How language choice distorts reality
Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN, says it is not accurate to claim that Planned Parenthood is involved in the commodification of body parts taken from the bodies of aborted babies. In an article for The New Republic, she explains that the right way to construe Planned Parenthood’s activities is to speak of their “fetal tissue donation program.” Thus, it is medically illegitimate for the Center for Medical Progress, the group responsible for the undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices, to describe embryonic or fetal tissue as “baby parts.” The videos achieve their effect, according to Gunter, not by reporting on Planned Parenthood’s procedures in an honest way, but rather by eschewing medically approved language in favor of tendentious characterizations and overly sentimentalized terminology.
Gunter would like us to think that using terms such as “fetal tissue” and “products of conception,” though perhaps distasteful to the ordinary person, gives us greater biological accuracy. The reason why this is not simply wrong, but completely opposite is that the reverse is true: it is Gunter’s language choices that end up distorting reality. Gunter, of course, peppers her article with references to her medical credentials and invokes science as though the linguistic norms practiced by medical professionals and scientists go any distance toward settling what is at bottom a philosophical dispute.
Gunter thinks her medical training grants her special insight into this matter, but the fact that she considers her expertise ethically relevant reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about what kind of problem this is. This is a problem in the metaphysics of life, which means that the debate is invulnerable to simplistic appeals to terminological choices made by scientists, choices that are themselves selected with the express purpose of shaving away any morally problematic associations. Thus, terms such as “baby,” “organ,” “life,” etc. are excluded, with their exclusion owing not to any explanatory deficiency in the terms themselves, but rather to the fact that they are suggestive of certain realities that abortionists would rather obscure.
Gunter refers to norms governing “clinical conversations” – but these are transparent attempts at conceptual decontamination. Consider how Dr. Deborah Nucatola, PPFA’s senior director of medical services, describes what they do: “We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
Can anyone who is not in the grip of a totalizing commitment to abortion honestly believe that medical terminology, which proposes to characterize the procedure you just read as “tissue donation,” actually helps to illuminate this process? Rather than grant us greater accuracy or insight, such terminology obfuscates in order to strip the process of the linguistic components that remind us of its unfathomable cruelty. Far from helping us see the matter more clearly, Gunter’s appeal to medical terminology represents an attempt to sanitize the gruesomeness of Planned Parenthood’s actions through less threatening language.
The problem is that the gruesomeness is ineliminable. It cannot be washed away.