Words matter. I know this. I understand that if you can change vocabulary, you can change hearts—for better or for worse. And so recent times have seen euphemisms like “ethnic cleansing” for genocide, “adult” for smutty, and of course “choice” for murder.
And so you can hardly blame us, who are struggling to push back against the tide of evil, to try to pull this same sort of verbal trick. And I believe it helps: because of our persistence, the secular media are much more likely to use the term “pro-life” than they were ten or twenty years ago. To be sure, many still use “anti-choice” or “abortion foes,” but “pro-life” is no longer only used by pro-lifers, and it used to be; and that in itself is a victory.
But I think we can go overboard. Twice recently, I saw an openly pro-life woman speaking to an openly pro-life crowd, and referring to a birth as “welcoming baby into the world.” In both instances, someone chided her for this subtly anti-natalist terminology. We should, they argued, always remember that the baby was welcomed into the world at the moment of conception, and not merely at the moment of birth. They suggested an alternate announcement like, “Elizabeth finally got to say hello to her baby” or “The Smiths held little Faustina for the first time today.”
Well . . . I get it, I get it. If we are careful always to emphasize the humanity of the child right from the very beginning, then maybe this vital truth will work its way into people’s consciences. Maybe if we connect the words “baby” and “welcome” with the word “conception,” people will feel less comfortable with early abortions.
On the other hand, I think this particular phrase lacks the kind of authenticity of human experience that is necessary to make a truly useful and effective euphemism. This kind of language doesn’t come naturally to most mothers, in my experience—not because all babies are unwelcome at conception, of course, but because—well, if you are in your ninth trimester, there is nothing on earth MORE welcome than the birth of that baby! If a mother who just gave birth wants to welcome her baby, then I can’t think of anyone more deserving of choosing that phrase; and people who criticize new mothers are just jerks, no matter how good their intentions.
I think it’s important to choose our euphemisms carefully. “Pro-life” is an excellent term because pro-lifers are so much more than merely anti-abortion (despite what the critics will say). Pro-lifers care about the baby, the mother, and the father—in other words, about the whole family, which is the seat of all life. And so, while it may have seemed like a forced phrase at first, at least it is 100% descriptively accurate. And, frankly, it’s easy to say: pro-life, pro-life, pro-life. It slips off the tongue easily, and that is vital for a phrase that needs to gain traction.
But is it somehow inadequately pro-life to welcome a baby into the world at its birth, and must we insist on welcoming baby at conception? I see a few problems with that idea. First, we would use this phrase mostly around people who are already happy about the baby being born, so it’s a wasted effort, preaching to the choir.
Second, sometimes the nicest people are less than thrilled when a child is conceived. A nice woman will generally feel guilty about feeling that way, so it’s going to make things worse to jump at her shouting, “Welcome your baby! Welcome your baby!” How about letting her get used to the idea for a while? That’s why God gave us nine months of pregnancy. By the time the due date comes along, we’re as happy as we ought to be. Never make a pregnant woman feel guilty: it’s nasty, and doesn’t work.
Third, and worst of all, I believe that using unnatural terminology will have a bad effect on those who are already cynical about pro-lifers. We are routinely accused of being uptight, unrealistic and uncompassionate, with no regard or understanding for how it feels to be pregnant in tough circumstances. To insist that a crack-addicted single mom should “welcome her baby” when he is conceived—well, that’s just not realistic. A woman in circumstances like that should, I believe, be encouraged to think about the birth itself as a welcome time. She’s not going to be happy about her pregnancy, which seems so abstract; but she might be able to think ahead to how one ought to feel about a velvety, innocent, dark-eyed newborn—and so, for her, welcoming a baby into the world at the birth might be just the kind of phase that could change her mind about abortion.
I vote for authenticity every time. How about you? Do you have any experience with a pro-lifer (or other religious type) using language which seems a little forced—but which causes you to think about things in a new way? I tend to overemphasize the earthiness of things, so maybe I’m all wrong here. Tell, tell!