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Exposing the Language of the Culture of Death | An Interview with William Brennan, author of
John Paul II: Confronting the
Language Empowering the Culture of Death | Ignatius Insight | July 10, 2009
William Brennan, Ph.D., is a Professor of Social Work in the
Saint Louis University School of Social Work. He has written and spoken
extensively on how euphemisms and dehumanizing language facilitate massive
oppression. His book, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take
Lives (Loyola University Press, 1995), was
a Loyola bestseller. Professor Brennan is currently working on a book-length
manuscript tentatively titled, Killing in the Name of Healing:
Technology, Rhetoric, and the Medicalization of Destruction. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently
spoke with Dr. Brennan about his most recent book, John Paul II:
Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death (Sapientia Press, 2008), and current events relating
to that book's focus and arguments.
Ignatius Insight: How did Pope John Paul II define the
culture of death?
Dr. Brennan: He
defined the culture of death as a lethal mentality possessing an unlimited
capacity for engulfing a wide range of victims and employed an inclusive
perspective for highlighting "whatever is opposed to life itself," such as
genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, experimental exploitation of human
beings, slavery, torture, mutilation rituals, and a host of other infamies. An
ominous feature of this increasingly monolithic mindset, the pope revealed, is
"a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which requires
greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an
intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another." He
called this phenomenon "a truly alarming spectacle, if we consider not only how
extensively attacks are spreading but also their unheard-of numerical
proportion, and the fact that they receive widespread legal approval and the
involvement of certain sectors of health-care personnel."
Besides the numerous forms of devastation brought about by
the death culture, John Paul singled out another casualty—the demise of
conscience itself. Through the manipulation of language, the forces of death
have proven extraordinarily successful in numbing the moral sensitivities of
many to the horrors actually taking place. This process leads to an "extremely
dangerous crisis of the moral sense" in which conscience is rendered
increasingly indifferent, blind, and impotent in the face of the evils being
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the most influential
and significant ways that language is misused, manipulated, and abused in the
field of medicine on behalf of the culture of death?
Dr. Brennan: Doing
away with unborn humans is routinely portrayed as simply the removal of
nondescript "tissue" or "material" from the womb. According to sociologist
Amitai Etzioni, "the dominant scientific and public view is to view the fetus"
during the first four and one-half months as "subhuman and relatively close to
a piece of tissue." Aborted remains at the Oregon Health Sciences University
are called "suctioned or curetted material" and "cellular material."
Abortionist Dr. Warren Hern characterizes the post-abortion task of re-assembling
dismembered body parts as "the tissue examination."
Designations such as "material" and "tissue" not only
function to conceal the harsh reality of intrauterine killing, but also serve
as convenient expressions for justifying the experimental exploitation of
aborted remains. Soon after Roe v. Wade,
the Hastings Center bioethical think tank included in its case studies a
discussion of "The Human Fetus as Useful Research Material." An international
research project consisted of "collecting and measuring embryonic material
[aborted bodies]" for establishing more precise indicators of intrauterine
growth. Swedish fetal researcher Dr. Arne Andersson invoked the phrase
"hysterotomy material" to describe heads severed from hysterotomy abortions for
fetal brain metabolism experiments.
Another verbal charade devised to mask medicalized
destruction is through the construction of humane, medical-sounding
terminology. According to Dr. Michael Burnhill, abortion is "a consistently
high quality, humane service." A paper, "Abortion as a Treatment for Unwanted
Pregnancy: The Number Two Sexually Transmitted 'Disease,'" presented at a
meeting of Planned Parenthood Physicians, concluded: "Unwanted pregnancy should
be considered a sexually-transmitted condition of epidemic proportion and,
moreover, legal abortion is an effective, safe, and curative treatment for that
condition." Perinatologist-geneticist Dr. Dru Elaine Carlson depicts one of
the most indefensible and heinous destructive operations ever created—partial-birth
abortion—as an "extremely humane" procedure that "provides dignity" for
the patients, as well as "the fetuses themselves."
Like its lethal cousin abortion, euthanasia is dressed up in
idyllic images of medical killing as a humane and compassionate process.
Geriatrics physician Dr. Howard Caplan views lethal injection as "a truly
humane" way to end the lives of the "elderly demented" and "borderline
functional people." In euthanasia activist circles, smothering the patient
with a plastic bag is known as the "bag technique" and is placed under the
reassuring classification, "a compassionate deliverance from suffering." The British
Medical Journal declared suicide-euthanasia
perpetrator Dr. Jack Kevorkian "a hero" for acting "to end what he perceived as
Ignatius Insight: How has the corruption of language
spawned by the culture of death become embedded in the law?
Dr. Brennan: A key
semantic device contrived to rationalize the denial of basic rights to
vulnerable individuals is to define then as nonpersons before the law. The
"nonperson" epithet has inaugurated a litmus test for survival made to order
for postmodern society—no longer is one's humanity sufficient to merit
the right to life; one must also be declared a person, and the definition of
personhood needed to qualify is an elitist one from which a growing number of
human beings are excluded.
Roe v. Wade ushered
in the modern era of legal nonpersonhood by declaring, "The unborn have never
been recognized in the law as persons" and ruling, "The word 'person,' as used
in the Fourteenth amendment, does not include the unborn." Philosopher Mary
Anne Warren maintains that "even a fully developed fetus" is "considerably less
person-like than is the . . . average fish" and "cannot be said to have any
more right to life than . . . a newborn guppy." A wide array of individuals
after birth are likewise being targeted for extinction because they lack the
prescribed physical, cognitive, or psychological capacities considered
essential for entrance into the community of bona fide persons. To philosophy
professor Michael Tooley, "Newborn humans are neither persons nor even
quasi-persons, and their destruction is in no way intrinsically wrong."
Implacable animal rights defender Peter Singer proclaims: "When we kill a
newborn infant, there is not a person whose life has begun and only a person
has an authentic right to life."
The transformation of medical mayhem into legal rights is
also aided and abetted by pro-choice semantics, a form of discourse encompassing the
catchphrases "choice," "pro-choice," "right to choose" and "freedom of choice."
Newsweek magazine called piercing the
heart of an unwanted unborn twin with Down syndrome, "a choice in the womb."
The most extreme pro-abortion federal legislation yet proposed is concealed
under the democratic-appearing title, Freedom of Choice Act. The language of
choice has become so pervasive that the word abortion has fallen out of favor.
In 2003, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League changed
its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Pro-choice terminology has even been adopted by euthanasia
proponents. Appropriating a sacrosanct tenet of pro-abortion rhetoric, a group
calling itself Religious Tolerance asserted, "Ultimately, euthanasia is a
question of choice: empowering people to have control over their own bodies."
In 2005, the Hemlock Society joined with the assisted-suicide group, Compassion
in Dying, to form an organization with the newly merged title, Compassion and Choices.
This alliance was a major player in the November 2008 voter-approved
initiative legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the state of Washington.
Ignatius Insight: Borrowing from the title of chapter 4
of your book, what are the essential ideological foundations of verbal
Dr. Brennan: The
full-blown lexicon of deception responsible for reducing victims to tissue,
material, and nonpersons while transforming their extermination into curative
treatments, humane medical services, and choices is not a random, chaotic
outburst perpetrated by mobs in the streets. Rather it emanates from carefully
planned linguistic distortions concocted by the prestigious purveyors of a
quality-of-life ideology based on the dogma of human inequality—the notion
that some lives are considered valuable while other are deemed of little
importance or even valueless.
A prophetic and unusually forthright editorial in the
September 1970 issue of California Medicine acknowledged that obtaining widespread acceptance of abortion "will of
necessity violate and ultimately destroy" the Judeo-Christian ethic of
"intrinsic and equal value for every human life" and will result in supplanting
this ethic with a quality-of-life ideology that "places relative rather than absolute
values on such things as human lives." To bring about such a radical change,
the editorial sets forth a strategy aptly dubbed "semantic gymnastics": (1)
"Avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life
begins at conception;" and (2) "Separate the idea of abortion from the idea of
killing." Moreover, this level of deceit is considered so extreme that the
editorial refers to it as "a schizophrenic sort of subterfuge," but maintains,
nevertheless, "this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while
a new ethic is being accepted, the old one has not yet been rejected."
The deception in this statement is mind-boggling. Here is a
reputable medical association encouraging its members to work toward
legitimizing abortion by disregarding "the scientific fact" that "human life
begins at conception" and by calling abortion something other than killing.
Such blatant verbal duplicity is not confined to promoting abortion. The CMA editorial also states: "Changing attitudes toward
abortion may well be a prototype of what is to occur . . . as the problems of
birth control and birth selection are extended inevitably to death selection
and death control." The life-unworthy-of-life ideology thus paves the way for
extinguishing the lives of individuals after as well as before birth.
This draconian ideology has long since moved unremittingly
from the realm of theory to that of practice where it is being aggressively
implemented in clinics and medical centers. Among the list of abortionist Dr.
James McMahon's quality-of-life indications justifying partial-birth abortion
were Down syndrome, spina bifida, and cleft palate. During the 1980s, a
committee of health-care professionals at the Oklahoma Children's Memorial
Hospital applied a quality-of-life formula as a basis for the denial of
life-saving treatment to children born with spina bifida. In 1997, most of the
165 deaths at the University of California (San Francisco) intensive care
nursery "resulted from neonatologists' decisions to limit life-sustaining
treatment with a considerable number of them based only on quality-of-life
Ignatius Insight: Based on his public record and
speeches, do you think President Obama engages in verbal duplicity when it
comes to abortion and other life issues? What do you think of his recent call,
at Notre Dame, for "common ground" to be found between those who are
"pro-choice" and those who oppose abortion?
Dr. Brennan: Throughout
his political career, President Obama has pushed a radical pro-abortion agenda.
As an Illinois state senator, he voted against legislation that prohibited
taxpayer funding of abortion and against a bill requiring parental notification
before an abortion could be performed on a minor. On several occasions, he
even opposed the passage of a law intended to provide medical care for infants
who survived botched abortions.
As a U.S. senator, he opposed legislation banning
partial-birth abortion and co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, a
far-reaching proposal that would wipe out virtually all state and federal
limitations on abortion. Ever since occupying the Oval Office, Obama issued
executive orders reversing a ban on financing international organizations that
promote or perform abortions and lifting the prohibition on the funding of
embryo-destructive research. He also revoked a 2007 executive order promoting
governmental support for alternative non-destructive adult stem cell research.
In addition, with the help of powerful Congressional allies, President Obama's
"health care reform" plan is being used as a vehicle to impose sweeping
Obama resorts to verbal duplicity extensively in presenting
such destructive measures as moderate, reasonable, and beneficent actions. The
mainstreaming of abortion into a basic component of health-care reform is based
on the portrayal of medicalized destruction as a legitimate "medical procedure"
and "health-care service." His issuance of executive orders increasing the
funding of embryo-destructive research belies an attempt to get the public to
embrace the view of human embryos as nothing more than "raw material" for
bolstering biomedical research in the service of humanity. Some claim that he
rescinded the Bush administrative order supportive of adult stem cell research
because it contained a clause asserting the biological truth that "human
embryos and fetuses, as members of the human species, are not raw material to
be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold."
Obama's slavish conformity to pro-choice doublespeak is
especially relentless. In a talk before the Planned Parenthood Action Fund on
July 17, 2007, he repeatedly parroted pro-choice slogans, characterizing the
"right to choose" as "one of the most fundamental freedoms," reminding his
audience, "I've stood up for the freedom of choice in the United States
Senate," and reassuring them, "On the issue of choice . . . I will not yield."
He further vowed that the first thing he would do as president "is to sign the
Freedom of Choice Act." On January 22, 2008, the 35th anniversary of the Roe
v. Wade decision, Obama boasted about his
"100 % pro-choice rating with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America"
and again stated he would continue defending "the woman's right to choose" by
"passing the Freedom of Choice Act." Soon after becoming president, he
released a statement asserting, "I remain committed to protecting a woman's
right to choose." By the end of April 2009, he repeated his hardcore
allegiance to the woman's "right to choose," but announced that the "Freedom of
Choice Act" is no longer "my highest legislative priority." Apparently, the
limitless access to abortion so strikingly evident in FOCA has a better chance
of success when its totalitarian provisions are enacted within the less
transparent context of subtle, incremental, and step-by-step stealth
The President's call at Notre Dame for reaching a "common
ground" on abortion featured a need to work together on such matters as
reducing the number of women seeking abortions, reducing unintended
pregnancies, making adoptions more available, and helping women carry their
children to term. However, a huge gap exists between these goals and the
reality of his record of unabashed commitment to the abortion license.
Developing a common ground on abortion in a pro-life direction is severely
hampered by the fact that Obama's appointments to key policy positions are
heavily stacked with staunch defenders of abortion as an untouchable right.
Despite his incessant talk about listening to diverse
viewpoints, in June 2009 he dissolved the President's Council on Bioethics,
composed of leading ideologically-diverse scholars who, for the past eight
years, have grappled with the implications of profound moral issues related to
advances in biomedicine and technology. Dissolution of this group was
undoubtedly helped along by an incident in March when 10 of 18 bioethics
council members publicly criticized Obama's decision to lift restrictions on
funding embryo-destructive research. His "common ground" version leaves little
or no space for genuine pro-life concerns and has the inevitable effect of
trivializing abortion and relegating the plight of the unborn to the back
burner of insignificance and irrelevance.
Ignatius Insight: How did John Paul II go about
confronting and responding to verbal duplicity during his pontificate?
Dr. Brennan: The
pontiff exhibited an acute awareness of how much the success of the death
culture depends upon the corruption of language and thought. He employed a
persuasive discourse of truth-telling for unmasking the extreme abuse of
language whereby "words have become unmoored from their meaning and we are left
with a rhetoric in which the language of life is used to promote the culture of
death." The Holy Father persistently emphasized how the vastness of the
destruction perpetrated during the 20th century can be attributed in large part
to defective definitions of the human person.
A hallmark of John Paul's campaign against the culture of
death consisted of demonstrating the power of reality to overcome a rhetoric
that conceals the disconcerting truth about killing defenseless human beings
inside and outside the womb. "What is need," he insisted, "is the courage to
speak the truth clearly, candidly and boldly, but never with hatred or
disrespect for persons." The pope did not level personal attacks against those
who were covering up the violence with misleading terminology. Instead, he cut
through the rhetoric itself and pointed out the harsh nature of the destructive
actions buried beneath the rhetoric, utilizing such phrases as "slaughter of
the innocents," "a war of the powerful against the weak" and "unspeakable
crimes." These and other stark expressions are part and parcel of his overriding
message: "We need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in
the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of
Furthermore, in his call for a new and enduring culture of
life, John Paul also relied on a language of humanization and divinization
featuring positive, life-affirming images of all human lives founded on both
the equality-of-life imperative of the natural law and the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life
ethic. Utilizing exalted imagery from sacred and secular sources alike, he
forged a memorable array of moving reflections on the innate humanity and worth
of prenatal life, the incomparable dignity and genius of women, the unique
value of disabled persons, the spiritual wisdom of the elderly, and the
categorical pro-life standards embodied in such American founding documents as
the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Ignatius Insight: How can Catholics and other pro-lifers
work to confront and reject the culture of death? What mistakes should be
Dr. Brennan: No one
was more effective than John Paul in exposing how extensively the distortion of
language fueling the culture of death has become embedded in medicine, law, and
ideology. He left an indispensable legacy—a moral and linguistic compass
founded on a masterful synthesis of faith and reason. His profound and
eminently practical insights, revelations, and actions furnish a compelling
guide for articulating the case against the growing desensitization toward
violence brought about by the semantic coarsening of culture.
The challenge for Catholics and other pro-lifers is to
become conversant with the Holy Father's discourse of truth-telling and make
sure that his opposition to the indefensible and defense of the vulnerable
penetrates a public square increasingly bombarded with anti-life policies
parading under the banner of compassionate medical rhetoric, pro-choice
slogans, and seductive ideologies.
A major mistake to avoid is to be taken in by pro-choice
semantic gymnastics. Whenever abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide
proponents claim they are simply pro-choice, they should be challenged to
specify, "The right to choose to do what to whom?" Such rhetoric needs to be
confronted for what it is—an arrogant assumption of the deeply
discriminatory power to destroy those who cannot defend themselves. This is
not the freedom of choice, but death at someone else's choice.
John Paul responded by emphasizing, "Authentic freedom lies
in its necessary foundation in the truth about the human person" and when this
truth "is ignored or repressed, the pursuit of freedom can easily become a mere
pretext for license, a new form of tyranny," which "ends up by becoming the
freedom of 'the strong' against the weak who have no choice but to submit."
Another serious mistake involves rarely speaking out against the assaults on
the truth about the intrinsic worth of the human person at all stages of development.
In many churches, congregants are lucky to hear even one sermon a year
regarding human life issues. The Holy Father perseveringly exposed the attacks
on "the truth about the human person" as being so relentless that "we . . .
must do more than guard this truth. We must proclaim it in season and out of
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