William Brennan is a professor in the St. Louis University School of Social
Service. His most recent book, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives, is a
Loyola University Press bestseller in its third printing.
Anti-Fetal Rhetoric: America's Best-Loved Hate Speech
As children we sang, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will
never hurt A. me." We were wrong. Violent words pave the way for violent deeds. Name-calling is
an indispensable component of all levels of oppression, from discrimination to segregation to
enslavement to outright annihilation.
The annihilation started by Roe v. Wade large-scale, legal killing of humans
before birth persists unabated, and numerous explanations have been advanced for this tragic state
of affairs: rampant materialism, the sexual revolution, a narcissistic culture, a pervasive sense of
alienation, the lack of moral absolutes, the decline of religion, an encroaching culture of death,
and a media elite beholden to the abortion establishment. All these likely play a role in keeping
Roe v. Wade the law of the land. But name-calling - degrading language - is central to the success
of this contemporary war on the unborn.
Thoughtful and perceptive people inside and outside today's multicultural and
diversity movements have aroused the public's consciousness to the impact of toxic speech on a wide
range of vulnerable individuals and groups. Vigilance has often been deformed into vigilanteism,
however. There is a growing brigade of politically correct thought-controllers in academia and other
influential circles. Surely, PC speech vigilantes capable of detecting the "his-" in
"history" as offensive to women, "gypped" as insulting to Gypsies, "beat
the drums" as insensitive to Native Americans, and "pet" as degrading to animals,
could be relied upon to root out every possible offending word or phrase! Yet the monitors of
linguistic propriety remain oblivious to one of the most hate-inducing and violence-provoking
nomenclatures ever constructed - the invective created to justify the killing of unborn humans.
Much anti-fetal terminology is intended to label the unborn as insignificant:
mere cells, material, tissue, or nondescript matter. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf places these terms
under the "fetus means nothing" rubric, a rhetoric manufactured by the Second Wave
feminists who, Wolf asserts responded to "the dehumanization of women by dehumanizing the
creatures within them."
In addition to this lexicon of trivialization, there is a wide array of
degrading expressions used to paint a positively malevolent portrait of human life before birth:
parasitic creature, virulent disease, infected body part, and noxious waste product. Leading
feminists, physicians, and scientists assiduously portray the unborn as parasitic creatures.
Rosalind Pollack Petchesky maintains "the fetus is a parasite" because it contributes
nothing to the woman, but only drains nutrients, blood, and energy. Rachel Conrad Wahlberg maligns
the preborn as "a parasitical, " "entirely subhuman," and
"cannibalistic" being that "feeds on the mother's body." According to abortion
doctor Warren Hem, the relationship between the pregnant woman and the fetus "can be understood
best as one of host and parasite." From this he defines abortion as a "defense
mechanism" against the "local invasion" and accompanying "deleterious effects of
the parasite." The late scientific popularizer Carl Sagan considered the unborn "a kind of
parasite" that "destroys tissue" and "sucks blood from capillaries."
Petchesky's characterizations appear in Abortion and Woman's Choice, published
by Northeastern University Press; Wahlberg's in the periodical New Women/New Church (Sept.-Oct.
1987); and Hem's in Abortion Practice, a J.B. Lippincott publication. Sagan's caricature can be
found, not in some obscure journal, but in the widely circulated Sunday supplement Parade Magazine
These fearsome and threatening images show signs of becoming increasingly
rooted in our society. They also share a striking kinship with the derogatory language invoked
against some of history's most reviled victims - persons deemed expendable in prior times. Women's
liberation foremother Simone de Beauvoir called the full-time female homemaker "a parasite
sucking out the living strength of another organism." Hitler repeatedly vilified Jews as
"the typical parasite" and "a true bloodsucker." Lenin and Stalin labeled
independent farmers "parasitic kulaks" who "sucked the blood of the working
people." Some slaveowners in the U.S. viewed African-Americans as an "essentially
parasitic" race in need of bondage for survival.
There has been a movement to make the definitions of pregnancy as a disease
and the unborn as an infection into medical dogma. In 1976 Dr. Willard Cates and colleagues from the
Centers for Disease Control presented before the Planned Parenthood Physicians of America a paper
entitled "Abortion as a Treatment for Unwanted Pregnancy: The Number Two Sexually Transmitted
'Disease."' Cates assured his audience that "abortion is 10 times more effective" for
treating the "sexually transmitted condition" of unwanted pregnancy "than is
penicillin for treating gonorrhea." Several years later, situation-ethics founder Joseph
Fletcher asserted: "Pregnancy when not wanted is a disease, in fact a venereal disease."
Planned Parenthood luminary Dr. Alan Guttmacher likened abortion to "operating on an appendix
or removing a gangrenous bowel."
These malevolent metaphors are constructed to endow killing with the
compelling respectability of mainstream medicine. This is nothing other than the medicalization of
destruction whereby lethal operations are classified as medical procedures and their victims are
defined as diseases. At Auschwitz Dr. Joseph Mengele called the gassing of inmates "the
intensive struggle against the propagation of infection" and Dr. Fritz Mein compared the
extermination of Jews to removing "a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body." Lenin
portrayed those who strayed from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy as "dangerous diseases,"
"epidemics," and "abscesses" contaminating the organism of the Party. The
American Colonization Society, a proponent of dispatching black people back to Africa, characterized
African-Americans as "a contagion."
Relegation of undesired preborn humans to the noisome level of
"waste," "garbage," and "refuse" constitutes another way of depicting
the unborn as repulsive and potentially hazardous matter that must be disposed of immediately. This
mode of denigration is considered particularly apt since dismembered aborted bodies often share the
same ultimate fate as real waste products: incineration. A coroner's report issued in 1982 concluded
that 16,500 aborted bodies discovered outside Los Angeles in a metal storage container did not
involve "evidence of foul play" but amounted only to the disposal of medical waste."
Finnish only researcher Dr. Martti Kekomaki rationalized the harvesting of fetal organs with the
statement, "an aborted baby is just garbage ... just refuse." Harper's editor Lewis Lapham
furnished an identical rationale in support of the use of fetal brain tissue to treat Alzheimer's
patients: "We're talking about a waste product here: thousands of fetuses are discarded every
The Nazis similarly harvested what they could .from the Jews whom their
semanticists dubbed "garbage," "rubbish," and "waste" - then they
disposed of them in crematory ovens. After visiting the Warsaw ghetto in 1939, Nazi Propaganda
Minister Joseph Goebbels reported to Hitler: "The Jew is a waste product." In the Soviet
Union, at the Great Purge Trial of 1938, prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky called those being tried
"a foul-smelling heap of human garbage." in 1681 Virginia planter William Fitzhugh
referred to physically incapacitated slaves as "the refuse."
Another feature intrinsic to the degrading terms applied to our unborn - besides their revolting
resemblance to the derogatory labels of times past - is their blatant duplicity. As far back as
September 1970, a prophetic editorial in California Medicine used the phrase "semantic
gymnastics" to describe the promotion of abortion. The editorial not only acknowledged
"the very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as
anything but taking a human life," but also concluded that "this schizophrenic sort of
subterfuge is necessary" in order to obtain widespread acceptance of abortion.
Similarly, during an atypical foray into the world of truth-telling, Naomi
Wolf has actually admitted that the feminist movement's obsession with "depersonalizing the
fetus" is founded on "self-delusions, fibs, and evasions" leading to "a hardness
Astronomer Sagan's vampirish portrayal, above, of the unborn as a
blood-sucking parasite is absurd. An independent fetal circulatory system is established very early
in pregnancy. Never is there any intermingling of blood between the maternal and fetal circulatory
systems; each is separate and distinct. The unborn human often has a blood type different from that
of the mother. Furthermore, the relationship between mother and unborn child is an overwhelmingly
natural and mutually beneficial one, indispensable for the survival of the human race. While Sagan
knew a great deal about the nature of the distant stars, his understanding of human development left
much to be desired.
The project of calling the unborn an infectious disease is, of course, running
head-on into scientific reality. Spectacular developments in fetology, fetal surgery, and
ultrasonography are forging powerful, personalized images of the passenger within the womb, an
individual whom Williams Obstetrics (a standard medical school textbook) calls "a patient who
should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long ago have given the pregnant
woman." Each advance in fetal therapy crystallizes the stark contradiction between the
therapeutic medicine of the fetologist and the exterminatory medicine of the abortionist. Every time
an unborn child is the beneficiary of treatment formerly confined to those outside the womb, the
spotlight on the undeniable humanity of preborn life gets a little brighter.
One wonders how long it will take before the legally approved abortion culture
- mired in hateful, degrading, and anachronistic definitions of the fetus - gives way to the
life-affirming perceptions of the unborn brought about by the opening up of new windows into the
womb by ultrasound, fetoscopy, and hysteroscopy. The fact that abortion continues at the global rate
of 45 million to 60 million annually - even in the face of revolutionary developments in fetal
surgery - is an alarming testimonial to the power of dehumanizing rhetoric.
In his classic essay "Politics and the English Language, " George
Orwell warned about the destruction of our minds and our culture by euphemisms and slogans. The
tyrannical, thought-stifling world depicted in Orwell's novel 1984 was a place of mendacious
rhetoric where the heresy of heresies was to speak plainly. The first and most basic defense against
today's totalitarian terminology aimed at unborn humans is likewise plain speaking.
Plain speaking must challenge the entrenched false rhetoric on two fronts. (1) The derisive
expressions must be exposed as an outrageous and insidious brand of hate speech concocted to further
the pro-abortion agenda by inducing in pregnant women fear of and loathing for their preborn
offspring. (2) The disparaging designations need to be discredited by documenting how closely they
echo the most extreme forms of murderous name-calling in the annals of humanity.
We must expose, in order to end, the war of words directed against human
beings inside the womb. Although the cessation of verbal hostilities will not alone halt the murder
of the unborn, it would be a quantum leap toward ensuring that our definition of humanity embraces
all human lives, whatever their status, condition, or stage of development.
Pope John Paul II's magisterial encyclical The Gospel of Life is an example of
such an expansive definition of humanity. His words affirming the intrinsic dignity and sacredness
of all human lives, especially the most defenseless individuals, are the cornerstone of his
evangelical program for replacing the culture of death with a new and enduring civilization of life
and love. "Now more than ever," the Pope urges, we need "to have the courage to look
the truth in the eye and to call things by their rightful names "
If abortion had nothing to do with sex, it would never have been legalized.
Peter Kreeft, from his book Ecumenical Jihad