George Orwell imagined for us, in 1984, a totalitarian regime, bringing an inversion of moral language, a Newspeak in which “war” becomes “peace,” and “peace” becomes “war.” Orwell was so jarring that we were sure we would spot the new despotism at a distance even before it reached us.
But we have already drifted into that inversion of language, so gently that we have hardly noticed. That drift showed itself last week in the quietest way, without the blasting of trumpets. It came in a decision of the Supreme Court not to take up a case for review. In refusing to hear the case, the Court left in place the decision of a panel of the 6th Circuit, sustaining a law in Kentucky on “informed consent” in abortion.
A doctor preparing to perform an abortion was obliged to make available to the pregnant woman a sonogram showing the child she was carrying. The woman was not strictly required to view the sonogram, and yet the simple act of leaving that law in place was enough to set off a wave of panic among the defenders of abortion.
And yet, what was the problem? Abortion was sold to us at first as a private “choice” to be respected, quite apart from what was chosen. But Aristotle reminded us that a decision made in ignorance was not a voluntary act. To get a woman clearer on the reality of the surgery she was ordering was not at all inconsistent with the “freedom of choice,” and the law in Kentucky still left the decision on abortion in the hands of the woman.
And now we heard that the evidence, made nearly palpable, on the nature of the being in the womb was “extremely upsetting” for one woman, while it stirred “crying” and “sobbing” among others.
Of course, if a man engages in an unjustified killing, otherwise known as a murder, the fact that the killing upsets him does not efface the wrongness of the killing. This notion of the injury inflicted on any person denied an abortion depends, of course, on the thorough detachment of abortion from the moral reasoning that comes into play everywhere else in life.
Planned Parenthood argued that the law compelled “ideological speech” because it required the disclosure “that the abortion would terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.”
But, of course, that is exactly what it was: If the organism weren’t living and growing, an abortion would be no more relevant than a tonsillectomy. If it were living, it could not be anything other than a human being, and as the textbooks remind us, it is never really a part of the mother’s body.
Still, the line has been that the legislature is imposing an “anti-abortion ideology.” The legislature mandates the plain showing of what is, the objective truth of the matter; and objective truth is then dismissed as mere “ideology.”
What is reserved, apparently, for unchallengeable, incontrovertible fact is the right to kill an innocent human in the womb for any reason at all, or no reason. Peace is war, and war is peace.
The decision for the appellate panel was written by John Bush, an accomplished lawyer, and one of the distinguished appointments made by President Trump. [EMW Women’s Surgical Center v. Beshear] Judge Bush was able to draw on a line of precedents on “informed consent,” including decisions written by Justice Kennedy, to point out that the Supreme Court has “implicitly recognized that discomfort to the patient from the mandated disclosure of truthful, non-misleading, and relevant information does not make an informed consent law invalid.” Nor does it taint the law to know that the purpose of the requirement was to encourage childbirth over abortion.
And yet, it was critical for Judge Bernice Donald, in dissent, to argue that these “ideological” requirements “have no basis in medicine.” They were not relevant to the mechanics of the surgery, and they denied the freedom of the doctor to exercise “medical judgment in deciding whether the procedure is appropriate or ethical.”
Her argument moves by ruling out the moral concerns of the legislature as an unwarranted interference with medical judgment. But the moral judgments surrounding medical practice are not “medical judgments.”
In the famous case in Long Island, with a child born with spina bifida and Down’s syndrome, the Reagan Administration said that it would raise no question if corrective surgery were futile. But if medical care was withheld because it was thought that a life afflicted with spina bifida or Down’s syndrome was a life not worth living, that was not a medical judgment but a moral judgment.
In a notable moment in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, his lawyer, Robert Servatius, referred to killings in the concentration camps as “killings by gas and similar medical matters.” When he was queried on that odd remark, he replied that these were “medical” because they were “prepared by physicians. . .and killing, too, is a medical matter.”
In other words, acts of killing may be insulated from moral judgment if they are performed by doctors. Judge Donald seems no more aware than other liberal judges that we have seen these arguments before, and she recalls, no more than they, the moral world in which those arguments stirred embarrassment among the thoughtful.
1984 is now long past us, and we didn’t seem to notice that we had arrived there.
*Image: Blind Justice by W.T. Reed, c. 1910 [Pike County Courthouse, Waverly, OH]