The recent abortion arguments in the Supreme Court attest to the truth of George Orwell's observation that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity." The double-talk begins, Orwell said, "when there is a gap between one's real and declared aims."
Let's face it: the "pro-life" people want all abortions banned; the "pro-choice" people want all abortions allowed. Denied these categorical goals, they clothe undeclared aims in opaque slogans.
The court last week heard three hours of oral argument in five cases. All five arise from its landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, in which the court narrowed "state interest" in regulating abortion and held that, in the first three months of pregnancy at least, a woman's "privacy rights" are paramount.
Roe v. Wade was an earnest but largely unsuccessful effort to resolve, at one judicial stroke, a formidable medical, moral and legal dilemma. The unwelcome offshoot was anger, confusion and division -- and cloudy, evasive language.
Consider the Akron case. In that Ohio city five years ago, the city council by a narrow vote imposed several requirements on abortion clinics. Before an abortion could be performed, a woman had to wait 24 hours. Her physician was required to tell her that a fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, and can experience pain. He also had to admonish her that getting an abortion can cause "lasting psychological damage."
Sound or superstitious, these requirements were patently burdensome and intrusive, and a lower federal appeals court has struck them down. They were undoubtedly contrived to discourage abortion, so far as it could be discouraged by official indoctrination in the views of the Akron City Council.
But Akron's lawyer denied all this. He called the rules "choice-enhancing," an Orwellian phrase indeed. But disingenuousness is not the monopoly of the pro- life forces. One Akron abortion clinic, a party in the case, calls itself a "center for reproductive health."
It is clear from this torture of language that people are fudging their intentions. Abortion is one of those modern matters in which law and medical technology are outrunning our capacity to adjust the ethical sense -- and language -- to them.
The race continues. Virginia's statute is under challenge because it requires hospitalization for second-trimester abortions, the medical consensus nine years ago. Safer, new techniques now make hospitalization unnecessary.
Medical technology, the court's primary reliance on Roe v. Wade, is a dynamic factor, probably made the more dynamic now by the growing demand for abortions. Here again, technology leads ethics a merry chase to keep up.
Innovation in the law may indeed be provoked by medical technology, but that should be only the beginning, not the end, of the argument. However the argument is cast, one obstacle to a sane, acceptable resolution of the issue is the failure of the contending parties to say what they mean and mean what they say.