Words are powerful. They can inspire and motivate. They can educate and enlighten. They can express thoughts, ideas and emotions. They form the basis of the written language through which we convey knowledge, understanding and truth. The subtleties in tone, inflection and nuance make a difference. Is it sarcasm or sympathy? Is it admonishment or encouragement? What we say and how we say it matters. And that is perhaps most evident in the context of our legal language.
Legislation and judicial decisions are the building blocks of a just society. The words that the legislators and justices use matter. Our system of justice, our civil and criminal codes are all dependent upon the words these men and women choose to use. They are words that can emancipate and liberate or subjugate and oppress. They are words that can protect and preserve our most fundamental human rights, or they can endanger and destroy them.
In 1857 the Supreme Court issued what historians agree was the worst decision in its history. Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom arguing that because he resided for an “extended period of time” in a state which prohibited slavery, the laws and jurisdiction of that state applied to him, and as a result, he was a free man. Scott’s claim was based upon a precedent that had been upheld in both state and federal courts and should have been resolve at a lower level, but somehow managed to make it all the way to the Supreme Court where he lost in a 7 to 2 decision.
In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that because Scott was a member of a race that had been brought to this country as “property,” he and other black descendants were not citizens and subsequently not entitled to the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. The rights and privileges that according to the Declaration of Independence were endowed upon all men by their Creator. In other words, Dred Scott wasn’t a human being, he was “property.” “Property” that had no other purpose or function than to obey the will of its owner.
Words matter, and the words that were carefully chosen and crafted into the Dred Scott decision mattered. They denied millions of men, women and children their most fundamental God given human rights, justified and perpetuated the evils of slavery, further divided an already divided nation, and accelerated the inevitable confrontation which would result in the bloodiest conflict in our history.
In 1935, the German Legislature passed two carefully worded pieces of legislation; the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, and the Reich Citizenship Law. These laws were followed by several other directives designed to draw a distinction between true Germans or Aryans, and Non-Aryans or “sub-humans. These “sub-humans” included; Slavs, Poles, Serbs, Russians, Gypsies, and Jews.
Over the next seven years the Nazi’s used these carefully worded laws to strip these “sub-humans” of their dignity, property, citizenship, and civil and human rights. The culmination of these words occurred in January 1942 when 15 high ranking members of the Nazi party met at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to draft their “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.” A solution that industrialized mass murder and killed over 11 million people. Words matter.
On January 22, 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed into law legislation designed to revise, amend and repeal provisions of the State’s Criminal Law relating to abortion. New York Senate Bill S2796 legalizes late term abortions through the ninth month of pregnancy by using some carefully chosen words to redefine a “Person,” as a human being who has been born and is alive. In other words, the New York State Legislature has decided that a child in the womb isn’t a person, it’s now a “non-person,” and since “non-persons” have no legal standing, those who seek and perform late term abortions are no longer criminally liable.
Although bill S2796 is very specific with the words it uses to define a “person,” the words it uses to justify a late term abortion are suspiciously ambiguous. Late term abortions are permissible to protect the patient’s “life” or “health.” The word “life” is precise enough, but what about the word “health?” Does that refer strictly to the patient’s physical health or does it also include their mental, emotional or even financial health? Think about it. This bill gives medical professionals the authority to terminate a human life. Wouldn’t you think that the bill’s authors would want to be as precise and accurate as possible in specifying the circumstances when a late term abortion is permissible? Of course, that’s up to the New York State Courts to decide, but when you consider that a “non-person” has no recourse within the judicial system, it’s doubtful that the courts will ever hear that case. Words matter.
If the intent of S2796 were to guarantee access to a lifesaving medical procedure the sponsors of the bill would be familiar with the actual human tragedy which it addresses. They would have undoubtedly met with expectant couples who were faced with that excruciating and debilitating decision of having to choose between the life of the child and the life of the mother. They would be cognitive of the pain and anguish involved with having to make that choice and would be somewhat somber and humble in the passage of their regrettably necessary legislation. Yet when Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law, it was not met with the solemnity one would expect from an assemblage of compassionate and empathetic legislators. No, it was met by the resounding cheers and enthusiastic round of applause of a horde of anytime, anywhere, abortion on-demand activists.
First “property,” then “sub-human,” and now “non-person.” Yes, words matter.