Language and the Abortion Controversy
Language plays a very important role in the abortion controversy with the key battle being how the tiny cellular mass inside a pregnant woman is to be described. Pro-Life advocates (who typically are Pro-Death when it comes to the Death Penalty and often when it comes to doctors who perform abortions) want this tiny cellular mass to be called a "living human being." In the state of South Dakota, legislators want to require doctors to refer to this tiny cellular mass this way. I wonder if a legislature somewhere might want to force astrophysicists to cease to refer to "black holes" using that term since it, along with a lot of other terms employing this word "black" ("black sheep" or "blackball" or "black cloud" (that has a silver lining), etc.) evoke negative associations that attach to Black Americans. Why not?
Years ago, I read a book by a doctor who opposed abortion that took the position that if one could get people to use the term "baby" instead of "foetus" for the tiny cellular mass I earlier mentioned, their battle would be largely won. Of course, calling this tiny cellular mass a "living human being" would surely be believed to have an even greater effect. But, if you asked people in an abortion-neutral way to characterize some of the properties of a living human being they would quickly come up with properties that were inconsistent with calling this tiny cellular mass "a living human being" or even a "baby." It ain't gonna work, baby.
Implicit in the linguistic effort to force upon doctors the language "living human being" or even a less outrageous term like "baby" is a belief in the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, according to which language determines thought. There is no question that what something is called can influence thought (how could it not?) but it is a huge, easily falsifiable step to move to the strong form of this hypothesis that what something is called will determine thought about this thing.
It is quite clear that thinking goes on in tiny humans (i. e., those former small cellular masses that are not inside women that we raise to be grown men and women) well before they begin to acquire language (i.e., begin to associate words with things and comprehend phrases and sentences) and perforce this thought cannot be determined by language. In fact, I have long believed we do not remember much of our first few years because we have no real language though lots of learning is going on. Moreover there are hosts of concepts we have for which we have no words or as an old friend and colleague (at M.I.T. as a graduate student and at Illinois and Ohio State as faculty colleagues) Arnold Zwicky once termed them "fixed expressions." Notice that there is no single term that uniquely refers to fish, pork, chicken, and beef (i. e., there is no fixed expression) but typically these are the things many of us think of as what to serve as the main course of a dinner. We must then have concept of them. Vegetarions certainly do since they class them together as things not to eat. We wouldn't want to say that "edible flesh" is our language for them for there have been and may still be humans who have seen human flesh as quite edible. The same is true of what we could call "leafy greens." They occur in a row in grocery stores. Modern stores sometimes jumble things up a bit but normally romaine lettuce, Boston or bibb lettuce, red and green leafy lettuce, radicchio, fresh spinach, etc. are organized together and that argues for the existence of a concept in the heads of grocers for which there is no fixed expression.
Perhaps the most decisive refutation of the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis comes in the area of perception where it is clear that we distinguish vastly more colors than we have words for and that though different languages have more or fewer basic color terms and the terms they have often slice up the spectrum differently we perceive color in much the same way. There is a language which I have forgotten the name of that has a single term for the talons of a hawk, the claws of a lion, and human finger nails but before you read this, assuming you are biologically untrained (like me) it would never have occurred to you spontaneously to organize them together cognitively. But the speakers of my forgotten language clearly organized them together. Just for fun I Googled "word for talons, claws, and finger nails" and discovered that hooves are part of the same class. I can easily accept talons, claws, and nails as a concept even though I have no fixed expression for them. Now that I have learned that hooves count too, I can revise my concept but it will have no linguistic consequences." (I don't plan to revise it however.) Google "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" and you will find discussions and references supporting the thesis that the strong form of this hypothesis is false.
The Diocese of Fort Worth seems either to believe the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis or some very strong version of the weak form (if that makes any sense at all, which I doubt). The web site cited argues that simple passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was sufficient to change people's attitude toward persons of other races with respect to such notions as seeing one's daughter having a person of another race as a college room mate or whether persons of different races should be able to rent rooms in the same building or stay in the same hotel. (I think the bombing of Black churches (sometimes with children inside) and watching Bull Connor's thugs whacking heads on TV might have had a greater effect.) The Diocese claims in connection with conservative columnist George Will's view that overturning Roe v. Wade would not change people's morality in regard to abortion, saying
It always surprises me when sophisticated political commentators appear to be ignorant of the relationship of morals, morés, and laws.This incredibly naive religious person seems not to have understood how unsuccessful prohibition was and prohibition was not a mere law -- it was put into being by the 18th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution. Nor does this person seem to know that minors everywhere in the country smoke and drink alcohol even though it is illegal. Our morés in connection to smoking and drinking are unaffected by laws it seems.
In my opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade will cause a vastly greater disruption of American society than did making it a part of American Law. Calling a foetus a "baby" or "living human being" is not going to cause persons determined to abort their foetuses to cease having abortions because language does not determine thought.
I don't pretend to know what exactly will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned but I can assure you it will not be pretty. Women will die because of botched abortions , just as they did before Roe v. Wade. Middle class and wealthier women will get their abortions even if they have to travel outside the country to do them. And they will be pissed off and start voting for Democrats. It will be the poor who suffer either by getting dangerous abortions or having to raise kids they don't want. As I said, I don't know what will happen but I suspect that there will be an underground market for miscarriage pills. That way the Christian Mullahs will be happy and those who want abortions will be happy.
Perhaps I am naive, but IMO the mainstream of the Republican Party and even George Bush do not want Roe v. Wade overturned because they know that they will begin to lose elections as a result. IMO, Judge Roberts was a stealth judge, conservative to be sure but, unlike Chief Justice Rehnquist whom he will replace, he is unlikely to vote to overthrow Roe v. Wade every time it comes up. And as Chief Justice he may work to make sure that that Roe v. Wade isn't overturned (though he might want to see some limitations on it). The Republican Party is scamming the Religious Right (who richly deserve such treatment). They benefit from worked up Christians. They will not benefit if the middle class gets worked up because they have to fly out of the country to get an abortion.
I have no idea what I think about abortion. I don't feel good about it. I feel very ungood about partial birth abortions -- the name scares hell out of me. I also feel ungood about telling women that they must carry foetuses to term whether they want to or not. This is a moral controversy that will never go away since both positions are quite reasonable.