Slashing through the verbal jungle of U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton’s opinion declaring the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban unconstitutional, I couldn’t help but think of Strunk and White.
William Strunk Jr. was an English professor at Cornell in the years after World War I. E.B. White, one of his students, became an essayist for the New Yorker and author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Strunk composed a little book to teach his college students writing. Decades later, White revised and expanded the book, which was published as The Elements of Style.
It features a list of rules for writing clear and forceful English.
Judge Hamilton’s opinion reminded me of this book because she breaks so many of the rules–and I am convinced she does it on purpose.
On Strunk and White’s terms, her opinion is a disaster; on Judge Hamilton’s terms, it is a work of literary art–117 pages of words carefully chosen to cloud the truth and confuse readers.
Strunk and White command writers to “Use the active voice” because it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.” They also command writers to “Use definite, specific and concrete language” because it is “the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention.” Hamilton flees the active voice and concrete language as if they were deadly viruses. Doctors don’t do abortions; abortions just happen–and they happen in the most abstract terms the judge can find.
“A D&E abortion is a surgical procedure, which is performed in two steps: dilation of the cervix and surgical removal of the fetus,” she writes. “. . . This process usually causes the fetus to disarticulate.”
Rewrite the judge’s passive sentences–applying the rules of Strunk and White–and you discover one human being brutalizing others. “When a doctor does a D&E abortion, he forces open the mother’s womb and cuts up the unborn child. The doctor tears the baby apart.”
When her argument absolutely demands that she write in the active voice, Judge Hamilton violates another Strunk-and-White commandment: “Avoid fancy words.” “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able,” say Strunk and White. “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.”
Describing the deathblow of a partial-birth abortion, Judge Hamilton uses vocabulary I might have missed on my senior Latin exam at Saint Ignatius High. “Some physicians,” she says, “puncture the calvarium and suction out the cranial contents, others disarticulate the calvarium and crush it with forceps before extraction, while yet others use forceps to collapse the calvarium while it is still attached.”
Translated into the plain Anglo-Saxon preferred by Strunk and White, this passage becomes almost too cruel to read: “Some doctors stab the baby in the skull . . .” OK, you get the idea: This judge rejects the vigorous language good writing demands because the act she declares a constitutional right is so dark-hearted she dare not drag it into the light. She sees her job as pushing the debate back into the shadows.
Accordingly, she rebukes Congress for using clear and simple words in the official findings of fact it attached to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. “Congress’ grossly misleading and inaccurate language, comparing the procedure to the ‘killing of a newborn infant,’ appears to have been intentional,” she says.
Here, she is finally right about something: The 282 representatives and 64 senators who voted for this law did intend to compare partial-birth abortion to killing a newborn infant. But they did not mislead anyone. They spoke the truth.
To be fair, Judge Hamilton’s job was harder. She needed to find a word to disguise the very purpose of an abortion, which is, of course, “to kill” (that stark Old English monosyllable used by the uppity U.S. Congress). She settled on “demise,” a word Webster’s says is Latin drawn through French.
Mocking the expertise of a government witness who had never done a partial-birth abortion, Judge Hamilton says: “In her career, all of the D&Es by disarticulation that she has performed have been on demised fetuses.”
Elsewhere she talks of doctors who inject poison into the baby’s heart “to effect fetal demise before the procedure is commenced.” “Fetal demise can be effected in a number of ways,” she notes, and “it can take up to five to ten minutes for fetal demise to occur.”
Even though it declared the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban unconstitutional, Judge Hamilton’s opinion should encourage the pro-life movement. The weakness of Hamilton’s English betrays the weakness of her cause. Pro-lifers can effect the (political) demise of the fetus disarticulators. All they must do is keep speaking plainly.
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