Words matter. The terminology we employ not only reflects our values but helps to define them. Language is particularly important in bioethical debates, in which dehumanizing verbiage can distance us from our fellow human beings.
When embryonic stem-cell research was in the news, we were told constantly by scientists and the media that an early embryo was “just a ball of cells” that didn’t even “look human.” We even heard that human life had no actual beginning, since we had 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. 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. As the Stanford bioethicist William Hurlbut has stated eloquently:
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.
Distancing terminology also finds voice among abortion-rights advocates who refuse to use the word “baby,” favoring instead the medical term “fetus” for the being extinguished by a surgical abortion. 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. (Some advocates in bioethics, though, do call newborn babies “nonpersons” in order to justify infanticide.)
Words also have the power to degrade the human dignity of born and grown people. A classic example is the pejorative term “vegetable,” referring to those with severe cognitive disabilities and impairments. Even the diagnostic term used to describe the condition of permanently unconscious patients—“persistent vegetative state”—is pejorative, perhaps the only explicitly demeaning medical term. (Why not use the perfectly accurate “persistent unconscious state”?) 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.
We see the same phenomenon in our debates around end-of-life care and assisted suicide. The Dutch euthanasia practitioner Dr. M.A.M. Wachter, ethicist/director for the Institute of Health in the Netherlands, made this point explicitly when he appeared at a 1990 international euthanasia society convention. “The definitions build the road to euthanasia,” he stated, explaining that even the word “euthanasia” (“good death”) could harm the cause, because people naturally recoil from the killing act.
Thus, Wachter urged his audience to prevaricate and obfuscate: “Definitions are not neutral. They are not just the innocent tools that allow us to describe reality. Rather, they shape our perceptions of reality. They select. They emphasize. They embody a bias. Therefore, definitions constantly need redefinition.” 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.
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.