In August I wrote a post suggesting that the use of language to hide rather than to communicate was growing. This morning’s ‘Today’ programme on Radio reinforces my point.
Without a trace of irony, the presenter Evan Davis introduced an item on ‘post-fertilisation contraception’, which, he suggested, might be used for up to two weeks after ‘fertilisation’. The discussion which followed concerned the difficulties faced by scientists, the reaction of the press, and the need for ‘public debate’ at an early stage if such discoveries are to be communicated.
What a curious term is ‘post-fertilisation contraception’. The word ‘contraception’ has always been used to mean the prevention of conception. Once conception has taken place we use the word ‘abortion’. The use of ‘fertilisation’ too, is significant. It has a clinical feel; we remember it being used of plants in biology class. ‘Conception’ is what happens in humans when a woman conceives a child. It is the word Christians use of Mary every time they recite the Angelus: ‘And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.’
So what if Evan Davis had described this new technique in the words we normally use: ‘post-conception abortion’. Yes, it sounds and feels very different, doesn’t it. And immediately I hear the objection that he was trying not to pre-empt the moral discussion. In which case let us continue the debate about abortion, about the moral basis for a practice against which Christians have always stood firm. By all means let us force the question, ‘Why two weeks – why not a month, or six months or ….’
It is simply not true that all moral questions nowadays are open: we frequently use words and phrases which express society’s moral disapproval. What once we called ‘risky jokes’ we now call ‘racist language’. ‘Office banter’ is now ‘unacceptable sexism’. Packets of cigarettes bear the slogan ‘Smoking kills’: when the scientific evidence is that ‘Smoking kills some people’.
I am not hopeful about such a ‘public debate’ over this new scientific discovery. It sounds too easy and convenient as a way of getting rid of an ‘unwanted little problem’ for people to resist. Will anyone have the courage to sell them as ‘Home Abortion Kits’? I doubt it.