Verbal Engineering and the Swaying of Public Conscience


Over the years, a number of unjust laws have come to be replaced by more just ones. Laws overturning the practice of slavery, for example, were a significant step forward in promoting justice and basic human rights in society. Yet in very recent times, unjust and immoral laws have, with increasing frequency, come to replace sound and reasonable ones, particularly in the area of sexual morality, bioethics and the protection of human life. Whenever longstanding laws are reversed, and practices come to be sanctioned that were formerly forbidden, it behooves us to examine whether such momentous legal shifts are morally coherent or not.

Concerns about moral coherence have always influenced the crafting of new laws, as they did in 1879 when the State of Connecticut enacted strong legislation outlawing contraception, specified as the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.” This law, like the anti-contraception laws of various other states, was in effect for nearly 90 years before it was reversed in 1965. It codified the longstanding dictate of the public conscience that contraception was harmful to society because it promoted promiscuity, adultery and other evils. It relied on the nearly universal sensibility that children should be seen as a help and a blessing to society, and that, as Joseph Sobran puts it, “a healthy society, however tolerant at the margins, must be based on the perception that sex is essentially procreative, with its proper locus in a loving family.”

Such a view had been remarkably deeply engrained in Western society for millennia, and interestingly, until as late as the 1930’s, all Protestant denominations agreed with Catholic teaching condemning contraception. Not until the 1930 Lambeth Conference did the Anglican church, swayed by growing societal pressure, announce that contraception would be allowed in some circumstances. Soon after, the Anglican church yielded entirely, allowing contraception across the board. Since then, every major Protestant denomination has followed suit, even though their founders, including Luther, Calvin and Wesley, had all unhesitatingly condemned contraception, and insisted that it violated the right order of sexuality and marriage. Today, it is only the Catholic Church which teaches this traditional view.

How is it that modern times have seen such a striking reversal of this ancient view of the moral unacceptability of contraception? How is it that our age continues to witness a seemingly endless stream of legislative activity that promotes contraception through exorbitant government funding initiatives in nearly every major country of the world, with A merican taxpayers providing, for example, more than $260 million of Planned Parenthood’s total income for 2004? Can something almost universally decried as an evil in the past suddenly become a good, or is such a legislative reversal not indicative of a significant misuse of law, and of a collective loss of conscience on an unprecedented scale?

Whenever widespread social engineering of this magnitude occurs, it is invariably preceded by skillful verbal engineering. The late Msgr. William Smith observed that the argument about contraception was basically over as soon as modern society accepted the deceptive phrase, “birth control” into its vocabulary. “Imagine if we had called it, ‘life prevention’,” he once remarked. The great Gilbert Keith Chesterton put it this way: ” They insist on talking about Birth Control when they mean less birth and no control,” and again: “Birth Control is a name given to a succession of different expedients by which it is possible to filch the pleasure belonging to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself.”

Fast on the heels of such seismic cultural shifts over contraception was even more radical legislation permitting abortion-on-demand. Since the early 1970’s, such legislation has effectively enabled the surgical killing of 1 billion human beings worldwide who were living in the peaceful environment of a womb. Here too, sophisticated verbal engineering was necessary, since nobody could reasonably expect the abortion ethic to advance by saying, “Let’s kill the kids.” Many things simply cannot be achieved when it is clear to everyone what is going on; obfuscation is essential.

The growing child in the womb was thus recast as a “mass of tissue” or a “grouping of cells.” The abortion procedure itself was re-described as “removing the product of conception” or “terminating a pregnancy” or simply, “the procedure.” Those who were “pro-choice” obfuscated as to what the choice was really for. As one commentator put it, “I think a more realistic term would be ‘pro-baby killing’.”

Euphemism, of course, has a serious reason for being. It conceals the things people fear. It is defensive in nature, offsetting the power of tabooed terms and otherwise eradicating from the language those matters that people prefer not to deal with directly. A healthy legislative process, however, will abstain from euphemism and obfuscation, zeroing in on truth and moral coherence. It will safeguard and promote an enlightened public conscience, particularly when crafting laws dealing with the most foundational human realities like sexual morality, bioethics and the protection of human life.


3 Responses to Verbal Engineering and the Swaying of Public Conscience

  1. Carol G. says:

    Dear Father: I am a catholic that actually started going to your church (we just moved here) and wanted to respond to your blog today. I had surgery two years ago, where 80% of my pancreas was removed. I should not get pregnant now, or I risk to shot insulin on my and my baby during pregnancy and be one of those “at risk” pregnancies. I am married, and have been for almost 12 years. I waited until married to have sexual relations with my husband. However, I do believe that abstinence when you are married is something hard for people so close to God like you. Your minds work that way, you are in constant communication with the Lord and perhaps you don’t think about sex. Being responsible is the most important thing that parents can do. Bringing a dozen children into the world when you cannot support them is JUST IRRESPONSIBLE. My best friend from childhood – a priest – told me that “there is no worst sin, than being irresponsible for the upbringing of children”. When you are blessed with the sacrament of marriage, I strongly believe that you should be allowed to control overpopulation. If sex was designed only to procreate, then the desire should only stop after two children. God says in the bible to “multiple”. However, I don’t seem to find a number in there that says to Multiple by 3 or 4 times. I think you should multiple yourself by one more being. I was born in a country that it’s predominant Catholic and yes, couples had multiple children, too many children to even be able to support them. Poverty it’s at its highest because these families DO HAVE SEX to procreate. I don’t believe this is being a responsible Catholic. Or is it that Catholic means irresponsible. I am a PRO-LIFE advocate, I am and will continue to be a devoted Catholic. I’m a mother of two beautiful children to whom I devote my time to them and teach them about good and evil,and about responsibility and accountability.

  2. mercyknight says:

    Dear Carol,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am one of seven children. As I look back to my childhood days, I realize that we were living way below the poverty line … we were dirt poor, but we simply didn’t know it. I remember pleading with my mother (in a playful manner) for spaghettios with meatballs, but she simply felt we could only afford regular spaghettios. Today, I sometimes treat myself to a big bowl of spaghettios with meatballs as I look back on the joyful days in a house filled with laughter and love, when we developed our appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. We never really felt shorted on anything, except maybe having more brothers and sisters.

  3. Carol G says:

    I realize that having lots of brothers and sisters is a joy. My mother comes from a family of eleven. My grandfather had plenty of money to support them. But it wasn’t money that they needed, it was LOVE, attention and guidance. My mother got pregnant at 17 and had to marry my father, who has been unfaithful to her all her life. I think you are missing the point of my argument. I don’t doubt that your family gave you all the love you needed, you seem to have turn out ok, but there are others who have to work too long to much to support all those children. In my country – Guatemala – there are women who suffered from so many problems after giving birth to so many children – because the church says No birth control and also the husbands. They spent a lot of their motherhood suffering from post-partum depression, cysts and other problems that you can have after giving birth. Most of them have no time (because they have to take care of all the children or work to support the children) or money to go to the clinic. I remember when I was little, I took the only doll I had and a couple of sweaters that I could still wear (because my mother married my father who was so poor, we didn’t have much growing up)and gave them to a family who had barefoot children, lived in the cold of the mountains. I think they were 6 of them, with not much to eat. I assure you that as of today, they haven’t had an education, the little girls are probably mothers themselves and are repeating the cycle. If my sister, whose husband got murdered last year, would had had more than 2 children, what do you think she would be doing now? She works as a teacher in a village outside our hometown and says that the children, a lot of them siblings come to school barefoot, have walked from other villages for about one hour before school, with no breakfast (because they are too many and the parents can afford it). She teaches 1st grade and several siblings are in the same grade, because the parents back home – who cannot read – can’t help them get ahead in school. You see, more is not always better, not the way you think!

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