Beware of Dehumanizing Language!

4270876_sOne way to convert the culture of death into the culture of life is to understand the damage that can be done with the use of dehumanizing verbiage in debates ranging from embryonic stem cell research to assisted suicide.

Attorney and author Wesley J. Smith published a powerful op-ed in First Things warning the public to beware of the dehumanizing language which is being used in current bioethical debates because of how it can distance us from our fellow human beings.

For example, when embryonic stem cell research was headline news, scientists were constantly referring to early embryos as “just a ball of cells” that didn’t even “look human.” Some even opined that human life has no actual beginning since we all evolved from bacteria floating in a primordial sea.

“But the fact that a young organism does not yet look as it will at maturity doesn’t make it a non-organism,” Smith writes. “When we were early embryos, we each were the same organism that we are now. And a human embryo is far more than a bunch of cells.”

He cites the words of Stanford bioethicist William Hurlbut to prove his point:

“By its very nature, an embryo is a developing being. Its wholeness is defined by both its manifest expression and its latent potential; it is the phase of human life in which the “whole” (as the unified organismal principle of growth) precedes and produces its organic parts. . . .To be a human organism is to be a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens, with a human present and a human future evident in the intrinsic potential for the manifestation of the species-typical form.”

We’re all familiar with the way pro-abortion forces insist upon using the medical term “fetus” when referring to an unborn child rather than the word “baby”. However, as Smith points out, “These same advocates never call a newborn a ‘neonate’—even though that is the proper medical term—because the dehumanization of born infants does not directly serve the pro-abortion agenda.”

But words can also be used to degrade the human dignity of born and grown people.

For example, permanently unconscious patients are said to be in a “persistent vegetative state” – which Smith describes as the only explicitly demeaning medical term.

“The V-word has the effect—and in some cases, indeed, the purpose—of excluding these human beings from the moral community and exposing them to oft-proposed forms of oppression and exploitation—such as allowing them to be used for live-organ harvesting and as subjects in medical experimentation.”

The same applies to debates about end-of-life care and assisted suicide. Smith cites the case of Dutch euthanasia practitioner Dr. M.A.M. Wachter, ethicist/director for the Institute of Health in the Netherlands, who urged followers to remember that “definitions build the road to euthanasia.” This is why he urged followers to avoid the use of the word “euthanasia” because it is associated with killing and could harm their cause.

As Smith points out, “this is precisely why the Hemlock Society, an assisted-suicide advocacy organization, changed its name to Compassion and Choices and now deploys the euphemism ‘aid in dying’ in its media and advocacy materials.”

He concludes: “In these times, language as an accurate conveyor of ideas is under constant assault. Knowing this, we must strive to keep our language precise and descriptive, particularly when it comes to controversies surrounding human dignity. We should be vigilant against words that dehumanize weak and vulnerable people and suspicious of rhetoric that masks movements’ real goals. We should be wary of words that serve as honey to make the hemlock go down.”


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