The Rose vs. the Venus Fly-Trap

March 1996By Luis R. Gamez

Luis R. Gámez is a professor of English at Western Michigan University.

When Life and Choice Collide: Essays on Rhetoric and Abortion.  Edited by David Mall. Kairos Books (P.O. Box 3247, Davenport IA 52808). 352 pages. $15 (plus $4 for shipping & handling)..



If we wish to understand fully the dynamics involved in the struggle over abortion — beyond the obvious polarities — we should consider how power is invested in words: how words themselves have become disputants in the struggle. Recall, for example, the aftermath of the shootings at a Brookline, Massachusetts abortion clinic in 1994 which left two receptionists dead. Within a week Planned Parenthood, launching a battle of words within the larger war of words, placed a full-page ad in The New York Times which asked, “Who is really responsible for the recent deaths at abortion clinics?” and laid blame not on the gunman, but on prolife speech itself: “Words are like bullets — they can be used to kill…. Words of hate helped pull the trigger last Friday in Massachusetts…. Leaders of the extreme religious right are heedlessly using a war of words to inspire killing. They call abortion providers ‘baby killers.’ They call hardworking, law-abiding citizens ‘murderers and sinners.’… They inspire their followers to kill and label the killing of abortion providers ‘justifiable homicide.’… The clearest example occurred when New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor issued a backhanded apology for the attackers by stating ‘you cannot prevent killing by killing,’ thereby labeling abortion providers as killers….”

Those interested in the war of rhetoric will be rewarded by a careful study of When Life and Choice Collide. David Mall has collected 15 essays written from an unashamedly prolife perspective. The tone of the contributions is scholarly and technical. The many graphs and statistical tables used to document research (e.g., “Semantic Differential Ratings of Four Concepts Used in the Abortion Controversy on 17 Bipolar Adjective Pairs”) might dizzy all but professional marketing analysts, but the reader is advised to stick with it all the same. The book poses variations on a fundamental question: Once we have found the truth which sets us free, how can we best communicate it?

The first two sections, “Barriers to Communication” and “Language and Public Opinion,” consider the effectiveness of the prolife message from two opposing perspectives. First (and negatively) Keith Cassidy and John J. Potts consider the marginalization of the movement by the media: how an “elitist culture” can render the prolife campaign irrelevant. A second, positive perspective (defined in the second section in essays by Raymond J. Adamek, Donald Granberg, and David Mall) involves strategies for adjusting the movement’s message to assure maximum clarity and impact. While Adamek’s and Granberg’s analyses of socio-demographic variables in abortion-issue opinion research will seem dry to most readers, Mall’s contribution (“The Catholic Church and Abortion: Persuading Through Public Relations”) is more engaging. Mall studies rhetoric about abortion through the famous (infamous?) advertising campaign created by the Hill and Knowlton PR firm for its client, the U.S. Catholic Conference. Mall’s is a fairly convincing thesis describing how Americans grow into their values regarding life, and how researchers can target different stages of this moral development (“social marketing”). A tantalizing prospect this, for he holds to us the possibility that advertisements, like those of Hill and Knowlton (reproduced in the book), can to some extent be encoded with moral reasoning tailored to particular audiences.

In the third section, “Lessons from History,” Milton C. Sernett’s well-documented essay (“Widening the Circle: The Pro-life Appeal to the Abolitionist Legacy”) examines the appeal made to the fight against slavery in the public debate over abortion. Though simplistic parallels are to be avoided, Sernett argues that the prolife movement, like the antislavery crusade, concerns the basic question of “how to draw the boundaries of the circle in which constitutional protection is afforded.” William Brennan (“Specifying the Abortion-Holocaust Connections,” an adapted version of which was printed in the Nov. 1995 NOR) outlines the ugly parallels between the killing of the unborn today and the destruction of European Jews under the Nazis: “the nature and scope of the killing, body disposal methods, the invocation of euphemisms and slogans to obscure the concrete horrors of mass destruction, the use of disparaging language to dehumanize the victims, the major role of liberals and the media in perpetuating the violence, and the perversion of the law in the service of genocide.”

The fourth section, “Insights from Rhetoric and Philosophy” (with contributors Donald DeMarco, Gary Gillespie, William C. Hunt, and B.F. McClerren), is the theoretical chapter: Here the writings of Jacques Ellul, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Weaver are applied to the hidden symbolisms of the abortion debate which are often lost to awareness or underutilized. DeMarco points out the extent to which prochoice rhetoric involves a strategy “to dissociate words from their relationship with truth. In contrast, pro-life advocates rely on words to reveal clearly and unequivocally what abortion involves.” The “cultural epidemic of semantic aphasia” is for DeMarco (as for Walker Percy) the source of the problem, the reason that the abortion arena is filled with slogans and symbols that rarely hint at what they conceal. The moral debate thus gives way to a pushing match between the coat hanger and the rose. Indeed, this reviewer ruefully recalls taunting a prochoice colleague’s semantic aphasia some years back. The man was brainstorming for a flower that prochoicers could use as a symbolic answer to the prolife rose. “How about a Venus fly-trap,” I said, “it’s carnivorous, you know.” There was no joy in Mudville that day.

The fifth section, “Strategies for Persuasion” (with essays by Wanda Franz, Monica Migliorino Miller, John C. Willke, and Mary R. Joyce) is the closing catchall section of general recommendations for prolifers seeking to utilize rhetoric effectively. Readers will find some of the best offerings in this last section, and newcomers to the study of semantics may profitably begin study of the book here. Miller’s essay (“The Preborn and Prejudice”), with its emphasis on civil rights and persistent societal ignorance, provides a strong complement to Sernett’s historical analysis of the slavery parallel. Joyce’s short piece (“The Dove and the Serpent”) has the virtue of admonishing prolife word-crafters from a scriptural perspective. “‘Be crafty as serpents and innocent as doves,’ the Gospel says. As doves, prolifers have the truth, but lack the rhetorical weapon and skill to defend the truth effectively. They need to sharpen their verbal art with shrewdness and focus on the spot where the opposition is vulnerable. Uniting the serpent with the dove, they can develop the kind of language power that actually silences the opposition. Silence gives the truth a chance to change hearts.”

One finishes this book with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Is it enough, this rhetorical skill in crafting of words? Or is there (as Joyce implies) another position from which to profess life, more biblical than market-researched? Perhaps what is most needful in this war of words is an utterance rooted in spiritual strength and the prophets’ love of justice. “Hate the evil but love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15). Thus armed, thus established, our words will have power indeed.



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