Accusing, Excusing and Confusing Words
At the end of a George Carlin routine on euphemisms he said: “Thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won't have to die...I'll ‘pass away.’ Or I'll ‘expire’ like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they'll call it a ‘terminal episode.’ The insurance company will refer to it as ‘negative patient-care outcome.’ And if it's the result of malpractice, they'll say it was a ‘therapeutic misadventure.’ I'm telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to ‘engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.’”
That’s my attempt to begin with both a little levity and a reality check. Words matter. But what we say is often said to hide what we actually believe, perhaps sometimes it is said in order to keep ourselves from facing the truth about our beliefs. I think that this is true with regard to the abortion debate which has again taken center stage as a result of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. I recall that the language of 1973 pitted those in favor of abortion (Pro-Abortion) against those who were opposed to it (Anti-Abortion). But it wasn’t long before both sides decided that they didn’t want to be identified with negative language, and abortion was seen as a negative word. Consequently, the terms Pro-Choice and Pro-Life came to define the two camps.
The Pro-Choice position also used the positive terminology of “Women’s Rights” and then “Reproductive Freedom.” These were good expressions, yet they masked the fact that what was at stake here was the issue of life and death. The further away from the original protective restriction the easier it is for everyone to be a supporter. After all, we do want to affirm everyone’s rights and everyone’s freedom. And in order to move away from the death of the unborn child the debate focused first on the question of when life begins and then on what constitutes a human being. Eventually the “fetus” became only “tissue.” It was not something other than a part of the host body and so could then be removed as the owner determined. (This is not significantly different language than that which was used to defend slavery as the less-than-human were obviously the property of the one who owned them.)
The issue in the Pro-Life camp sought to remain anchored to the definition of abortion as the taking of a human life. But they too got sidetracked by the change in the debate topics. We got suckered into the women’s rights issue and the freedom issue. We started to see things in a conservative v. liberal mindset. At times I do believe the fight was no longer for the life of the child but was somehow confiscated by a conservative economic perspective that just picked up this issue with a host of others all of which were promoted as a part of the “God and Country” or “Family Values” agenda. And even as conservatives won political battles babies continued to die.
So to clear the field a bit, let me ask a few questions before I ask a few more. Does a person have the right to take the life of another person? And if so, at what age does that become acceptable? Is it permissible after a certain week of pregnancy? When does human life begin? If an unborn child’s life can be killed, then can a person whose life is physically or mentally incapacitated be also killed? Who determines the answers to these questions? Are they the right of the individual to decide, the individual and his/her doctor, the individual and her/his family, the state?
I don’t want to pretend that these questions have easy answers but avoiding them with a euphemistic change of language will not result in freedom, rights, or life. None of those words have meaning except inside a community or society. So we must all wrestle with them and continue to do so regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Laws always have exceptions. That was the reason for the debate over issues of age, cause of pregnancy, and the viability of the mother and child. Those will or should be still a part of the discussion at state and local levels, and surely should be included in the approach of the church.
So, since I am writing a church newsletter and my readers are church people, let me ask a few more questions. Should we not be consistent in our stance as Pro-Life people? Does this not mean that we need to advocate for the protection of the lives of children who are born into poverty, who are born with disabilities? Should our words not be backed up with programs of material provision? Should we not also affirm that all Black lives matter, that any form of racism that devalues another’s right to existence and protection under the law is wrong? Should we not question the taking of human life through capital punishment since our legal system has been shown to be partial and prejudiced and has made serious errors in condemning the innocent especially in cases where race is an issue? Can we really profess to be Christians and not be in favor of women’s rights to equal pay and equal treatment? And where does this put us with regard to the issues of life and equality and the LBGTQ community?
In other words, although many of us have been praying for years that Roe v. Wade be overturned, and admittedly praying with little faith that it would happen, the issues of life, rights and freedom are still on the table. If we have any hope of demonstrating to unbelievers that we stand for life both in the present and in the eternal sense, then we must be compassionately involved in the lives of all who feel adversely affected by this change of federal legislation. We must redouble our efforts to provide for those with crisis pregnancies and for all those who have yet to understand the love that God has for them. The Scripture says:
You created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:14-16)
May God’s grace rest on you and on us all.
See you in Worship.