Anyone who reads or even talks with someone in a different age group knows that words change their meanings over time. Some of those changes are short-lived or used ironically so that the main meaning of the word doesn’t change. I noticed this when I moved from rural Pennsylvania to upstate New York and first heard the phrase “wicked cool.” It quickly dawned on me that wicked in that phrase actually meant good or great. Actually the dawning wasn't all that quick. At first I was in shock. Fortunately in other verbal contexts wicked still means bad or evil.
Not so for other words. Some words drop in and out of everyday language. “By the Rood” was an way of swearing in Shakespeare’s time, the Rood referring to the cross of Christ. Only Catholics, Episcopalians (and not all that many) and church architectural historians today hold on to the word when they talk about the Rood screen, a wood or metal screen between the cancel and the nave, oops between the front of the church and the place where most of the people sit. See what I mean?
Other words lose their original meaning but hold on to a sense of the original. Bedlam was originally a prison for the mentally ill in London. Now it refers to crazy situations. Crazy, on the other hand, could mean cool or wonderful back in the 1950’s. And stews, as some Presbyterians have discovered, used to mean houses of prostitution back in the 1600’s. I was going to call them bawdy houses but the word bawdy seems to have dropped out of modern English. Maybe that’s because very little that used to be considered bawdy is unacceptable today.
But some try to change the meaning of a word by continually using it in a particular way. Consider two words: choice and abortion.
Today in America someone can say, “I believe in choice,” and almost everyone will know that the person means to say that they believe a woman has the right to choose whether or not to abort the baby she carries in her womb. The word choice has come a long way.
Choice used to refer simply to the act of choosing. If I went to a restaurant and said that I wanted the steak instead of the fish I was making a choice. And it still does mean that. But used in the sentence, “I believe in choice,” the word’s meaning has become limited. After all, who goes into a restaurant, asks for the prime rib, medium rare and then says, “I believe in choice?” The server would consider you crazy if you said that. Restaurants are all about choice, about "Having it your way." In fact most retail sales and service businesses are all about choice. While Henry Ford said you could buy a Model T in any color as long as it was black you can buy a car in a wide rainbow of colors. My daughter bought a “seafoam” colored car a few years back. I didn’t even know that there was such a color!
So let’s put the word choice when it refers to abortion back in its original context. When someone says, “I believe in choice,” they really mean, “I believe a woman should by law have the right to kill her baby if she wants to do so.” And I don’t want to have an argument about whether an abortion kills a baby. The fetus (fetus means baby in Latin), is not part of the mother’s body. The fetus has a different chromosome set. And yes, the baby in the womb needs the mother to live, causes changes in the mother’s hormones and anatomy, and is in a sense a parasite. But that fetus or baby is alive. After a certain amount of time, and much less than most of us think, the baby in the womb moves, its heart beats, reacts to the mother’s voice or heartbeat, jumps at sudden noises and feels pain.
It’s curious. We debate about when a fetus becomes human. We don’t debate about when a rabbit becomes a rabbit or when a mosquito becomes a mosquito, (although the latter goes through several stages of development toward adulthood). And a virus is always a virus.
Back to choice. Those who propound on the subject of choice seek to avoid the word abortion. Saying, “I believe in the right to choose,” avoids the difficult word abortion. After all abortion suggests that something has died. There is blood and flesh involved and it’s really rather messy. So the sentence gets shortened. It sounds so much easier to say choose than choose abortion. Curiously those who so easily toss about the right to choose will get downright irate if anyone suggests that a woman might not make the choice with serious forethought. Granted most women do but if the choice is so important why not make it sound important? Why not say, “I think a woman should have the right to kill her baby before it leaves her body?” (And isn’t it interesting that we get all shocked and it makes the evening news when some woman has her baby and leaves it on the church steps? Why is killing the baby acceptable 24 hours or 2 months or 6 months before birth but a crime immediately after birth?) If the decision is so serious we ought to claim it by using words that sound serious. “I believe in choice” doesn’t sound all that serious does it?
But the word abortion has expanded its meaning in the past 40 years too! A woman used to have a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Miscarriage suggests that something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened. Stillbirth suggests that a baby should come out kicking and screaming but is still, silent, breathless, dead. And as we have learned over the past few decades women grieve for the still born babies and the miscarried. While in the 1950s and 60s women were encouraged to just forget about that lost child today we recognize that the life lost must be mourned.
However abortion now refers not only to the choice to kill one’s baby but also to miscarriage! A miscarriage is now called a “spontaneous abortion,” suggesting that the baby was aborted but no one made the choice. Yet the verb “to abort” carries a sense a choice. Military leaders say “The mission was aborted,” meaning that someone made a choice not to carry out the mission. Using the term “spontaneous abortion” suggests that abortion is somehow a bit more acceptable. After all, it happens lots of times. Women get pregnant but don’t carry to term through no choice of their own. And sometimes women make the choice.
I suggest that this change in language trivializes the radical act of aborting a child. To choose an abortion is to say that it will be better if this child does not live. That is a serious choice. It is a choice that demands careful thought. Frankly I believe it is a choice that humans do not have the right to make except in the most radical of situations. The choice of abortion is always sin. A woman should have to justify to herself that the sin of abortion would be less sinful than the sin of allowing the child to live.
I know my screed will not change the way people talk. It will also anger a great many. We prefer the easy way. Talking about choice is easier than talking about choosing an abortion. Talking about spontaneous abortion makes it easier to think about choosing abortion.
We prefer the easy way and want our words to make things easier. That doesn’t make it right.