NOT LONG AGO, during a debate on capital punishment, I referred several times to the "execution" of murderers. When the moderator invited questions from the audience, one woman -- a death penalty opponent -- challenged my terminology:
"You keep saying 'execute.' Are you afraid to say 'kill'? You're calling for the state to kill people. Why don't you use that word?"
As it happens, I have no qualms at all about explicitly urging that those who are convicted of premeditated murder be killed, and I said as much to the woman in the audience. But her larger point was valid: When you're talking about deliberately taking a life, don't euphemize.
If that principle is sound when it comes to capital punishment, how much more so is it when it comes to abortion. Capital punishment, after all, destroys the guilty; abortion destroys the innocent. Capital punishment kills in the name of justice; abortion kills -- at best -- in the name of necessity, and usually in the name of nothing more than convenience.
Yet pro-choice advocates routinely avoid speaking honestly and uneuphemistically about abortion. In abortion-rights rhetoric, observes Naomi Wolf, a leading feminist author, "there is no life and no death." Instead of unborn babies, there are only fetuses -- or, even less human, fetal tissue. Instead of killing an unwanted life, there is only terminating a pregnancy. Instead of an acknowledgment that abortion is an evil, there is only a woman's unjudgable right to choose.
"We entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions," writes Wolf in an essay -- "Our Bodies, Our Souls" -- in the Oct. 16 issue of The New Republic. "And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish, and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life."
Pro-choice activists might find Wolf's words easier to dismiss if they came from a Catholic bishop or the National Right To Life News or even a pro-life liberal (yes, there are some). But Wolf, the author of Fire with Fire and The Beauty Myth is herself staunchly pro-choice. Her goal is not to make abortion illegal, it is to win over "the millions of Americans who want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a moral iniquity." But that cannot happen, she recognizes, so long as the hypocrisy and the "lexicon of dehumanization" that characterize most pro-choice rhetoric remain intact.
It is better to end an unwanted pregnancy -- so runs the standard defense of abortion -- than to carry an unwanted baby to term. In an interview, the actress Kathleen Turner proclaims it "a much greater sin to bring a child into the world you cannot take care of, you can't love, you can't educate, you can't feed. You are creating a very damaged individual, and I think there is nothing worse than that. You might as well take a gun and shoot the kid."
That is the kind of dishonest, slogany rationalization Wolf wants feminists to let go of. "Every baby a wanted baby," as the bumper sticker puts it, is all well and good, but in most abortion cases the baby could have been cared for, loved, fed. It isn't that its mother (or father) was unable to raise a child, but that she (or he) was unwilling to.
Not all the time, of course. There are exceptions. There are hard, tragic cases. But even in hard cases -- "the impoverished mother," for example, "who . . . already has too many mouths to feed" -- there are often other options. Tens of thousands of infertile couples go to bed each night yearning for a baby to adopt.
Wolf turns on herself the finger she points at others. Once, as a graduate student on a European fellowship, she feared she might be pregnant -- and took steps to get rid of it. "If I had been thinking only or even primarily about the baby's life, I would have had to decide to bring the pregnancy . . . to term." But it wasn't "Baby" whose interests she put first, Wolf admits; it was "Me." And so she made the selfish choice: "I cowered and stepped aside. I was not so unlike those young louts who father children and run from the specter of responsibility."
Wolf's feminist credentials are unimpeachable. So is her pro-choice stance. She asserts unequivocally that equality for women must encompass the right of every woman to procure an abortion. What she rejects is "the fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement." Killing a healthy baby in the womb -- whatever the circumstances, whatever the mother's politics -- is a dreadful, terrible thing. Let it be legal, Wolf pleads, but "we don't have to lie to ourselves about what we are doing at such a moment."
Most Americans aren't extreme about abortion. Relatively few hold that from the moment of conception abortion should be a crime. Even fewer believe that "freedom to choose" should extend to ninth-month abortions. The great majority fall into what Norma McCorvey, the original Jane Roe, recently called "the mushy middle": They accept that abortion is legal -- but they also think it's wrong, frequently shameful and far too common.
Naomi Wolf is the first mainstream abortion-rights feminist to treat the "mushy middle" with respect -- and to sympathize with its moral distress. If the pro-choice movement follows her lead, it will have taken a giant step toward ending the abortion wars.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
-- ## --