President Barack Obama was proud to become the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood the other day. But not proud enough to utter the word “abortion.”
The right to abortion is the sneakiest, most shamefaced of all American rights. It hides behind evasion and euphemism and cant.
So President Obama sang a hymn of praise to Planned Parenthood at the organization’s annual conference without mentioning what makes it so distinctive and controversial. He said its core principle is “that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own health.” He excoriated opponents involved “in an orchestrated and historic effort to roll back basic rights when it comes to women’s health.”
Listening to him, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country is riven by a fierce dispute over whether women should be allowed to choose their own OB-GYNs or to get cancer screenings. In his speech, the president said the word “cancer” seven times. About that he is happy to be forthright.
Imagine if he had been similarly frank about the core of Planned Parenthood’s work: “In 2011, according to your annual report, your clinics or affiliates performed 330,000 abortions. That’s a lot of abortion. Over 10 years, more than 3 million. Thank you, Planned Parenthood. Think of all those women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies, and you were there for them. That’s what you do. That’s what you are about. And that’s what this country is about.”
Before that crowd, he might have gotten rousing applause, but talking in such honest terms would have been a gross faux pas. The unwritten rule when the left discusses abortion is that it shouldn’t be called “abortion,” but always “health” or, more specifically “reproductive health” — although abortion is the opposite of reproduction and, for one party involved, the opposite of health.
This is a strange reticence. The National Rifle Association doesn’t get defensive when it is pointed out that it protects the right to bear arms, which allows people to buy guns. The NRA conducts courses on how to handle guns safely, but Wayne LaPierre doesn’t try to pass himself off as concerned only with “munitions safety.”
The trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell has been an exercise in stripping away euphemism. He is accused of murdering babies because he allegedly didn’t manage to kill them in the womb and had to finish the job outside the womb. His case is so discomfiting for liberals not only because it is such a stark picture of the seamy, money-grubbing side of abortion, but because it illustrates how slight the difference is between late-term abortion — or late-term “health” — and what nearly everyone recognizes as a crime.
Before it was shamed into covering the case largely by the work of journalists Kirsten Powers and Mollie Hemingway, the press ignored the case as an uninteresting disagreement between a doctor and prosecutors over a matter of reproductive health. Even when the media began to write about it, some outlets couldn’t quite face it.
In a story about the case, The New York Times referred to the newborns killed by Gosnell as “fetuses.” The definition of a fetus according to Merriam-Webster is “an unborn or unhatched vertebrate.” By definition, the newborns weren’t fetuses; they weren’t unborn. But the Times couldn’t bring itself to use the word “baby,” which has so many positive connotations and problematic implications.
This is the crux of the matter: If it is a baby outside the womb, why not inside the womb? If a procedure to end its life is wrong outside the womb, why isn’t it wrong inside the womb?
The essence of abortion is that there are two lives when you start and one when you finish. If it were your business to perform them and fight all restrictions on them, no matter how slight, you wouldn’t want to be forthright and honest about it, either.