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Unhealthy Euphemisms

by Bishop F.B. Henry of Canada

Mr. Milquetoast gets up from the table, explaining that he has to go to "the little boys room" or "see a man about a dog." A secretary complains that her boss is a pain in the "derriere", a mortician asks delicately where to ship "the loved one."

Many euphemism are so delightfully ridiculous that everyone laughs at them. Yet euphemisms have a very serious reason for being. They conceal the things people fear, e.g. death, or cover up the facts of life, e.g. sex, reproduction and excretion. They are beloved by institutions, especially governments, who are anxious to present only the handsomest possible images of themselves to the world.

Euphemisms can be divided into two general types - positive and negative. The positive ones inflate and magnify, making the euphemized items seem altogether grander and more important than they really are. The negative euphemism deflate and diminish. They are defensive in nature, offsetting the power of tabooed terms and otherwise eradicating from the language everything that people prefer not to deal with directly.

In trying to explain (defend) controversial procedures at the Foothills Hospital, the regional clinical department head of obstetrics and gynaecology for the CRHA, recently gave us an example of both general types of euphemisms. First of all, mention was made of the "Developmental Clinic"; this is a positive euphemism for a specialized clinic designed to deal with situations when there is a problem with the baby. Developmental action could entail close surveillance, some sort of intervention and therapy for the fetus (the possibilities are still quite limited today), and sometimes with lethal anomalies, the induction of labour. A rather deadly development for the baby in this latter case.

Secondly, the clinical department head said that we don't use the term "genetic termination" but "induction of labour" for infants with a lethal abnormality. This is a negative euphemism as it deflates and diminishes the reality of selective abortion of a baby with a genetic disease. The eugenic decision behind this euphemism presumes to measure the value of a human life only with the parameters of "normality" and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia.

Euphemisms stand for "something else" and everyone pretends that the "something else" doesn't exist. It is the essentially duplicitous nature of euphemisms that makes them so attractive to those people and institutions who have something to hide, who don't want to say what they are thinking, and who find it convenient to lie about what they are doing.

It's no wonder the public has the impression that the CRHA seeks to suppress media coverage of issues around which the public may have deeply held ethical views and opinions. Securing a court order to protect, supposedly, the confidentiality of specific internal documents continues the concealment.

Despite the popularity of euphemisms, circumlocution and double-talk, sometimes there is a need for plain speech.

Inducing labour does not become morally justifiable simply because the temporal threshold of viability has been crossed. There must be a reason proportionate to the risks of inducing labour before the pregnancy comes to term. Unlike some serious physical threat to the baby's survivability in the womb, the mental anguish of the mother is real and undeniable but it does not seem to be an ethically proportionate reason to induce labour early. Such a reason makes the worth of the child proportionate to the emotional state of the mother. The worth of the child's life becomes proportionate to the happiness or unhappiness of the mother; but the worth of a human being is never derived from human relationships, from the joys or sadness he or she might bring to others. The dignity of every human being is based solely in his or her human nature, created in the image and likeness of God.

Many hospitals are discovering that the recruitment of personnel willing to provide abortion services is becoming more difficult. Why does no one like abortion? Not merely because it is aesthetically messy, or painful, or a sign of inadequacy, but because there is a silent and unconscious awareness that it is the destruction of a human being. It is deeply ingrained in our nature not to kill our own kind. Consequently, [some conclude that] abortion participation must be made mandatory and part of the job.

The administrative leader for "maternal newborn services" at the Foothills, in response to the question "Are staff are required to participate in these terminations?" stated that nurses hired in the past 10 years are required to participate. The administrator went on to add: "... it's very emotionally draining for them. When we find the pressure on them to be quite great, we have pulled them out and provided them with retreat days. If there have been a number of these situations in a short period of time, it does stress them."

If the institution really cared about the well-being and development of its employees wouldn't it make sense to take the high road and adopt a policy that nurses are not compelled to assist with abortions if their conscience so dictates?

Given that abortion is elective surgery, and not life threatening (unless you happen to be the child in the womb), it's sadly ironic that in our times when we tend to exalt freedom of choice - a woman can choose to have an abortion, a doctor can choose to perform or not perform an abortion, but a nurse and the unborn child have absolutely no choice in the matter. A shameful state of affairs!

✚  F. B. Henry

Bishop of Calgary.

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