Common Wisdom: Lost Children of the World

The little boy in the church pew was barely three years old. As the priest delivered the Sunday homily, the boy paged through a book his mother had brought to keep him occupied, but it was clear from his periodic glancing up that he was catching a few words.

When the priest illustrated his point with a story about tortoises and turtles, the little boy looked up and stared hard, his fancy captivated by some words he was hearing. Something or other, said the priest, was “rubbish.”

“Rubbish,” said the little boy in a wondrous whisper.

“Rubbish.” His mother put her finger to her lips. The little boy, however, soon heard something even more pleasing.

“On the back of a giant tortoise,” said the priest. “On the back of a giant tortoise,” the little boy repeated to his mother. “Turtles all the way down,” finished the priest. The little boy was awestruck. “Turtles all the way down,” he marveled under his breath.

“Sssh,” his mother whispered.

This particular Mass had still more words to enthrall the little boy. Now the priest was at the altar, praying to God in the eucharistic prayer. The little boy slid down from his seat, stood in front of his mother, pulled her to him, and inquired solemnly, “Who is this God?” In the way of mothers, she answered something reasonably satisfying to this ultimate question, patted the seat beside her, and her son climbed back up.

Precocious though this little boy may be, his fascination with words reveals the natural human proclivity for language. The human mind is genetically tuned to learn words, to love words, to organize them into patterns of intelligibility. We are people of word, created by the Word who uttered only a word that we be, and, behold, we be. In speech we were created. In speech we live and move and have our being.

Through speech we carry out what we as humans in the image of God are uniquely commanded and equipped to do—that is, to love one another. Speech is the tool of friendship, the instrument by which we communicate to each other what we hold dearest in life, thereby discovering what we hold in common. By the word do we unite in friendship with those whom we meet, not only those who are contemporaries, but also those in our past who talk with us through books. Word, then, both spoken and written is our means to break out of our self-centeredness and move out to the other. It is our human mark, essential to who we are. Communication through the word unites us in families and in communities.

So made are we for word that even in the womb the preborn baby recognizes his mother’s voice; her particular linguistic formulations set his brain working in the pattern that will allow him soon after birth to begin uttering the sounds that are precursors of language. The baby’s genetic attraction to the word initiates his facility in language far earlier than we formerly thought. His brain—indeed, his very being—is for word and finally for the Word.

It is this affinity for word that most strongly identifies the preborn baby as a human soul. His very wordness is exactly what makes abortion the most ghastly and heinous crime. The baby whose skull is crushed in abortion, whose arms and legs are cut up and suctioned out of his mother’s womb piece by piece, is not an inanimate clod or an animal but the innocent little friend, one like his mother, bearing her genetic imprint, who is meant to communicate with her. Only a few weeks after birth, a mere blink of an eye after his mother ordered him killed, he could have smiled at her, watching her face as she talked to him. Shortly he would have answered her in his baby language, his distinctly human language. Nine or ten months after birth he might have sat in his high chair, kicking gleefully while pronouncing those sounds that gladden parents: “Da-da-da-da!” or “Ma-ma-ma-ma!” In only a year-and-a-half or two after birth he might have strung a sentence together—and that sentence might have been said to his mother in those dearest of all words; “I love you,” or, as was most often first said in our family, “I uv oo.” By age two this child could have been shouting angrily his declaration of independence, “No!” At age three he could have been so thrillingly consumed with his new adroitness in the word that he would have practiced in nearly every waking moment his speaking and questioning. And by age six he would have been learning the building blocks of civilization—the art of reading and writing. All this by age six—and yet his mother, persuaded and preyed upon by those who would mastermind the race, had him killed. He was meant to be, this child of the word, and he was. But he is gone. Gone with him is the possibility that he might one day have been his mother’s best friend. Gone with that friendship is the fidelity between mother and child that binds not only families but civilizations.

The tragic irony in the death of this child of the word is that word is what killed him—not the word as reflection of truth, of reality, but word twisted and corrupted into an instrument of power. Word disconnected from reality has killed him. A baby has become a “fetus” or “fetal tissue.” Abortion has become “termination of pregnancy” or “regularization of the menstrual cycle” or “pregnancy prevention.” Word separated from reality has become the cruel bludgeon that allows a stronger will to overpower a weaker one. The preborn baby’s instinct to survive cannot match his mother’s will to kill him.

Josef Pieper in his essay Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (Ignatius) writes of this “degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.” He insists that “the degradation, too, of man through man, alarmingly evident in the acts of physical violence committed by all tyrannies (concentration camps, torture) [and, we may add, abortion and euthanasia], has its beginning, certainly much less alarmingly, at that almost imperceptible moment when the word loses its dignity.”

“The dignity of the word,” Pieper goes on to say, “consists in this: through the word is accomplished what no other means can accomplish, namely, communication based on reality.”

The latest manipulation of the word in regard to abortion has to do with the French abortion pill, RU-486, named for its manufacturer, Roussel-Uclaf. The pill is an abortifacient; it can be administered up to nine weeks after the last menstrual period. The result is nearly always an abortion. Although the drug is sold in France, Britain, Sweden, and China, Roussel-Uclaf has not pushed sale in the United States, saying that the company does not want to become embroiled in political disputes with those opposed to abortion. The company’s reluctance, however, is almost sure to change—and rapidly so.

By a perverse distortion of the word pregnancy, Planned Parenthood enthusiasts now argue that pregnancy begins not with fertilization but with implantation. RU-486, to the joy of its supporters, has been shown to be a most effective morning-after pill. In other words a woman can take 600 milligrams of RU-486 within 72 hours after “unprotected intercourse” and expect to “prevent pregnancy.” The pregnancy will surely be prevented, of course, because any fertilized egg will be aborted. RU-486, coincidentally, is under study for use in breast cancer. It is also used to treat Cushing’s disease, an overproduction of hormones by the adrenal gland. According to Dr. David Grimes of the University of Southern California School of Medicine, Cushing’s disease is very rare. On the other hand, says Dr. Grimes in a strange inference that pregnancy is a disease rather than a normal condition, “the possibility of an unintended pregnancy is epidemic. And for this common indication, the drug appears to work very, very well.”

To combat the “common indication” of “unintended pregnancy,” RU-486 predictably will arrive in this country in short order. When it comes, it will alter forever the grounds of the abortion debate, for the resolution of the issue will be removed from courtrooms and legislatures to the bathroom of the home or college dorm on the morning after. Abortion will not seem like abortion to the woman swallowing her pills. It will seem like “pregnancy prevention,” sensible, and not at all like a moral dilemma. The word pregnancy and the word abortion will have become unrelated to reality.

In our idolatry of technology, whatever can be done technologically will be done. If it can be done, it seems almost sinful not to do it, particularly if it appears to aid people in their pain and suffering. Thus, if we can perform an abortion of a troublesome fetus who is causing stress to his mother and assuage our consciences by calling it pregnancy prevention, then we ought to do it. There is, admittedly, still an uncomfortable realization that abortion is killing someone, and we would prefer not to kill. Yet if that killing can be cloaked in the peculiar romantic compassion of our age—a romantic sentimentality startlingly akin to that of Hitler’s Germany, when the most barbaric crimes were committed for supposedly magnanimous reasons, such as easing the horrors of pain—then we can disconnect the word from reality enough to justify nearly any act of willfulness. Hence it behooves proponents of abortion and of euthanasia, its logical extension, to camouflage the reality of the act in a false compassion for the woman in her pain of unwanted pregnancy or the old person in the pain of his illness. The same compassionate enthusiasts, we note, have nothing to say to the aborted woman who suffers later from the guilt of post-abortion syndrome, an ever more common malady of women who discover the truth too late.

America has now the terrible distinction of having elected our first abortion president. This is a president who once called abortion the taking of life. He later changed his mind, unplugged himself from reality, and called it compassion. In this transition by which true sentiment has become a grisly tenderness, killing the innocent has become compassion for a cause. From the corruption of something so small as a word comes corruption of a people. And we voted for it.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.