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

Ellen Wilson Fielding

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

  • Stanley Anderson

    “(I am not wedded to this hypothesis, but throw it out for consideration)”

    I like this phrase to describe the slight variation from standard meaning of a word I often use, “wonderment.” My use is to describe ideas (typically theological conjectures) that I don’t necessarily subscribe to or consider doctrinal, but simply find interesting to contemplate, and would retract if shown to be incompatible with Catholic Doctrine. In this case I think the hypothesis you suggest is well worth courting for possible engagement and wedding.

    And your phrase “the shifting lens that sees one pregnant woman inhabited by the ‘products of conception’ ” makes me wearily anticipate that we shall eventually be assaulted with descriptions of pregnancy as “imperialistic expansion.”

    Finally, the phrase “the 50 million and counting sacrifices on the antiseptic altars of the abortuaries” makes me think of burying children under the foundations of our homes for good luck and how (in another “wonderment” that crosses my mind just now) that might relate to Jesus’ parable of the foolish man building his house on sand and its results. The predicted powerful El Niño is coming, I think.

  • Veritas

    You have written a powerful and wonderful article. Here’s another valid hypothesis:

    Journalists, both print and television, are not what they used to be.

    I once read in the Los Angeles Times how a reporter referred to Notre Dame University as “the Jesuit school in Indiana.” This showed me that the LA Times is not my father’s LA Times. Of course, my father never agreed with that newspaper’s editorial slant, and only liked the liberal Conrad’s cartoons when the cartoonist’s sketches defended the life of the unborn, which he firmly defended.

    No, our schools are not providing people with the depth required to understand what you’ve written. Thank goodness there are people like you left.

  • grump

    Euphemisms in journalism are hardly new but are appearing with more regularity these days. Some examples:
    Ethnic cleansing – genocide
    Misinformation – lies
    Collateral damage – accidental deaths
    The late and great comic George Carlin did a shtick on euphemisms, noting that Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality so they invent a kind of soft language to shield themselves. He then traced the mental trauma soldiers suffered in combat. In World War I it was “shellshock,” which became “battle fatigue” in WW2, then “operational exhaustion” in Korea and finally “post-traumatic stress disorder” in Vietnam and afterwards. “The pain is buried under the jargon,” Carlin wound up. “I bet you if we’d still been calling it shellshock, some of those Vietnam vets might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.”

    • SJ Man

      Unfortunately, Carlin became, if he wasn’t already, a virulent anti-Catholic in his later years. He was the first comic I ever heard use the term “recovering Catholic”. May he rest in peace.

  • StatusQrow

    When I first read of Christian Churches being destroyed or being denuded of all Christian symbols and artifacts, and reused as mosques—as ISIS moved into places like Mosul and al-Alam—my reaction was one of utter disgust and contempt.

    Then, just as Ms. Fielding thought of St. Martin of Tours, I recalled that when St. Benedict established his first monastery at Monte Cassino, he too began by destroying the statue of Apollo and the altar to him, then consecrated the Apollonian temple to St. Martin.

    As a Catholic, I can’t help but believe that Our Lord was pleased with the action that St. Benedict took with regard to a pagan shrine, but is heartsick with the destruction of churches wrought by ISIS.

    Maybe the crux of the matter is that when we live in a pluralistic world, we no longer have the luxury of justifying our actions solely to God. We have to apply the golden rule most assiduously, even to our worst enemies, in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to St. Benedict or St. Martin as being relevant.

    I suspect that today neither saint would be quick to tear down a mosque, not because it is any more holy than a temple to Apollo but because it gives forces like ISIS all the more reason to tear down Christian churches.

    Then again, they don’t really seem to be reticent of much, on any grounds.

  • PatrickAOFlynn

    Sound article. I would add only one comment: There are 50 million surgical abortions world wide every single year! And probably three to five times that number with chemicals and devices. So, world wide we are speaking of some 200 to 300 million abortions annually. The abomination of abominations! Heaven help us.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    That term “fetus” has long been used by the media, those in government, in colleges and just about everywhere. Usually, only we pro-life folks use the word “baby” or “unborn baby” or “pre-born baby.” I’ve also begun using the phrases “pre-born human baby” or “soon-to-be-born human being.” I do this to deliberately remind people that it is truly a human being we’re talking about…he or she simply hasn’t been born yet. It is not a baby dolphin or a baby panda or a baby whale that we’re talking about. It’s a human baby. Fine article…and, yes. Words really do matter.

  • Joe Knippenberg

    As I have noted before on this site:To brainwash the people so they will go along with your murderous intents, the first thing you do is to dehumanize your intended victims. The Nazis did it by labeling Jews “pigs”, etc. The anti-life crowds use the euphemism “fetus”. If you say it often enough it deadens the senses, and even becomes a “Final Solution”, as Hitler referred to it. The same solution PP proclaims and acts on on a daily basis. NO DIFFERENCE!

    • StatusQrow

      Didn’t you know? “…the Word was made fetus and subsisted among us…”

  • Howard

    There is a distinction between a temple that is of merely historical interest and one that is currently misleading the masses. Certainly the Catholic Church, once She became the religion of the empire, saw little need to destroy pagan temples, only pagan worship. Many pagan temples were re-purposed for use as Christian churches, including the Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome. An analogous situation might be found with how we treat certain sites from WW2. As long as the Führerbunker does not become some sort of rallying point for neo-Nazis, we can keep it as a reminder of history; if it does become some sort of Nazi church, however, we should leave no trace of it.

    The sad fact is that even our “victories” — such as resisting court challenges to “In God We Trust” on money and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — have come because the courts have ruled that these are of historical interest only and that no one really takes them seriously.