“Just say abortion.” That’s the title of a recent article at the Planned Parenthood website. The graphic? A pink and blue box with the following words:
I wasn’t expecting that headline nor that slogan.
For most of my life, the language of “choice” and “women’s health care” have been standard ways of framing the debate by those advocating for abortion. I was surprised to find a debate within the pro-abortion movement over these expressions. But it makes sense. The language of “women’s health care” contradicts fashionable definitions (or non-definitions) of “woman.” Crucially, both language choices (according to Planned Parenthood) “cover up the word ‘abortion’ through euphemism—a function of abortion stigma, which encourages people to believe that ‘abortion’ is a bad word and needs to be concealed.”
No doubt some pro-abortion advocates today believe that their movement was misguided in adopting these ways of framing the debate. Here’s my take: pro-abortion advocates can have this debate today over whether to say “abortion” because the euphemisms they have employed over these last few decades worked.
One thing we all agree on is this: words matter in the abortion debate.
How and Why Euphemism Work
Euphemism is a word derived from the Greek word, eúphēmos, or good-speech. Euphemisms are words or phrases that sound good but refer to things that don’t.
We can be thankful for many of them. It’s okay to say someone got “let go” rather than “fired” or “terminated.” It’s probably best that we say, “I’m going to the bathroom” even though that’s not necessarily the only thing we plan to do. Scripture even speaks about Saul “covering his feet” in a cave (1 Sam. 24:3). That’s what your robe would do to your feet when you squatted to “relieve” yourself. (Some euphemisms are even inspired, you could say.)
Euphemisms can be a matter of common decency and politeness, getting the job done without burdening the hearer with something unnecessarily unpleasant. But not always. Sometimes euphemisms are an expression of political correctness, employed to direct our attention away from a burden of moral consideration or responsibility. This is the case with the way that abortion advocates have traditionally framed their arguments, not in the language of decency but in the language of deception.
Euphemisms direct our attention away from one thing to another. It’s a type of sleight of hand where the magician wants you to focus on the one hand so that you do not see what he is doing with the other hand. Abortion advocates de-emphasize the moral status of the unborn by directing your attention to the mother. Over time, this is how euphemisms have moved the Overton Window—that range of beliefs that a society deems acceptable at a given time.
Analyzing Five Euphemisms
Here are five euphemisms for abortion and how they all direct—or, better, mis-direct—our attention away from the human being inside the womb.
1. “Pro-Choice.” This euphemism directs our attention away from the baby’s life and onto the agency of the woman. This label assumes that self-actualization always equals moral goodness and that the child has neither dignity nor autonomy of their own. No one wants to say, “you don’t have a choice,” and so this way of framing the argument puts the advocate for the unborn on the defense.
While it is important that we are willing to say we are “anti-abortion,” the framing of “Pro-Life” is an excellent counter that puts our attention where it belongs. The emergence of this language in the context of the abortion debate is also a reason to reserve “Pro-Life” for the defense of the unborn, which is a uniquely clear and consequential moral problem.
2. “Women’s Health Care.” This euphemism also directs our attention away from the child and onto the woman; away from the wellbeing of the unborn and onto the health of women in general. This assumes that the moral status of the unborn child is like that of a tumor or a bad kidney or a parasitic growth. Historic Pro-Life obstetrics have called this perspective “forgetting the second patient.” This is correct, for all instances of obstetric care involve two patients.
We should not let this appeal to our compassion for fellow humans manipulate us in service of abortion. Rather, we should counter these claims by speaking in morally clear terms about the life and dignity of the unborn, which while difficult is an expression of true care for both women and unborn children.
3. “Women’s Reproductive Rights.” This language directs our attention away from the unborn child and onto the supposed rights of a woman; away from the destruction of the unborn and onto the more general idea of reproduction. This assumes that the unborn child does not have rights.
We should reject the implied accusation that we are “taking away” anything from the woman and speak about the inherent dignity of every human life, which is not negated by the size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency of the unborn—what many have called “the SLED test.”
4. “Selective Reduction.” This lesser-known euphemism is used often in the context of in-vitro fertilization to direct our attention away from the destruction of unwanted embryos that are not implanted in the womb. This language frames the decision to keep or implant embryos as one of mere numerical prudence, safety, or desirability.
We should speak, rather, of the destruction of human embryos. Because these tiny human beings are especially vulnerable given their size, we should again be especially proactive in educating one another on the dignity of all human life.
5. “Family Planning.” This expression directs our attention to the idea of a family and away from the child. It smuggles in the assumption that we can design our own plan for our family by removing unwanted members.
We should promote the family as a good in and of itself apart from whatever plans we may have. We should insist that the only right plan for the unborn is the nurture and protection.
By means of these euphemisms, abortion advocates redirect the conversation away from the child and to the child’s mother—or, as they prefer to say, “the woman.”
These linguistic sleights of hand work. Abortion advocates themselves have been and remain deceived—seduced even—by these very euphemisms. They sincerely believe the moral claims they assume in this way of speaking. Those responsible for changing the language have in fact changed the way people think and believe and act.
As George Orwell famously put it, such language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Or, as Scripture puts it, “woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20).
1. George Orwell, “Politics and The English Language.”
Moving the Overton Window
By means of these euphemisms, pro-abortion advocates have manipulated people in different ways to promote societal change.
- By emphasizing choice and autonomy, they have vilified pro-lifers as thieves who want to take from a woman something that is hers (along with the connotation that male pro-lifers want to assert control over women’s bodies).
- By offering a faulty moral calculus, they persuaded many vulnerable women to discount the humanness of the life in their wombs.
- By denying the parenthood inherent in pregnancy, they enabled both women and men to pursue illicit sex uncoupled from nurturing responsibility.
- By claiming a moral high ground, they energized abortion advocates with a supposed ethical cause.
These euphemisms helped move the Overton Window so that, having our national conscience seared, abortion has gone from something to regret, to something “safe, legal, and rare,” to something worth celebrating as a positive moral good (#shoutyourabortion).
When we speak about the Overton Window, we usually talk about how others move it in the wrong direction. But we should consider ways in which we can move the Overton Window to its proper place. That’s what adopting a word like “feticide” can do.
Abortion is a Euphemism, Let’s Speak Honestly
What if one of the best ways to be pro-life is to reclaim the language and stop saying “abortion”? It has been said that whoever defines the terms, decides the turf. And in this debate, where life and death are literally affirmed or denied by the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21), I want to finish by arguing for a new word.
For starters, take the language of “abortion.” What does this term even mean? Are we aborting a mission, or a flight, or a pregnancy? The term itself is not terribly descriptive beyond the process of canceling something, indeed anything. It carries no moral claim. It speaks neither to our humanity or to death. Turns out, the term “abortion” itself is a euphemism. It’s a word that directs our attention away from the inherently moral nature of the act to a vaguer notion (“look over here and not there!”).
So, Christian, don’t “just say abortion.” Aborticide might get the idea across more closely. But there’s a better word. Think about it. Homicide comes from the Latin for man-slayer. Suicide comes from the Latin for killing oneself. What shall we call the killing of a child in the womb? Here’s a proposal: Fēticide, from the Latin offspring-slayer. (It stings even to type that. Yet that sting is probably a good indication.)
While a comprehensive list of new terms like this one is outside my scope, here’s an example of how Christians might truthfully speak on this matter:
Abortion describes the murder of a fully human unborn life. A vulnerable boy or girl made in the image of God is killed in the protective womb of its mother, often as a paid service. The child is killed through chemical starvation and expulsion, or through vacuum disintegration, or through forceps dismemberment. The rights and choices of these children are immediately taken away from them, usually due to social or economic reasons. Mothers and fathers who do this willingly commit feticide—the slaying of their own offspring. Abortion is an abominable sin in the eyes of the God to whom all must give an account. God will bring every deed done in secret into the light, and the only hope for those who have committed feticide is to trust in the Son who willingly died and rose in order to forgive all of those who forsake their sin and follow him by faith. Jesus Christ can truly wash, sanctify, and declare righteous even those who have committed severe sins (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Perhaps others can speak truthfully for unborn life in more compelling ways. The point is this: we should prioritize honesty and moral clarity in our speech over politeness and political correctness.
By doing so we love not only the unborn child in the womb but mothers and fathers—indeed, all our neighbors—with the truth.