Wednesday, June 5, 2019
The Language Battle Over Abortion: If You Win the Language Battle, You Win the War
Christians understand that language matters. God made us not only in his image, he made us as linguistic creatures. He gave us the uniquely human capacity to communicate with one another with words—words that have not only symbolic meaning but often have actual force. And language becomes a matter of our most intense interest when we understand that the most important issues, well, they are often revealed by specific forms of language—the language that is permitted, the language that is forbidden, the language that is mandated, the language that is customary.
We've often looked at the fact that language often reveals a change in morality. This is when you see a shift in the language towards euphemism. Something that was condemned in absolutely explicit terms is now called something else that's a midway point, a transitional movement in moral revolution, moral change—the acceptance of something that wasn't speakable, which is then renamed and then becomes acceptable.
But when you're talking about some of the biggest issues, the most controversial issues we face right now, the controversy comes right down to the language and there is no issue that reveals that more clearly than the issue of abortion. Consider two very important recent developments. First of all, headline story in the New York Times, "‘Fetal Heartbeat’ vs. ‘Forced Pregnancy’: The Language Wars of the Abortion Debate." Indeed, we are talking about a language war.
Amy Harmon writes, "The new laws that prohibit abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy have been called, heartbeat legislation by supporters, a reference to the flickering pulse that can be seen on ultrasound images of a developing embryo. But,” she says, “when the American Civil Liberties Union announced a legal challenge to one such law in Ohio, there was no mention of the word, heartbeat, in the news release, which referred to the law instead as ‘a ban on almost all abortions.’"
Further developments in the language wars just in recent days and weeks include the fact that Stacey Abrams, who had been the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia and lost a very close race, she referred to the law that had been passed in Georgia and signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp as “a forced pregnancy bill." Some of the protestors in Atlanta held signs that said “No forced births.” There you see the language wars—wars that are so intense that it comes down to whether or not an issue will be lost or won on the basis of who wins what it's even called, the language that is used to describe it. The language that becomes the tools of debate and the weapons of warfare.
Harmon explains some of the background, "The battle over abortion has long been shaped by language after abortion opponents coined the ‘pro-life’ phrase in the 1960s to emphasize what they saw as the humanity of the fetus. Supporters of abortion cast themselves as ‘pro-choice’ to stress a woman's right to make decisions about her body. In the 1990’s,” she says, “the term ‘partial-birth abortion,’ originated by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, helped rally public opinion against a late term abortion procedure. Abortion rights activists countered with ‘trust women.’"
Well, I want to contest that narrative just a bit. Later in the article, Harmon seems to make the point that the pro-life movement effectively stigmatized the word “abortion,” but in reality that word has always carried some form of stigma. The pro-life movement simply made very clear that that stigma is therefore a very important, indeed life or death, moral reason.
The shift to the language “pro-choice” among those who were defending abortion rights actually is dated more to the 1970s and the 1980s when the pro-life movement began to gain cultural traction. It was at that point the pro-abortion activists realized that the word “abortion” did carry stigma and if they were going to be against the pro-life movement, they needed to style themselves as for something and so they went at one of the crucial issues in the Roe v. Wade decision: choice. They so valorized choice that their support for abortion became repackaged as pro-choice. They made the decision because they thought choice was more culturally attractive than abortion, but it also turned out to be incredibly revealing, indicating what can only be described as an idolatry of choice.
But it is also very interesting to look at the developing arguments that amount to an increasing frustration on the pro-abortion side. It turns out that the word “abortion” carries moral stigma. It turns out that the word “choice" wasn't powerful enough as a symbol to overcome the language of the pro-life movement.
But Amy Harmon is really on to something when she says that the stakes attached to the language of abortion are now especially high, and she says this is because it's a time "when the Supreme Court is seen as likely to chip away at the right to an abortion established in 1973 by Roe v. Wade." Harmon continues with a very interesting statement, "It was no accident for instance, that Ohio's leading anti-abortion group, Ohio Right to Life invoked the term, ‘heartbeat’ eight times in 300 words”—that in a news release responding to the ACLU challenge to the Ohio law. But what's really interesting for us to note is the fact that reporter Amy Harmon is here talking about the language used by Ohio Right to Life using the term, “heartbeat” eight times in a news release of 300 words.
I want to draw attention to the language used by Amy Harmon, the reporter herself when she referred to Ohio Right to Life as, "Ohio's leading anti-abortion group." You'll notice it's “anti-abortion” in the New York Times’s coverage, not “pro-life.” Harmon cites Mary Ziegler, a legal historian at Florida State University, who said that “heartbeat bills are obviously supposed to pull at your heartstrings and the left is coming back with terms like punishing women and forced pregnancy."
Now again, I want to step back for a moment and just try to look at this issue from some kind of critical distance. I'm going to make this argument: if you are going to try to counter not only the emotional but the moral meaning of “heartbeat” with something like “punishing women” and “forced pregnancy,” I don't think you're going to gain much ground.
But Ziegler's right when she says, "The rhetoric seems to be getting more and more extreme on both sides." I mentioned that Harmon talked about the word “abortion” carrying stigma. She writes, "Abortion rights advocates say their own polling and analysis has shown that their messaging has been overly focused on concepts like the right to choose and protecting women's privacy, which were the foundation of 1970s and 1980s era activism aimed at right-leaning voters opposed to government intervention in people's lives. Even the term, ‘abortion,’ they say was stigmatized in the late 1990s with the safe legal and rare tagline used by President Bill Clinton to describe the Democrats policy outlook on abortion.” Again, quoting from the story, “Describing abortion as needing to be rare implied incorrectly in the eyes of advocates that there was something inherently wrong with having an abortion."
Now I'll simply say that it's hard to find a set of sentences in recent media coverage that are more morally revealing than these. Here you have the pro-abortion movement admitting the fact that its language hasn't been working, and then they go on to blame former President Bill Clinton supposedly for stigmatizing the word “abortion” when, as he was running for election in 1992, he stated that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Now make no mistake, Bill Clinton was very pro-abortion in the effect of every single part of his presidential administration, especially with executive orders handed down within hours of his inauguration for his first term.
But President Clinton, running for the votes in the middle, recognized that he needed to appear as something other than pro-abortion, so again, he said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” And as many pointed out, he spent eight years in office doing everything to oppose abortion becoming rare. Now you have the pro-abortion movement complaining that President Clinton had stigmatized the word abortion by the temerity of suggesting that abortion should be rare, as the advocates of abortion said in this New York Times article, insinuating “that there was something inherently wrong with having an abortion."
Now as you're thinking about moral change in America and linguistic change, consider the fact that Bill Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 with this language. Note that he was elected president of the United States in 1992 and again in 1996 with this language, but you will not be able to find a single Democrat running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination who would come within a hundred miles of Bill Clinton's language back in 1992. There is not going to be any argument amongst those running for the Democratic presidential nomination that abortion should in any sense be rare because again the argument is, that insinuates that abortion ought to be rare, which means that there's something inherently wrong about abortion, which is an argument we should point out that is absolutely right.
Here's where we also have to understand that President Clinton, however, did not stigmatize the word “abortion” in 1992. The president was simply reflecting the fact that abortion inherently carries a moral stigma. When you say the word there is immediately a moral recoil. Why? Because there is a basic knowledge in every single one of us that there is something inherently wrong with abortion.
“Babies Are Not Babies Until They Are Born” — It’s Now Official Policy at NPR
But as I said, there were two very important recent statements in the media. The other came from Mark Memmott, and it came in an official guidance reminder that was written both by and for National Public Radio. Now remember the NPR, a very influential cultural asset in this country is actually a part of public broadcasting. National Public Radio is owned by the American people, although quite frankly you wouldn't know that from much of the coverage at NPR.
But this is a very, very interesting policy statement. It's again known as a guidance reminder. Memmott writes, "As we've covered the new abortion law in Georgia and legislation in Alabama, we followed long-standing guidance very well. Thank you to all involved." He then writes, “For those new to the subject, that guidance about abortion and related topics is collected in our Intranet ‘radio’ style guide. We'll attach it below.”
But then he writes, “One thing to keep in mind about this law and others like it: proponents refer to it as a fetal heartbeat law. That is their term. It needs to be attributed to them if used and put in quotation marks if printed.”
The supervising senior editor for standards and practices at NPR said, “We should not”— the words “should not” are in bold— “simply say the laws are about when a fetal heartbeat is detected. As we've reported,” he said, “heartbeat activity can be detected about six weeks into a pregnancy. That's at least a few weeks before an embryo is a fetus.” The language here, every bit of it, reveals the worldview behind it.
Rather than use the term "partial birth abortion," the editor says that NPR should use the term “intact dilation and extraction.” NPR goes on to say that it no longer uses the phrase late term abortion. "Though we initially believe this term carried less ideological baggage when compared with partial-birth, it still conveys the sense that the fetus is viable when the abortion is performed."
Later in the statement we read, "NPR doesn't use the term ‘abortion clinics.’ We say instead, ‘medical’ or ‘health clinics’ that perform abortions. The point,” said the editor, “is not to use ‘abortion’ before the word ‘clinic.’ The clinics perform other procedures and not just abortions.”
But in the most important section of the NPR guidance, we read these words . . . please hear them carefully: "The term ‘unborn’ implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born, they’re fetuses."
Now just reflect on that, please, for just a moment. Here you have a supervisory editor at NPR saying that the term ‘unborn’ implies—and he implies that means falsely—that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Let's just refer to the obvious. There is a baby within a pregnant woman. The pregnant woman refers to the baby as a baby. The doctor who told her she's pregnant and confirms the development of the baby, calls it a baby. By the way, the doctor often refers to that heartbeat as a baby's heartbeat, naturally so, rightly so. The mother does not announce to her friends that she is now conveying an embryo that will turn into a fetus. Instead, she says, "I'm going to have a baby."
The document concludes, "On the air, we should use ‘abortion rights supporters, advocates’ and ‘abortion rights opponents’ or derivations thereof, but do not use the term ‘pro-abortion rights.’ Digital News will continue to use the AP style book for online content which mirrors the revised NPR policy. Do not use ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ in copy except when used in the name of a group. Of course, when the terms are used in an actuality they should remain." That means in an audio digital clip.
Here you have internal guidance at NPR and a headline story at the New York Times both indicating that right now we are in a very, very urgent contest for language. We are watching a war of language being played out right before our eyes and in a contest for the attention of our ears.
But I can't leave this without going back to that NPR guidance and looking at one simple sentence. It has a subject and a predicate, a beginning and an end. It's short. Again, I read it, "Babies are not babies until they are born." Now just consider the fact that when you're looking at the radicalization of the pro-abortion movement in America, they have won a tremendous victory just in the statement that a baby isn't a baby until that baby is born. When you wonder how they can possibly get to legalizing late term abortion right up until the moment of birth, consider the fact that it's right here, not only in the logic but in the language of this sentence.
A Coming Generational Apocalypse? The Challenge of Younger Americans Tilting Left
Next, I want to turn to a very different issue, an opinion article that ran in yesterday's edition of The New York Times by veteran columnist David Brooks. The headline of the article, “The Coming G.O.P Apocalypse.” Now, “apocalypse” is a pretty provocative word as we're talking about language. What kind of apocalypse would Brooks be warning us about?
He says, "For much of the 20th century, young and old people voted pretty similarly. The defining gaps in our recent politics have been the gender gap, women preferring Democrats, and the education gap." But now,” he writes, “the generation gap is back with a vengeance.” He writes, "This is most immediately evident in the way Democrats are sorting themselves in their early primary preferences. A Democratic voter’s race, sex or education level doesn't predict which candidate he or she is leaning toward, but age does." Now, a closer look at the data would indicate that those other issues—race, sex, or education level—do have something to do with predicting an individual's preference in the race thus far, but there's also no question that Brooks is on to something when he says that the decisive issue amongst many likely Democratic voters is actually age.
Brooks writes, “As Ronald Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic, older Democrats prefer a more moderate candidate who they think can win. Younger Democrats prefer a more progressive candidate who they think can bring systemic change.” But then he writes, "The generation gap is even more powerful when it comes to Republicans. To put it bluntly, young adults hate them." Now what he means is that young adults hate Republicans. Now is there a decided shift amongst the young especially millennials and the following generation from Democrat to Republican? Well, the answer is it's a pretty decisive shift.
Brooks cites a 2018 Pew survey which found that 59% of millennial voters identify as Democrats or at least lean democratic, while only 32% identify as Republican or lean Republican. He then writes, "The difference is ideological. According to Pew, 57% of millennials call themselves consistently liberal or mostly liberal. Only 12% call themselves consistently conservative or mostly conservative.” He then underlines that point with these words, "This is the most important statistic in American politics right now."
It's a fairly simple and easy to understand argument. It's straightforward. David Brooks is saying that younger Americans are tilting to the Democratic Party, but then he goes back behind that to his credit and says that they are tilting liberal, which is what explains the fact that they're tilting democratic and thus there is a major moral change going on in this country. And David Brooks is right that moral change is a generational change.
But when you write an article entitled, “The Coming G.O.P Apocalypse” and you have at least in some sense been identified with someone who cares about the G.O.P in the past, speaking of David Brooks, then when you use the word “apocalypse,” you must be warning that this is something that might be avoided or avoidable. What message is David Brooks sending when he writes this opinion piece entitled, “The Coming G.O.P Apocalypse”? Well, here's the bottom line in his column: he says that younger Americans are very happy with what he calls “difference.” Republicans are understood and conservatives beyond them are understood as less welcoming of difference, and this he says is the major worldview issue, which is going to lead to a generational apocalypse for Republicans. Now, whether or not there is a future apocalypse for Republicans is a matter of public debate. It's also a matter that will eventually be decided by facts on the ground.
But I'll simply say that David Brooks is on to something when he points to this vast generational shift. There appears to be, documented over and over again, a rather significant, and if anything, that's an understatement, a rather significant shift in a liberal direction especially on social issues amongst younger Americans in likely future American voters. That's not something that's really headline news. It is something that should have a great deal of Christian attention because if you change the term “G.O.P apocalypse: here and consider for example a term like “evangelical apocalypse,” you might be on to something which amounts to a parallel warning.
That's not to say that evangelical Christians are wedded to the G.O.P. It's not to say that the constituencies are the same. It is to say that when you look at these younger Americans tilting left, there are theological ramifications as well. We've looked at the fact that this kind of social liberalism is also tied to an increasing secular identity, an increasing secularization. That's why another one of the issues documented by Pew, just to take one example is the fact that the millennials and the generation behind them are also significantly more secular, less likely to indicate any religious affiliation, than older Americans.
As Christians looking at this issue from a worldview perspective, we understand that that's not an accident. The two are very closely linked together. As a matter of fact, they're so closely linked together that in one sense the one inevitably leads to the other. We don't fully understand causation and correlation here, but the correlation itself is important enough. Theologically, we're looking at secularization. At the same time morally and sociologically we're talking about liberalization, but the effect is basically the same. It's not an accident that they're happening at the same time, so if this is a warning, what would David Brooks have the Republican Party to change? What might the Republican Party do right now to indicate that it really wants the votes of young millennials, and the generation perhaps called Generation Z by many coming behind them.
Well, David Brooks isn't particularly clear. He goes back to that issue of difference, and he says that if the Republican Party wants to have a future amongst the young, it's going to have to be seen as increasingly happy about difference. So what kind of diversity is David Brooks really talking about here? Well, he talks about ethnic and racial diversity. He really doesn't talk about some of the other social issues very much at stake, and I'm going to argue it's because he didn't want to or he didn't have to.
Here's an interesting twist in this tale. David Brooks some years ago came out and made the argument that the Republican Party and conservatives in the United States needed to make peace with the sexual revolution. He came out and basically said that social and moral conservatives in the United States should support same sex marriage because in adopting a marriage culture, it would lead to a basic stabilization of society even amongst those who are LGBTQ. Now there are all kinds of arguments over public policy that Christians can engage in with various points of view, but anyone who holds to a biblical understanding of gender and sexuality, we simply have to understand, we are headed generationally into what David Brooks here describes as an apocalypse. That is just a fact.
It is also important to recognize that a political party acting as a political party can and will eventually do what it sees as necessary and in its own interest for survival and political influence. But when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ, we do not have that option. We don't have the option to trim our sales and to define our doctrine in accordance with prevailing moral and cultural demands. We simply do not have that option.
If we understand that the Bible is indeed the Word of God revealed, and thus the believing church standing upon biblical authority establishes our understanding of the truth of all things according to Scripture, then when it comes to gender and human sexuality and marriage, we don't have much room to negotiate. We hold to the truth of Scripture on these issues as much as in any other issue, and we come to understand that we have to remind ourselves again and again that if this is what the Creator intended for us and if he loved us enough that he revealed these truths to us, it is not only because he in his holiness has determined that this is right, but that he and his love as Creator for us knows that this is what will genuinely be good for human beings.
We need to look very closely at not only the “what,” but the “why” of this increasing liberalization and secularization amongst younger Americans, but as bare facts, they remain the truth, and it looks like this is an enduring and continuing generational pattern. This is going to represent a huge challenge for Bible-believing, gospel-preaching evangelical Christians and our churches looking to the future. There's no denying that challenge, but there's also no way that Christians can surrender in advance and call that faithfulness.
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