. Even if it’s an unpleasant truth. I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemistic language. American English is loaded with euphemisms because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality . . ., so they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it—and it gets worse with each generation.
Carlin goes on to offer an analysis of verbal subterfuge that is a master class in semantic deconstruction. He traces in time lapse, as it were, the gradual fogging of a concept from its original sharp coinage in World War I to its anodyne reformulation and gassy deflation by the time of Vietnam.
The neology “shellshock,” he points out, has just two syllables. “Simple. Honest. Direct.” He then observes that the conjunction of its hard consonant ending (“-ck”) and the staccato repetition of the “sh-” almost sounds like rifle recoil, like guns fired.4 Come World War II, he tells us, the language undergoes the first of three successive transformations. In less than a quarter century, he notes, “shellshock” melts into “battle fatigue.” Exact same condition. Now four syllables. “It takes longer to say. It doesn’t hurt as much.” “‘Fatigue’ is a nicer word than ‘shock.’” By the time of the Korean War, “battle fatigue” becomes “operational exhaustion.” Now it has eight syllables and, Carlin comments, “all humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase.” It is totally sterile. It sounds, he says, like “something that might happen to a car.” With the coming of the Vietnam War, “operational exhaustion” deflates even further into “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Still eight syllables, but now four words with a hyphen added—and the pain is “completely buried under jargon.” He concludes: “I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it ‘shellshock’ some of those Vietnam veterans might’ve gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll bet you. I’ll bet you.”
His point is well-taken, and it is that we must call things by their real names. Much—and many—may depend on it. It almost goes without saying that words are not the things they refer to and that there is a chasm between representation and reality. Even so, we seem to know ourselves to be under some quiet imperative to conform our words to the world and its true contours—conscience so beckons. Even if we concede that language is imperfect, that it does not always “cut reality at the joints,” this does not relieve us of the obligation to wield it as precisely as possible, especially when it really matters—as when a life is on the line.
Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war.5 The coda of Carlin’s skit is a cautionary tale, a regretful lament, and finally a cry of outrage over that avoidable fatality. Ideas have consequences—moral ones—and language is the primary vehicle of our ideas. In language there is an ever-present fork— the option to reveal or conceal, to one degree or another, the truth about things we write or speak of. What we say and how we say it shapes what we see or do not see, what we do or refrain from doing.
Carlin had no problem righteously exposing the appalling truth buried under the path from “shellshock” to “PTSD.” He saw that softening the properly sharp edges of the original language masked the ugliness of the condition and the violence that produced it, dissolving the condition into a diagnostic abstraction. Consequently, a serious condition was effectively trivialized, removed from the field of vision—from the field of battle—where it could be (and was) ignored. Or to put a finer point on it: Our veterans could be and would be ignored—left to languish, suffer, and die, untreated.
From “Abortion” to “Women’s Reproductive Healthcare”6
Recourse to euphemism is not confined to the arena of war. Euphemism is also the lingua franca of the pro-abortion movement—another realm of violent action. That observation was a bridge too far for George Carlin and his ilk. But let us go where comedians fear to tread. There is nothing to stop us from taking and applying his methodology to the murky cognates of abortion—the real civil rights issue of the 21st century. (President Biden claims that title for LGBTQ+, but the president is mistaken.)
If one were to dissect or x-ray that method, it would disclose something like the following properties as the marks or tactics of verbal dissimulation—or a strategy thereof:
• Length and complexity—longer, more complex language exercises the mind and, in some cases, intimidates through a false veneer of intellectual sophistication.
• Vagueness or abstraction—eschewing the clear, concrete, and specific (what philosophers refer to as “definite descriptions”).
• Antonyms—the overt, unashamed resort to outright conceptual contraries, to achieve maximum opacity.
• Esoteric or technical terminology—as opposed to ordinary, commonplace (in this case) English words, with plain, widely available meanings.
• Partial, trivial, or irrelevant truths—employed to evoke the perception of complete, meaningful, or germane truths—but “on the cheap.”
• Neutral, “clinical,” or even positive language—to mask benighted facts.
This is the Euphemist’s Toolkit, if you will. So, in the spirit of Carlin’s method, let us fix on that ubiquitous expression—“women’s reproductive healthcare” (WRH, henceforth)—and dissect it in a similar way. The surface scope of reference is, by design, much broader, encompassing in theory pap smears, mammograms, sonograms, pelvic and physical exams, the provision of antibiotics, flu shots, vaccines, and even cold remedies. But this implied “portfolio of products and services” is really meant to camouflage the D&Cs, D&Es, and abortifacients that shelter, so to speak, among and behind them. It is a distraction strategy, designed to block the real referents, the means of violence that will not speak their names.
“Women’s Reproductive Healthcare”—eight syllables, three words—is more than twice the length of “abortion,” with its three compact syllables occupying one word7—bearing in that sense a resemblance to “operational exhaustion” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Perhaps the first thing to point out is that the middle term (“reproductive”) is the very thing that an abortion is designed to intercept and terminate—human reproduction and human ontological development. Yet there it sits, between “women” and “healthcare,” without any hint of irony. But it is the negation of reproduction that “we” are really talking about. Abortion is not the pro-duction—let alone the re-production—of anything or anyone. Destruction and death hide behind an antonym. Then there are its salient associations with the industrial, with manufacturing, with assembly or construction out of components, rather than with organic development and fruition. Production is about making things and reproduction is about making copies of things. The clear point of this nomenclature, again, is to dehumanize. We are meant to have our eyes diverted or deceived.
To further distract from the carnage, there is “healthcare,” with its inherently positive elements and associations, chosen in part because it is antioppositional (“What? You’re anti-healthcare?”). Ironically, there is a degree of truth in this word’s application. But that too is a part of the “euphemist” tool kit—the inclusion of partial or trivial truths to create the broader aura or “halo” of legitimacy in toto. For it is true that abortions are performed in “healthcare” settings: clinics, doctor’s offices, and hospitals where care, treatment, and healing take place.
It is also true that they are performed by so-called “healthcare” professionals—licensed physicians, physician’s assistants, or trained “medical technicians.” But these facts do not make abortion healthcare. No more than vacuuming the clinic’s waiting room carpet makes vacuuming healthcare; no more than a doctor encouraging a patient to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day makes smoking healthcare, simply because it is “prescribed” by a doctor. The doctor’s professional title, identity, or persona, and the trappings of the clinical space, cannot confer the valid “stamp” of “healthcare” onto the actors who operate there or the acts they undertake.
Coming full circle, the journey from “abortion” to “women’s reproductive healthcare” is approximately the same semantic distance as that between “shellshock” and “PTSD.” The point of the journey from the one to the other is also the same—to prevent us in the end from seeing two vulnerable human beings, but especially the human child who is—naturally—out of our view. Pace Carlin, all humanity has been squeezed out. The language has been rendered totally sterile—with the pain completely buried under jargon. But not only the pain—the violent death of the aborted child is also buried.
In the face of the obscurantism, it must ever be said that abortion is a violent act the end of which is to kill an individual human being—moreover, an innocent human being, lacking as it does the power, means, or mens rea to harm or pose a lethal threat to anyone. There is nothing “editorial” in that formulation. It eschews words like “baby,” “child,” or “infant,” which to some minds are rhetorical enormities—though in my view it need not and should not eschew them as a way of evincing impartiality.
Surgical abortion is gruesome, a “procedure” designed to kill a living human being inside a pregnant woman8—the unborn child’s mother—by cutting, crushing, lacerating, and dismembering him or her, and then expelling the remains piecemeal. It is not, as some would have it, the equivalent of removing a cyst, tumor, the proverbial “clump of cells,” or an infected organ, however much the crushed remains resemble these to the untutored eye or the fleeting, reluctant glance.
From Rhetoric to Realism?
Having said all of that by way of taking on euphemism, I note that the tide is now turning against euphemism—and with a vengeance. As I write this, Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Dobbs decision. A Fox News online feed took the occasion to reference an article in The Nation by feminist Sophie Lewis who counsels, in effect, the abandonment of euphemism and the embrace of abortion as “justified killing”—on grounds of self-defense. The “justification” is, however, defeasible.
Gestation and birth are in most cases not lethal, and it is a question whether or not some degree of harm or discomfort justifies a lethal response. Moreover, to the extent that motive or intention has to be present in the real or potential “aggressor,” there is a conceptual problem for Lewis: For it is precisely the lack of intention, the absence of the capacity for motive or premeditation, that is invoked to deny the fetus’s personhood and thereby establish the right to abort “it,” effectively as a mere object.
There is, however, only so much reality that a writer, so convicted, can embrace before making an atavistic retreat into the fog. Later in the same article, Lewis conjured up the “proto person,” another neology in a long train of inventions designed to dehumanize the unborn. But it is only a superficial innovation, old wine in new bottles, the “potential person” of an older, pseudo-philosophical pro-choice rhetoric. Even President Biden, in what was almost certainly another of his signature fumbles, stumbled onto the truth when he uttered the expression “aborting the child”—in defense of that act—perhaps provoked into honest speech by “The Science” or just the plain facts available to anyone with eyes to see.
Means without Ends
The contrast of abortion with other procedures or the implied or “forced” equivalence with other procedures is another subtle maneuver to peripheralize the victim linguistically. Even among prolifers one often hears expressions (“statistics”) like, “Since 1973, 60 million abortions have been performed in the United States alone” rather than, “Since 1973, 60 million unborn children have been aborted in the United States alone.” The former formulation is the language of means (or ends), where the subject-object is at best implied. “Abortion” is used in the same mode as “biopsy” or “debridement” or “mastectomy”—as a free-floating verb, detached from object or subject, depicting an action in the abstract—just the way the advocates of abortion like it.
A “fetus”—it used to go without saying—is not a disorder. It is not diseased or damaged tissue—not, at least, until the abortionist’s cannula, curette, and forceps reduce it to such. Abortion does not aim to correct a pathological condition, or cure any disease, or—least of all—save a patient (even the mother, in most instances). And pregnancy—it should go without saying—is not pathology. Every justification tendered for an abortion—and a fortiori for the “right to” abortion—must pass the same threshold of justification, the same ethical stress-test that would be applied to any human being (“in utero” or “ex utero”) and regardless of any other “accidents of birth” or “condition.” This applies, in other words, as much to the fetus as to the life of the woman who bears that human being within her. That is the gravamen of abortion.
Parts without Persons: Mother, Uterus, in Utero
I use the expressions “inside a woman” and “inside a woman’s body” in lieu of “in the womb” and the more clinical “in utero,” because these latter expressions, regardless of their rhetorical function, prescind from the woman and reduce her, in effect, to a biological incubator. This is to play into the
hands of our pro-abortion opponents. Rightly or wrongly, this criticism has been leveled at prolifers and pro-life discourse. Whatever the rhetorical intention, these expressions belie, I believe, rather than betray the heartfelt concern that many if not most prolifers feel for women, especially those with unplanned, challenging, or problematic pregnancies. It behooves us to drop the partial or metonymic “in the womb” and the clinical “in utero” for language that is more holistic and more humane—in (literally) other words, to employ the most transparent, honest expressions at our disposal.
This unadorned picture is the part that is almost never mentioned in all of the pleas, alibis, excuses, explanations, and justifications for elective abortion, abortion on demand—and now, abortion right up to moment before delivery and beyond. For all of that, it must ever be said that there is also a real woman, “with child,” with her own beating heart, fears, anxieties, hardships, and life, with claims on our consideration, care, and love. But—and this is the crux of the matter—our consideration, care, and love for the woman cannot degenerate into aiding and abetting her abortionist in the violent disposal of her offspring. There are other and far better courses of action, though they may well not appear as “easy” as abortion.
Ultimately, the point of tearing back the veil, exposing the accrued layers of abortion euphemism, is not to shame the woman in a difficult pregnancy. It is not even to shame the advocates of abortion or “choice.”9 Rather, it is, I hope, to open their eyes to what—in fairness—they may not be seeing (or if seeing, may not truly understand, especially if she has a strong motivation to deny it).10 But, above all, it is to give the unborn their due, to balance their silent, natural claims to a chance at life, even in the face of the competing considerations and interests that define the “hard cases” so often, so aggressively, and so exclusively put before us by the “The Party of Choice.” Empathy is not theirs alone (as they would have us believe). Euphemism, however, just might be. If our words finally do “cut reality at the joints,” perhaps the abortionist’s hardware won’t.
* * * * *
Permitting myself a lengthy sidebar, one way to avoid the dilemma that tempts so many to abort—one almost never mentioned anymore, perhaps because it has become unthinkable post-1968—is principled abstinence from heterosexual intercourse (regardless of the “status of the parties” as married, unmarried, co-habiting, etc.). With the obvious exception of rape, the overwhelming number of instances in which men and women engage in sexual congress are voluntary and by mutual consent. These couples, in more-than-theory, possess and can exercise the liberty to refrain from intercourse or—on one view of the matter—“responsibly” contracept (where their motives for coition exclude procreation, e.g., are exclusively “unitive,” to use terminology drawn from Humanae Vitae).
Some talk as if it is “a given that people cannot not copulate,” and that “unplanned pregnancies” are simply inevitable. The sexual urge is clumsily corralled under the rubric of instinct, alongside eating and drinking, conveniently bypassing the fact that abstinence from these latter activities means imminent suffering and eventual death. The “need” (as Joe Biden recently put it with uncharacteristic clarity) “to abort the child” will remain. We appear at times to think that we are no longer capable of altering our ideas, or managing our actions, habits, and urges—even in the face of successful social and cultural precedents, e.g., the abolition of slavery and apartheid, the stigmatization of smoking—or in the face of the great tolls this aggregate activity takes on our national life (apart from the “body count,” that ultimate, gruesome datum). When it comes to sex, we are no longer capable of “self-government.” And, thus, to persuade us “back” toward voluntary continence in our erotic lives is seen as a chimera and a cruel one. Better to imbue our tendencies—flickering though they may be—with the normative status, force, and permanence of a law of nature than to gird our loins and shape our conduct in accordance with principle.
Among modern, educated, “aware” adults—and less mindful but sexually capable adolescents—there seems little or no excuse for believing (and thus acting on the belief) that there is no possibility of sexual congress resulting in conception/pregnancy so long as contraceptive precautions are taken. We do not have a 100 percent foolproof form of contraception. That is a fact. And of course, sometimes precautions aren’t taken—and “chances” are. So-called unplanned pregnancies are hardly unpredictable or even unlikely— let alone impossible. Parenthetically, the locution (ubiquitous in pro-choice rhetoric) “unplanned pregnancy” is simply a verbal screen for the more sincere but morally wanting idea of an “unwanted person,” i.e., just the sort of euphemism that is the target of this analysis. At day’s end, acts that beget persons are not things to be trifled with, are not to be indulged in lightly or— at times—at all. They are freighted with God-like power. In spite of that, we have managed to trivialize them, the language in which we speak of them, and in the process, ourselves and each other, for the sake of fleeting euphoric experiences.
1. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that I think (let alone hope) that RBG’s soul has been consigned to hell, nor the souls of the good folks at HBO (hence, the quote marks around the expression). I— literally—pray that this is not their eternal destination. I follow the classical Christian precept that one must radically be agnostic with respect to the state of the souls of others.
2. George Carlin Shell Shock Bing video.
3. Unsurprisingly, “shellshock” was coined by the soldiers who suffered the condition, not the medical establishment in Britain. See “Shell Shocked” by Edgar Jones, MD, APA, June 2012, Vol. 43, No. 6, p. 18 of the print version.
4. In linguistics, the “SH-“ sound (in English) is called the “voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant.” The sound is generated by creating “friction through clenched teeth by (forcing) air flow through a narrow channel along the middle of the tongue.” Even this disinterested description of the anatomical mechanisms that create the sounds, evince, and express the tense reality that the sounds conjure—a phenomenon in linguistics known as “onomatopoeia.”
5. The quote in its usual formulation is attributed to Senator Hiram Warren Johnson of California, circa 1918, though it seems to have myriad apocryphal authors.
6. This is of course only one specimen, from a class of opaque, polysyllabic cognate expressions, e.g., “terminating a pregnancy” (8 syllables), “reproductive healthcare (6 syllables),” and “fetal demise” (relevant more for its opacity than its length).
7. Not to mention the single word “kill,” the length of which it exceeds by a factor of eight.
8. This point of the moral equivalence of acts (abortion and killing) and the equality of the subjects (victims), born and unborn, is made with great rigor by, among others, Hadley Arkes in First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice, 1986, Princeton University Press (see especially Part Two, chapters 15-17).
9. If it is to shame anyone, it is the practitioners of this gruesome, homicidal craft. Given what is daily before their eyes and under their hands, it would be hoping against hope that (my) mere rhetoric would produce the shock of recognition necessary to bring them to their moral senses, see the gravity of their handywork, drop their tools, and repent of their labor— “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
10. Recalling Christ’s word from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Drew Letendre is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in philosophy from the Claremont Graduate University. He writes from Southern California.