In a 1976 issue of Esquire magazine, the late surgeon and writer, Richard Selzer, wrote about his experience of witnessing an abortion. He sets the scene: a professional doctor in his 40s, at ease in hospitals, and unfazed by the remedies and rites of the ailing body, he has asked to see a procedure which, like all right-thinking, university-town-dwellers, he notionally supports. What he sees, though, passes through the filter of his commitments and preconceptions; as the needle penetrates the mother’s body and impales her unseen, unborn child, Selzer’s eye catches an unexpected movement: “And now I see that it is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.” What Selzer saw was the recoil of a body in pain, the helpless, final, desperate struggle of a living being’s last moments.
This month, our feature story delves into the challenges and best practices for talking about abortion. Such a primer is necessary not only because of the raw emotion connected to the topic, but also because, given even the slightest chance, our culture shies away from the awful reality of prenatal infanticide. We have become adept at not talking about abortion, at avoiding, at all costs, the reality to which Selzer voluntarily submitted himself.
Language, usually, offers a sufficient screen. Empty, platitudinous phrases like the “right to choose” intervene between our culture and the terrifying reality that Selzer witnessed. These phrases are sometimes so far removed from the reality of abortion that the very lack of any connection seems to be the point. Why, for example, should nebulous adjectives like “reproductive,” when joined with abstract nouns like “justice” or “health,” serve as a coded reference to the end of life in the womb? Why, indeed, unless that reality were itself something unspeakable.
Undoubtedly, the thrilling success of the “heartbeat laws” in some U.S. states shows that language can reveal the reality of abortion. Yet, the desperate reactions to these laws highlight, as well, the self-deceptive lengths that our culture will go in order to avoid that reality. When, for example, radical advocates for abortion object to the very name of these laws, and insist that the word “heartbeat” be substituted with the phrase, “fetal pole cardiac activity,” the sheer absurdity of their clumsy euphemism illustrates, at a glance, our culture’s aversion to abortion which is mirrored, here, in an awkward linguistic knot.
It sometimes seems that our culture’s deep-seated disinclination to deal with the terrible truth of abortion even informs the policies by which it is regulated. The common “exceptions” for abortion in cases of rape and incest are, on their very face, incoherent: the crimes committed in the context of human life’s conception do not diminish its sanctity or compromise its innocence. The children of rapists and abusers bear none of the blame for the crimes of their fathers. Yet the very fact that such crimes are invoked as wedge-issues with which to justify abortion in at least some cases is telling: the psychological charge that the rape and incest carry degrades our capacity to debate about abortion; these rare cases lock us illogically into a dark, libidinal contest between unthinkable crimes. Indeed, one suspects that rape and incest are only invoked to contaminate the debate in precisely this way, and to scramble our ability to think clearly.
The very idea of abortion is, in other words, a kind of Kryptonite to sober, civil discourse, a poisonous, paralyzing topic that weakens logic’s sway over our minds.
Little wonder, then, that cynical politicians like our scandal-ridden Prime Minister have learned to exploit this feature of abortion’s evil to their own venal ends. Indeed, Justin Trudeau’s newly announced neo-colonial initiative to depopulate the developing world through “Feminist Foreign Aid” is little more than a craven, unsustainable posture struck so that he can attack anyone who questions his lavish, ludicrous, and quasi-genocidal policy. Trudeau is evidently trusting in abortion’s dissuasive power to shore up his fading support in advance of the coming election.
We hope that neither Trudeau’s opponents nor the Canadian electorate will be so easily duped. And yet, if Canada remains unwilling to end abortion in law, or come to grips with its reality as a culture, our reticence will keep us hostage to corrupt, exploitative charlatans like Trudeau.
The idea of abortion has the power to shut down debate; but the reality of abortion – witnessed in person or approached in conversation – can lead to a conviction about its terrible truth. Selzer’s essay concludes with this stunned, chastened summation: “What I saw, I saw…a defense, a motion from, an effort away. And it has happened that you cannot reason with me now. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?”
The child, whose death Selzer witnessed that day, would have been the age Selzer was when he wrote his essay. That person, like so many countless others, is permanently lost to us, hidden from view, and concealed behind the same euphemisms which continue to circulate in our own day.
We must, with all our power, place ourselves – and our culture – before the reality of abortion. We must accept the terrible consequences which flow from its toleration and remedy the self-imposed wounds which this ongoing atrocity has inflicted. We must live, at last, in the truth. Only then will we be able to address the reality of our moment, to look ourselves in the eye and take stock of what, over almost a half-century of callous cruelty, our culture has become.about abortion