Expecting what? How we talk about unborn babies and why it matters


After seeing my wife going through nine months of pregnancy, I am glad it is something I never have to experience. She started off nauseous and ended up uncomfortable, with a lot of other inconveniences in between. One cool experience, however, was that she was treated like a mini-celebrity at the end of the pregnancy. When we went out, I was always surprised at how many people came up and talked to her, asking about the baby, reminiscing about their pregnancy, guessing the gender, or even touching the belly (that’s a little weird).

Generally, people were moved when they saw my wife’s belly. I remember a heavily tattooed man wearing an A-shirt, coming up to her with a huge smile, and chatting with her about children. Everyone considered my wife pregnant with a child. They spoke in the present tense about our boy with no doubt about his personhood. I image every expectant mother would be wholly offended if anyone referred to their child, who they felt kick and saw in a sonogram, as an “it”, a thing, or not a life. This discourse of expecting mothers is universal, transcending political lines and people’s stance on life issues.

Surprisingly, the same exact situation has a different discourse in the political and legal sphere. Many politicians and judges fail to comprehend that a distinct life was present within my pregnant wife, a point my 3-year-old son understood. They reduce the baby to a less-than-human status, talking about him as a clump of cells, not a person. The most striking aspect of this issue is the contradiction between these two ways of speaking about the same thing. How can expecting mothers and our laws speak so differently about a pregnancy?

Another important lesson that can be gleaned from this review is the power of words. Social scientists define a discourse as the way society discusses a certain principle, including definitions and assumptions about a term. Discourses can change dramatically over time and between different societies. The discourse surrounding “a human being” has changed many times. Every time the definition has been limited; a disaster has ensured. For instance, African Americans were not considered fully human during the early part of American history. Jews in Nazi Germany were labeled less-than-human in the 1930s and early 1940s.  We know what happened during these situations.

Recent scholarship on the Holocaust argues that most German perpetrators during the Holocaust, minus their involvement in these crimes, were decent people, not racists or hateful individuals (see Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men). How can ordinary people commit horrible crimes? Part of the answer is the power of discourses. In this case, the dominant discourse spoke authoritatively and constantly that a crime was not a crime, but actually something positive. Germans were instructed that killing Jews was a noble task. Similarly, a dominant discourse existed in America concerning slavery, and many slave owners believed they were helping their slaves.

Additionally, perpetrators had to abstract the imagined universal from real individuals. Many German mass murders during the Holocaust were friends with Jews prior to the war. Speeches from the war that have survived often instruct the soldier to make a distinction between the nice, friendly Jews that they knew back home and the horrible, vicious race that was trying to destroy them. In short, they had to take away the face, the humanness, of the individuals they were killing and replace it with a constructed and false ideal. 

I believe that people are generally good. People seek to do good things. When it comes to abortion, advocates definitely believe they are fighting for something that is right. They have created a whole discourse that sounds great. For example, the label “pro-choice” sound good but is not about abortion. When God created us with free will, humans were given the ability to make choices. This ability has nothing to do whether that choice is good or bad, and if there should be ramifications for certain choices. So, pro-choice is a horrible way to distinguish a side in the abortion debate, but an effective slogan. Many other abortion talking points similarly sound good but have no substance: “war on women,” “women’s body,” and “keep government out of reproduction.”

There are many effective ways to advance the pro-life cause. Most importantly, we are called to build up a culture of life, in which all children are loved and supported. This discussion highlights some other means that are also significant ways to end abortion. That is, the words we use and the way we argue is important. If the jargon and the talking points are removed, it is pretty easy to win a debate over abortion. Another significant aspect is to connect the unborn baby with a real face. Like some of the examples above, it is possible to see abortion as a “positive” entity when talking about statistics like health care costs, but when we humanize the baby, these arguments collapse to nothing.

Lastly, what is the end of a discourse that dehumanized unborn babies? We often do not think about the consequences of abortion because society is silent about the remains of the child and the impact on the mother. However, stories often surface which show the true face of the process.

Last month, local residents in a small Russian town found 248 fetuses dumped in an isolated part of the forest. The 5- to 6-month-old fetuses are fully recognizable as human remains. The case sparked outrage in Russia, but why? Procedures producing similar results happen thousands of times a day. Is it only morally wrong when it is seen?

Earlier in the year, news surfaced about pills made from aborted babies. Korean custom officials seized thousands of these pills coming from China, and an investigative report by a South Korean news program further detailed the production of the pills and the vast trading network. The grotesque practice involves cutting fetuses into small pieces, drying them out, microwaving them on low heat, grinding the remains into a powder, and then placing the powder into small capsules. The pills supposedly can cure anything and are more potent if the fetuses are older.

Lastly in February, two ethicists published an article in the respected Journal of Medical Ethics arguing that “killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be.” They correctly reason that very little separates a newborn from an unborn baby, but instead of seeing the newborn as a valuable life and therefore the unborn baby as a living human, they maintain that if society permits killing an unborn baby with abortion, we should be able to kill a newborn. In short, if the parents do not like the baby after birth, they should be able to kill it for any reason.

These stories are shocking, but they are the direct conclusion of a society which values one life more than another. They might get us motivated to do something, but too often, it is only for a moment. Then we return to drinking our latte and carrying on with our life. As I hold my newborn son every day, I cannot help but think that life is not a privilege for those that are wanted or healthy. It is a right for all.




Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.