Magazine article The Human Life Review

Abortion as Liberty and Right

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Abortion as Liberty and Right

Article excerpt

Long and wearying experience has taught pro-lifers a painful lesson in what the purposeful corruption of language can do to the quality of debate. Denying words the meanings they developed in their natural evolution, insisting that the connotations attached to them are different from those their users intend, employing obscure or grandiose phrases for simple ideas, turning definitions on their heads, and declaring whole realms of vocabulary out of bounds (for the sake, naturally, of tolerance) not only makes dialogue difficult, it inhibits the ability even to think about protected subjects, for lack of the words to do it. George Orwell dramatized the process of thought constriction through language control far more effectively than I could ever hope to do, and some of the more outrageous particulars from the abortion arena have been well documented in this journal and elsewhere.

There is another form of language corruption, however, not as purposefully imposed and not as widely recognized but almost as serious in its effects, and it is the one I wish to discuss. It is an imprecision of meaning we unconsciously agree to in virtually all oral discussions and in most of what we read and write. Like doublespeak, it is especially devastating to outof-favor factions who attempt to bring to light points of view that are not frequently heard and that require precision of language in order that an audience accustomed only to ideas in fashion can hope to assimilate them. When a speaker uses the word "equality," for example (or "democracy," or "justice," or "progress," or "tolerance") most of his audience will treat it as an unwarranted annoyance if one of his listeners asks that he be more specific and substitute a less value-laden or more narrowly defined word. But equality (as applied to people) has several distinct meanings and a number of nebulous ones. A discussion of human equality goes immediately awry when the various sides in a dispute use the same word for entirely different things.

Rights and Liberties

Two words that enter into almost any discussion of politics, and the politics of abortion in particular, are "rights" and "liberties." The meanings of these words are so often confused that they are sometimes treated as if they were the same thing. The phrase "civil rights," for example, may be carelessly used when "civil liberties" is intended. In spite of its name, the American Civil Liberties Union is usually more concerned with promoting rights at the expense of liberty than the other way around; and phrases enshrined in the Constitution, like the "right... to assemble," the "right... to petition," and the "right ... to keep and bear arms," encourage the confusion. But "rights" and "liberties" do have different spécifie meanings that are important to any discussion of the powers and limits of government, and for the sake of clarity there is reason to insist on narrower meanings in that context.

The distinction I wish to make is between civil rights and civil liberties, by which I mean rights and liberties provided or guaranteed to us under law by government. In the context of political discussion to which this article will be limited, rights will mean civil rights, liberties will mean civil liberties.

By liberty I mean the absence of legal restriction: the ability to do what one wishes without interference from laws or government. It is from this meaning that the word "libertarian" derives. Liberty (in this restricted sense) implies nothing about opportunity. I may be free to go to Harvard in the sense that no legal restriction prevents me. This does not mean I have the slightest glimmer of hope of actually doing so. A legal entitlement to a loan or scholarship might furnish me that opportunity; however, such a government-provided benefit would then be a (civil) right.

Conflict with another individual can result in inhibitions on my freedom, but my civil or legal liberty is not infringed by someone acting on his own initiative. …

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