[extropy-chat] The Language of Euphamism versus Life of my Son

John-C-Wright at sff.net John-C-Wright at sff.net
Wed May 18 19:24:15 UTC 2005

I am afraid the gulf of disagreement here is rather large, and this may not be
the best forum to bridge that gulf. But honesty requires me to admit mistake: 

The first dictionary I consulted (Merriam Webster) defined ‘child’ as:

1 a : an unborn or recently born person b dialect : a female infant
2 a : a young person especially between infancy and youth b : a childlike or
childish person c : a person not yet of age
3 archaic : a youth of noble birth
4 a : a son or daughter of human parents b : descendant
5 : one strongly influenced by another or by a place or state of affairs
6 : product, result

In other words, my use was correct and unexceptional. I mean the word in
meanings 1a, 4a, and 6 (unborn person; a son or daughter of human parents;
product or result). 

On the other hand, it turns out that I am properly chastised me for using the
word ‘slay’. To my surprise, I find it means:

transitive senses: 
1 : to kill violently, wantonly, or in great numbers; broadly : to strike down :
2 : to delight or amuse immensely <slayed the audience>
intransitive senses: 
Kill, Murder

There is no evidence in the hypothetical that Sue meant to kill the end the life
of the child violently, wantonly, and, unless the child was sextuplets, she
could not possibly kill him or her in great numbers! So, despite Miss Atkin’s
kind assurance that I am a skilled wordsmith, that skill was lacking here. I
thought the word just meant ‘kill.’ 

So let us end the furor with a compromise: I will admit I was half inflammatory
if my questioners will admit I was half correct. 

Instead of “slay” I should have said “deprive of life.” No one could have an
honest objection to that terminology: even if one thought the unborn is not
alive at the moment, abortion deprives the infant of whatever life it possesses,
the potential life it would have otherwise had. 

In law, we call this a “remainder interest”; that is, an interest which someone
not in current possession, but who stands to come into possession of it, has
vested in the property. Even those who use the awkward terminology of saying the
unborn infant is not “alive at the moment” would have to admit the infant has a
legal interest in the life into which it will come into possession, in the same
way an remainderman has rights against a life tenant. 

If there are further objections to the use of the word “child” once it has been
shown to be correct by the dictionary, I fear I have not the patience to answer:
because then we are merely discussing emotion. 

It is not inflammatory to use plain words if the topic is one that is inflames
the passions when spoken of in plain words: for then the cause lies with the
topic, not the words. 

The reason why “child” is a word that causes delight, is that this is the
natural and proper emotion to have toward one’s child. The reason why the word
“kill” is a word that causes aversion, is that this is the natural and proper
emotion to have toward killing. 

Now, there are those who suppose that emotions are arbitrary, and that we may
select any emotion we like and direct it toward any object we like. It is beyond
the scope of this letter to address that weighty topic: suffice it to say that
this is another arm of subjectivist theory experience betrays as unpersuasive.  

The abortion advocate faces the daunting task of misdirecting our natural
emotions so that what is unnatural seems normal: hence the vehemence of their
anger against someone who uses words in their normal fashion. It is not a
coincidence that, in abortion clinics, the mothers are not permitted to see the
ultrasound pictures of their babies in their wombs. The technician during a scan
carefully turns the screen away, so that the mother will not have a fit of
natural emotion that comes when mother sees child. The mother is carefully not
told that babies can feel pain in the womb; and excruciating pain when they are
killed. The misuse of speech is merely one of several ways the abnormal is made
to seem normal. 

If you think I am exaggerating, consider the parallel cases. This misuse of
speech is not present there. 

Consider if we were discussing the morality of ending the life of Lee Malvo or
Terri Schiavo. We would still properly call them “human beings.” A reasonable
man could give an argument as to why our laws might not protect their lives. 

The general argument in the case of abortion is that the mother’s duty of care
and protection does not obtain until and unless the infant develops to a certain
stage, or has certain recognizable human characteristics, such as, for example,
brain action. It is an argument about when killing a human being is allowable.
In this respect, it is no different from the argument about euthanasia or the
death penalty for minors. 

The three arguments would be something like this: 1. Lee Malvo is a human being
who should die, despite his youth, because he slew (killed wantonly in great
number) his fellow human beings. His right is forfeit. 2. Terri Schiavo is a
human being who should die because she lacks the brain action necessary for the
enjoyment and exercise of human life. The right has lapsed due to laches
(nonuse). 3. The son or daughter of “Sue” should die because the brain action
necessary for the enjoyment and exercise of human life has not yet developed (an
argument parallel to that of Mrs. Schiavo). The right does not yet obtain.

The death penalty advocate or the euthanasia advocate do not flinch at saying
the first two sentences. But this third sentence is something from which the
abortion advocate recoils as the pious recoil from blasphemy. 

Consider the linguistic difficulty of adopting the euphemisms of the abortion
advocate. They must strain to make their language unclear. But since reality is
coherent, they are forced, step by step, to become increasingly vague in speech
on related topics, in order to maintain that first euphemism. 

They will say the child is not alive because it is not yet born, and yet they
cannot say it is dead either: so it is neither alive nor not-alive. They must
employ a circumlocution like saying “end the pregnancy.” They cannot call it a
child, but must use some more neutral term, like “mass of cells.” Or they might
use a word that refers to a stage of the child’s development, like “embryo” or
“fetus”, but they can not admit what entity is in that stage of development, or
even that there is a development going on, because this would admit the
developing object is alive. 

This particular euphemism, referring to a stage of development while dying the
existence of the thing being developed, is about as honest as the time, when I
was a kid, my Mom told me I could no longer play in the Higginson’s house. When
I was caught disobeying, I explained that I wasn’t in their house, I had been in
their attic. A fetus is an undeveloped child, not an undeveloped
not-quite-anything. The Higginson’s attic does not hang unsupported two stories
above the street. 

Likewise, they cannot call the pregnant person a “mother” because that would
raise the embarrassing question as to how this strange creature, a reverse of
the Virgin Mary, can be a mother without having a child. 

In reality, the child is either male (XY) or female (XX). In reality, any child
organism is a member of the species of both its parents: such as, ducklings of
ducks, foxcubs of foxes. Now, the unborn infant has a sex, but, according to our
abortion advocate terminology, it is not a human being and is not alive. But if
it cannot be a human, and it cannot be an infant, then it cannot be a boy (an
infant male human). 

The awkward terminology requires us to say that the creature is male, but we
cannot admit he is a boy. We are required to say creature has a species (for it
is the outcome of sexual reproduction), but it is neither a fox nor a duck nor
any other species; yet we cannot admit he is a human. 

I can understand how one could make the argument that an organism can be simple
at one stage and develop the outer characteristics typical of its species later.
I cannot understand, logically, how one can make the argument that an organism
can be not a member of its own species at one stage and develop membership in
its species later. Membership in a species is itself the quality that directs
the stages of development; it is not a developed characteristic. 

All this verbal and intellectual confusion leads our poor abortion advocate into
to a broader inability to see the chain of cause and effect that lead to and
from the pregnancy under discussion. For them, the pregnancy “just happens.” 

In the world of the abortion advocate, the interests of the father in saving his
son or daughter from “termination” cannot be raised nor addressed. Fathers—blank
out—there is no such entity. Pregnancies “just happen.” 

Since it is a world without duty and without responsibility, the role of
fatherhood itself must be blanked out, made unmentionable, like an un-person of
1984. Pregnancies arise out of nothing and happening for no reason, imposing no
duties on anyone, and raising no serious moral questions: you may keep or kill
the child as your whim takes you, like preferring white wine to red. The risk of
sterilization from abortion is not mentioned. The haunting regret in later years
of having killed a child are not mentioned. 

Ah! It must be pleasant indeed to live in the land of the Lotus-eaters!

I expect those of you who think morality is a matter of maximizing survival
chances to jump in here on my side at any minute. Abortion, as a way of life, is
not an inheritable characteristic, is it? It wipes out a segment of the next
generation. Population levels are already below replacement in societies that
practice it. It is a self-eliminating meme.

In the world with no responsibility, among those whose “moral code” consists of
denying that the idea of duty exists, there still somehow seems to be one duty:
the commandment to obey the speech code. To pretend a child is not a child is
simply a false statement: a lie. Their one commandment reads: Thou Shalt Indeed
Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor. 

My code consists of identifying what I ought to do, whether I’d like it or not.
Their code consists of identifying what you’d like to do, whether you ought or not. 

But if I do not like to obey their speech code, on what ground do they say I ought? 

I admit that Epicureanism is nobler than Hedonism: to be an Epicurean, you have
to correctly identify your long-term self interests, and delay your
gratifications. If you were as rigorous in your logic as Hobbes or Ayn Rand, you
could end up displaying at least the degree of self-command that their systems
require: and the majority of the cases, your moral code would give you
serviceable answers. You would live as befits a man who fears more than anything
else violent death at the hands of others, or as befits a rational and
productive hero. Your system has self-interest only, not duty: and the only cost
is that you will end up supporting tyranny in the first case, and callous
selfishness in the second. 

If an Epicurean can show me it is in my rational self-interest to lie, I might
be curious about the cleverness with which such and argument is fitted together
with axiom and conclusion. But my rational self-interest is not the paramount
value in my moral code: honesty is. A philosopher must make something like the
heroic choice of Achilles, in this case, to prefer an honest life to a long one.  

To the Hedonist I make a briefer answer: it is certainly not my pleasure to put
your lie in my mouth. If that is the price of admission to a discussion on the
topic, I humbly decline.

Those of you who dismiss the concept of duty from your moral calculations,
please note that duty is merely the obverse of right. If you have a right to
free speech, for example, then I have a duty to tolerate it, like it or no. But
if my toleration is merely a matter of my pleasure or my self-interest, in cases
where it does not please me to allow you speak, or is not serviceable to me in
the long term, then I can silence you with impunity. 

The reason why I speak of duty rather than right in this case is that the
so-called right of the unborn to live seems to me to be a highly abstract and
doubtful argument, and it is not clear when that right vests. No baby has the
visible characteristics of the human race, speech, upright stance, use of fire,
use of tools. As for brain activity, my cat is smarter than my newborn, and so
if rights were based on brainpower, my cat would have a better claim than my son.

My duty as a father to care for my son, however, clearly vests from the moment
my son exists, developed or not, human or not. To care for my son means to see
to it that he makes it safely to adulthood, armed and ready to march into the
battle of life. If it is my job to see to it that he is physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight by Friday, then I cannot kill him on Monday
even if his brain activity does not develop until Tuesday. 

Enough with debating. Instead, let me tell you a story. 

Once upon a time, my beloved and darling wife, the most beautiful woman in the
world, was pregnant with my first child. 

At this time, I was not a Christian. I was a Stoic, a follower of Marcus
Aurelius and Epictetus. (I mention this only because if any of you are tempted
to substitute sneering at my faith for answering the questions I raise, such
behavior, never relevant, would be even more irrelevant now.) 

The doctors advised me to abort him because their test showed he would be born
with severe birth defects, perhaps brain-dead at birth.  

During the pregnancy, my wife took steps to see to it that his health would be
looked after: without going into details, I will report only that these steps
were tedious and painful to her. In other words, when he was a “mere mass of
cells” she treated my son with care and love. 

Like most parents, we named the child before he was born. Like most mothers,
friends and even strangers wanted to touch her belly, the share the joy of the
miracle taking place then. Oddly enough, not even one person asked to touch her
belly to feel the “fetus” kick. 

At one point during the birth, the child posed a direct threat to the life and
health of the mother. My wife instructed me to tell the doctors that, should the
choice come down to it, I was to kill her and save the child. 

Fortunately, the skill of the doctors delivered the boy after a
caesarian-section: he was rushed to the intensive care ward, where he stayed for
several days.

He lived. I named him after his father. He is a perfectly healthy six year old
at the time of this writing. Yesterday he and his brothers ran with me in
circles on our lawn, under the sunshine, until we collapsed with laughter. 

He lived. He is in perfect health. 

Please note the several moral choices which I actually faced, which are here
being discussed with so little honesty and seriousness. 

At no point did I allow sentimentality or self-interest to make my decision: I
did what I did because it is a father’s duty to protect his son. In situations
where there was a conflict of duty, such as a threat to the life of my beloved
wife (whom I love more than life itself) honor required me to ceded to her
wishes, a sacrifice she was prepared to make, but from which fate spared her. 

I tell this story only to emphasize one point: if the mother’s duty to care for
and protect her child only obtains after birth, then all pre-natal care is not a

Let me emphasize this again. The sacrifices and risks my beloved wife took for
my beloved son began before his birth, and he would have died had she not
suffered those sacrifices and those risks. 

Your code says mommy should only love and care for baby at birth, not before.
Therefore, by your code, not only is my wife allowed to neglect her child before
birth, she can wound and even kill him, and this killing is protected by you and
yours as a matter of sacred right. 

Your code says my child had no right to live. Your code says my wife had no duty
to care for him before his birth. No law protected him: even up to the moment
his head cleared the cervix, he could be killed with impunity in this land, at
this time, thanks to your code.  

His skull could be punctured with scissors, his brains vacuumed out, his wee
little legs and arms clipped from his still-warm body, and the dismembered bits
of flesh and bone pulled from his mommy’s womb by forceps. This is what your
code and your laws allow. 

My baby lived. If the golden days of joy I have had with him were emeralds, my
treasure would rise as high as Everest, and all the wealth of El Dorado would be
the pauper’s mite to me. Had I heeded arguments like yours, all that would have
been lost. All that and more. 

My code won, at least that once. Despite your code, despite whatever sick thrill
you loyal partisans of death get out of promoting the death of babies as a way
of life, mine did not die. He lived. 

I am content with that. 

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