There are few political and social issues as controverted and fraught with mutual animus as the debate over abortion rights. Unfortunately, the heat is only multiplied by the common retreat to unfortunate and misleading rhetoric.
Consider, for example, the practice among some prolifers of referring to abortion as a genocide. This is language that I’ve occasionally heard from prolife advocates, and it is wholly irresponsible. By no plausible definition does access to elective abortion constitute a genocide.
With that in mind, I come to a tweet from conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza arising out of the massive Women’s March this past week:
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) January 22, 2017
What about D’Souza’s description of the right to (therapeutic and elective) abortion as the right to kill children. Is this another example of irresponsible rhetoric?
First up, let me note that I am no fan of D’Souza. But that’s irrelevant: the fact is that in this case it seems to me that D’Souza is correct: abortion entails the killing of children; and thus, calling abortion a human right entails the right to kill children.
There are three points at which I can envision a prochoice advocate disagreeing with this evaluation. I’ll address each one in turn.
Is it wrong to describe abortion as killing fetuses?
To begin with, one might object that it is problematic to use a verb like “kill” when one could use a more neutral term like “terminate.”
I demur. Some years ago I wrote the Conservative Government of Canada to complain about their defense of the slaughter of baby harp seals in Newfoundland. I received a curt reply that defended the government’s policy stance and which described the killing of the harp seals as a harvest. I replied that crops are harvested, seals are slaughtered. Consequently, the attempt to describe the mass killing of baby harp seals as if it were no different from a combine working a field of wheat was a disingenuous use of language to distort our moral evaluation of the act.
It seems to me that describing abortion as the termination of fetuses is the rhetorical equivalent of describing the baby harp seal slaughter as the harvest of seals. In other words, it is the use of misleading (neutral or positive) language to distort our moral evaluation of the act. So I believe it is more correct to describe abortion as what it is: killing.
Is it wrong to describe fetuses as children?
Okay, perhaps abortion is killing, but if it is, shouldn’t we describe it as the killing of fetuses? It is misleading and inappropriate to describe abortion as the killing of children.
I’m somewhat more sympathetic to this second objection. But here too I don’t think the objection succeeds for a very simple reason: when parents want the fetus they call it a child. Indeed, when dictionary.com defines the word “child” it includes “a human fetus” as one of the definitions.
Given that it is appropriate to refer to a fetus as a child, I believe it is likewise appropriate to refer to the killing of a fetus as the killing of a child.
Is it wrong to describe abortion as the killing of children simpliciter?
Finally, somebody might concede that abortion constitutes the killing of a child and still object that D’Souza’s description is inappropriate because it fails to note the restriction of the right to the killing of unborn children.
I don’t think this is a valid criticism either. Imagine that a human rights activist discovers that the imaginary country of Rondovia has given parents the right to kill children under five years old. In response, a human rights activist tweets “Rondovia gives parents the right to kill their children!” Would you object that the activist failed to specify that Rondovia had restricted the right to age four and under?
Perhaps you might. But I wouldn’t. And neither would I worry that D’Souza failed to note that the right to elective abortion is only the right to kill unborn children.