Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and the Power of Language

Slate has two life-related stories today. The first is originally from the Financial Times: "Lost and Found," the story of a baby girl with a heart defect who was found in a Shanghai alley. It's actually a very sweet story, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. But the author, who is an adoptive father, does not sugar-coat-- he is very honest about how conditions have and have not improved for babies in China:
The tale of an abandoned Chinese infant is not always so warm and fuzzy. For centuries, rural Chinese women were forced—by circumstance, and often by their mothers-in-law—to strangle or drown or simply throw away girl babies at the moment of their birth. Xinran, the Chinese radio show host turned author, recounts in her new book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, an incident from Shandong province in 1989, when she was present at the birth of a granddaughter to the village headman.

"Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me," she writes. "To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail… Then the tiny foot twitched! It wasn't possible. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slop pail!" Xinran accosts the grandmother, who explains calmly that "a girl baby isn't a child".

It is that kind of story—which, however, gruesome, is far from apocryphal—that makes it, paradoxically, relatively easy to explain to our Chinese daughters why their parents abandoned them. When traditional preference for sons meets the one-child policy, the inevitable outcome is abandonment (or sex-selective abortion).
"It isn't a child" sure is a popular rationalization, isn't it? Which brings us to our second article, by Slate author William Saletan, on the subject of pro-choice discomfort with "selective reduction"-- a euphemism for aborting one twin and allowing the other to live (or aborting two triplets, or what have you). He wrote an incredibly insightful couple of paragraphs on the central importance of semantics in the abortion debate:
[T]he main problem with reduction is that it breaches a wall at the center of pro-choice psychology. It exposes the equality between the offspring we raise and the offspring we abort.

Look up any abortion-related item in Jezebel, and you'll see the developing human referred to as a fetus or pregnancy. But when the same entity appears in a non-abortion item, it gets an upgrade. A blood test could help "women who are concerned that they may be carrying a child with Down's Syndrome." A TV character wonders whether she's "capable of carrying a child to term." Nuclear radiation in Japan "may put unborn children at risk."

This bifurcated mindset permeates pro-choice thinking. Embryos fertilized for procreation are embryos; embryos cloned for research are "activated eggs." A fetus you want is a baby; a fetus you don't want is a pregnancy. Under federal law, anyone who injures or kills a "child in utero" during a violent crime gets the same punishment as if he had injured or killed "the unborn child's mother," but no such penalty applies to "an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman … has been obtained."

Reduction destroys this distinction. It combines, in a single pregnancy, a wanted and an unwanted fetus. In the case of identical twins, even their genomes are indistinguishable. You can't pretend that one is precious and the other is just tissue. You're killing the same creature to which you're dedicating your life.
I couldn't help but comment:
Mr. Saletan, did you become pro-life and I didn't notice? If you did, congratulations. If not, I'd love a follow-up article on how you're managing to maintain your convictions now that the "wall" of dehumanizing language has been breached.


Jameson Graber said...

I can only hope that this discomfort remains embedded in our society's subconscious. The frightening thing is that we might simply get used to the idea of doing what we wish with human life.

Susie Allen said...

great post. I expanded upon this at mine

Kelsey said...

Excellent, Susie!