Terminating Violent Euphemisms

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
28th June 2013

Tagged: abortion

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I was driving to the dentist enjoying a fun discussion on the radio about “squirmy words” when the awful subject of abortion came up.

Squirmy words are the words that make us squirm, and listeners were invited to contribute their favourite, or in this case least favourite, squirmy words. The list was quite fun to consider. Some words like ‘moist’ were apparently on everybody’s list; others like ‘snack’ were harder to relate to. It was a matter of intuition and feeling; of the emotive effects of words, and of their connotations and even their sounds. Most people couldn’t explain why they squirmed when they heard a particular word like ‘mummy’ or ‘yummy’. Some could be analysed, such as those that related to different parts of human anatomy, or had particular historical associations for the individual, or were adult words applied to children or children’s words applied to adults. There was much hilarity in the discussion; the presenter laughing, even giggling, at the human foibles that words can elicit. Then somebody rang in to suggest ‘abortion’ as their squirmy word.

All contributions were accepted - after all, any word can make somebody squirm. But what was so squirmy about ‘abortion’? The listener had two problems and one solution: ‘abortion’ sounded violent and ‘termination’ sounded thoughtful and prepared. The second problem is assumed in the ‘termination’ solution – abortion must sound careless or thoughtless or unintentional.

However, ‘abortion’ didn’t bring laughter to the presenter – or presumably the radio audience. Nor did it seem to me that it was a matter of squirminess. It wasn’t an intuitive distaste that irked the listener. It wasn’t an irrational response to a peculiar sounding word or a mildly unpleasant emotion. She didn’t like ‘abortion’ because it sounded “violent”.

The squirminess factor soon turned into a moral argument as the listener requested that the word abortion should be dropped from usage at the ABC. They should always only call it a ‘termination’. Nobody else suggested that their squirmy word should be banned from public broadcasting. The very nature of squirminess was the personal reaction to a word. However, this listener wanted to impose their repugnance at a word upon public discourse – indeed wanted to censor the word out of the national broadcaster.

The problem with the word had little to do with an unpleasant phoneme, and everything to do with an unpleasant reality. For many women I have talked to about abortion over the years it is one of the most traumatic times and moments of their life. Pregnancy is such a life changing experience and decisions about whether to continue with it or abort are not taken lightly or easily. An unplanned pregnancy raises questions about the future and whether we have the resources to cope. The news of possible disabilities and health problems of our baby, confronts us with a future that is out of our control and threatens our ability to survive let alone manage. And the appalling death of a young mother in Ireland a few months ago shows the dangers that are still present in child-birth and the failure of inflexible and inadequate moral systems. It is in these very difficult social, economic, medical contexts that mothers are urgently required to resolve enormous moral arguments about life and death. And then there is the operation itself. Afterwards there is the silence, as no mourning or grieving is shared for those who have made the ‘choice to terminate’. Somehow, because it was their choice, they are expected to recover and get on with life as if nothing has happened. It is a taboo subject, not to be raised with them, nor to be discussed. Few women would commend abortion as a happy time of their life with a great outcome.

Death is such a profound challenge to our life we clothe it with rituals and euphemisms. We avoid normal language with words like ‘passing’, ‘departed’, or jokes about ‘kicking the bucket’. If death is so euphemised, killing, suicide and murder are almost unrecognisable in the language of spin and double-talk: ‘mercy killing’ has become ‘euthanasia’ and its 20th century verb ‘to euthanize’. Those who kill always want to censor public discussion – Governments have used terms like “neutralizing” and liquidating”.

The Biblical commandment not to kill/murder (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17, Mark 10:19, Romans 13:9, James 2:11) means that our knee-jerk reaction should always be for life and against killing. Killing always has to be the last resort and the onus of moral proof lies with those who would kill rather than those who would protect life.

However, as awful as killing is, it is not unforgiveable. Like all other sins Jesus’ death has paid the price. As to all other sinners Jesus death brings forgiveness. Even those who killed the Son of God, murdering the Prince of Life were forgiven upon repentance and prayer. There is no killing beyond the reach of the forgiveness in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where there is no forgiveness there is no plain talk about sin, no help for those whose consciences are seared, but only weasel words that cover our failures and conceal our weaknesses. Where there is Jesus’ sacrifice there is confession of sin and full forgiveness.

‘Abortion’ sounds violent because abortion is violent. ‘Termination’ may be a more acceptable and politically correct euphemism for abortion but as with all euphemisms it clouds the discussion in confusion, does not work in removing the pain and prevents women talking freely and finding forgiveness. Government published “facts” state “Abortion is one of the safest and most commonly performed surgical procedures in Australia”, without any reference to the safety of the fetus! In most debates on abortion, pictures of foetal life are forbidden; censored because they are too distressing. Censoring the word ‘abortion’ and using ‘termination’ does not change the violence that is done in killing the unborn. Abortion may sadly be necessary (e.g. the case in Ireland) but it is always violent - especially for the aborted.