Friday, March 16, 2007

On the word "fetus", and pro-life culture

Jay from the LTI Blog writes of how the word "fetus" is becoming less pejorative and more acceptable among pro-lifers.

It is a commonplace among pro-lifers that poor-choicers use the word "fetus" to dehumanize the unborn child. And I agree that they do. The pro-legalized-abortion crowd objects to the use of the word "baby" to describe a fetus, calling it an "emotionally loaded" word.

But Jay has argued that fetalhood is just another stage of development, and avoiding the term is unscientific. I concur. I also think that the sooner that we reclaim the word fetus, the sooner the opposition has one less word to use to de-humanize the unborn.

Jay cites Jivin Jehoshaphat's observation that the pro-life side is largely winning the debate over whether the fetus is a human being, I also see this to a degree, although I wouldn't call it a full-blown victory. However, with Jay, I also think one of the following is true:

A - People are not as convinced of the humanity of the unborn as we would like to believe. Most people still see the fetus as less human than a newborn and the opposition’s avoidance of the argument is largely of rhetorical necessity and does not indicate a large scale victory on this issue for our side on a popular level.

B - The alternative is more chilling in my mind. Most people will now acknowledge the full humanity of the fetus and see the unborn as equal in qualities of humanity as the born. In this case, the moral response to the moral offense is disturbingly inadequate. If we know that they are fully human beings and have truly won this argument, what kind of people are we that we can not manage to rally any greater moral outrage than what we have seen so far?

I think that most people are too busy to care. Consider such outrages as the genocide in Darfur, or any one example of widespread human rights abuses in dozens of countries around the world.

We can hardly muster enough outrage for those things.

We also have to consider the fact that people's reactions to issues are largely culturally formed (i.e. through art, litterature and entertainment and other mediatic sources) and we pro-lifers simply haven't developed the clout we need to shape people's reactions.

Consider the idea that contraception is morally wrong-- not that it should be outlawed, but that it's a sin.

Most people won't even give the proposition two seconds thought and reject it outright. It's not that there isn't a case to be made.

But there are two problems that must be overcome to sway people. One is that you have to get beyond the implicit emotional responses that "guard" people from ever thinking about such things. Such "emotionalism" is not wrong, if you will, if it's at the service of the truth. Emotional revulsion of sin and error is often what keeps us from contemplating them. But in the service of error, it makes it so much harder to convince people of anything. People implictly think: if contraception is a sin, does that mean I am obliged to have ten kids? Does that mean I won't be able to have *gasp* extra-marital sexual activity? Does that mean I'll just be a baby machine? Will the fascists take over if I admit to this?

The second obstacle we have to overcome is that the opposition to contraception rests on a whole series of notions that are not readily obvious to the public. It's tough enough to persuade people of ideas when their emotional guard is down, when their emotional guard is up, it's darn near impossible. The opposition of contraception is based on a confluence of beliefs, and it's difficult to make one's case in a 4-second soundbyte or an internet discussion. One can surely make a start by writing a book, but books have a limited audience-- those are who are literate and like to read that sort of thing.

The lack of pro-life clout in the artistic/entertainment culture is why this case is difficult to make. When your world is permeated with the ideas that one needs to put forward, it's an easier sell.

The same problem plagues pro-lifers with the fetal rights issue, although to a much lesser degree than with contraception. It's easier to make case when you see a human being's guts splattered on a picture.

But the fetal rights debate can't be reduced to that picture. If pro-lifers are to be successful in formulating l'imaginaire of people's minds on this issue, it will have to build a community, partially as an identity, and partially as a sustained audience for pro-life artistic endeavour, making a kind of safe platform for those ideas necessary for fetal equality and other culture-of-life issues. Most people don't like the abortion issue. But they like a good story-- whether through film or song or books. Give them a good story, and they'll go for it, often suspending their own moral beliefs for the sake of becoming absorbed in the world that the artist has created.

This is the big Achilles Heel of the pro-life world. When fetal rights proponents can make quality cultural products on a mass scale, that are saleable to the wider society, that is when we will clinch the political issue. People will not only know our truth, but experience it and internalize it.

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