Journalistic Terms and Our Modern Baals

A couple of days ago I was reading a news item online about a fiery local car crash that claimed several lives, including, as the newspaper account put it, those of a pregnant woman “and her fetus.”

This sad news, so antiseptically recounted, took me aback. I have not, over the years, been keeping precise tabs on this, but the general practice among media proponents of the Zeitgeist since the advent of legalized abortion has been to refer to the unborn child of any mother who wants and intends to bring that child to birth as an “unborn child” or “unborn baby.”

Sometimes a news account will simply note about a woman who died something like “she was six months pregnant” and leave it at that. However, I have not registered – perhaps I am behind the curve here – this kind of dehumanizing language about the “fetus,” which we are all too familiar with when someone is referring to an “unwanted and unintended” unborn child, being applied to a little one whose mother had been, perhaps, planning a nursery and picking out baby names and buying cute little pink or blue onesies.

I am not sure whether this change represents regression or a weird kind of progress in the extended pro-life struggle. On the one hand, the practice of using dual terms is illogical and kind of bizarre. It is of a piece with our current will to believe that reality is what you choose to make it. Dr. Seuss’s Horton famously defended the lives of the microscopic little “Whos” by asserting, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” However, proponents of the legalized abortion status quo choose a variant motto: “A person’s a person no matter how small – if you choose to accept that person, if he or she is a desired person. Otherwise, not so much.”

So possibly (I am not wedded to this hypothesis, but throw it out for consideration), the newspaper’s newly adopted word-choice is actually a disguised step forward. It may represent a heightened degree of uncomfortableness with the shifting lens that sees one pregnant woman inhabited by the “products of conception” and another awed by feeling her “baby” move within her. Perhaps the videos about Planned Parenthood’s harvesting and sale of fetal organs have heightened this uncomfortableness, or will increasingly heighten it for those who do not continue to avert their gaze from that whole story line. Or not. We’ll see.

The day after I learned about the deaths of that pregnant woman and her “fetus,” I read the brief bio of St. Martin of Tours that prefaced the day’s Mass readings in my copy of Magnificat. One sentence held my attention: “Martin traveled yearly through his extensive diocese, preaching, consoling, and razing the heathen temples.” It brought to mind another news story from several months ago: the accounts of ISIS blowing up the remains of an ancient Syrian temple to Baal. (They also killed the 83-year-old former antiquities director of the area’s archaeological treasures, but you had to drop down about ten paragraphs of the The New York Times’ account to learn that.)

St. Martin and the beggar by El Greco, c. 1598 (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
St. Martin and the beggar by El Greco, c. 1598 (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

News coverage of the destruction of the temple of Baal, complete with aerial before-and-after photos, struck me at the time because some of the outlets that covered the event seemed more concerned with the loss to archaeology than with the killing of Christians and others who, in ISIS’s judgment, fell afoul of Allah. Eradicating the remains of a pagan temple was clearly part of a larger vision of attacking anything or anyone unsubmitted to Islam.

From an historical Christian point of view, however, the temple destruction was probably the most defensible part of their program. St. Martin of Tours might well have approved, as would the Jewish prophets who railed against the pagan “high places” that erring Israelites erected to Baal and other Canaanite gods and that often involved temple prostitution or even infant sacrifice.

When confronted with pagan cults or places of worship, the early Church often employed some combination of two practices. St. Martin, as we saw, tore down the structure where druidic deities were being worshipped. Missionaries such as St. Boniface (who famously hewed down the sacred oak and used its wood to erect a chapel), then “baptized” the former sites of pagan temples by building in their place Christian houses of worship, to better transfer allegiance from the false gods to the true God.

For modern post-Christians, that kind of thing seems dangerously intolerant. In contrast, their attitude toward, say, the Aztec ruins where large-scale human sacrifice occurred, inclines to the academic. If the unpalatable acts occurred long enough ago, or far enough away, the general feeling of people initiated into the idiosyncrasies of secular tolerance seems to be, “Who am I to judge?”

They have not yet achieved the kind of dispassion that their descendants might yet exhibit in another 500 years toward more recent acknowledged sites of slaughter like the crematoria of the Nazi concentration camps. However, they have not shown us why, from a moral or philosophical point of view, future generations should treat it any differently.

But we know why there is a difference, and why the 50 million and counting sacrifices on the antiseptic altars of the abortuaries also should not be simply relegated to the neutral realm of historical fact.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is Senior Editor of the Human Life Review and lives in Maryland.