“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
This was going to be a post about the importance of clarity in language and freedom of expression, full of all sorts of quotes from George Orwell, whose writing very effectively highlights the dangers of censorship and the ugliness of using euphemism to defend the indefensible. Just to be sure, I googled “George Orwell abortion”, in case he had made some wildly pro-abortion statement that I hadn’t heard of, but that could undermine the point of what I was writing.
And then I was surprised. Because the most I was hoping for was no comment from Orwell on the topic, and at worst to be disappointed but not altogether surprised that a favourite author supports abortion.
Instead, what I found was a page full of references to his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). So I read it. Gordon Comstock, the protagonist spends most of the book raging ineffectually against the society in which he lives and refusing to sell out by getting what everyone around him considers to be a “good” job. The book is mostly a social criticism, and (in my opinion) nowhere near as good as Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm.
But what does a would-be socialist living in 1930s London have to do with abortion?
Near the end of the novel, Gordon’s girlfriend Rosemary tells him she’s pregnant. She offers to get rid of the baby. Her co-worker knows of a doctor who’ll do this for five pounds, knows people who’ve been there. Gordon’s instinctual reaction, however, is, “Whatever happens we’re not going to do that. It’s disgusting!”
That evening he goes to a public library. He had some vague ideas about pregnancy, but he wants to know what’s really going on inside Rosemary. As he looks at diagrams in a book—a human developing, at nine weeks, and at six weeks. We read:
He pored for a long time over the two pictures. Their ugliness made them more credible and therefore more moving. His baby had seemed real to him from the moment when Rosemary spoke of abortion; but it had been a reality without visual shape—something that happened in the dark and was only important after it had happened. But here was the actual process taking place. Here was the poor ugly thing, no bigger than a gooseberry, that he had created by his heedless act. Its future, its continued existence perhaps, depended on him.
He calls Rosemary. He’ll get the good job. They’ll get married. He’ll help her with the baby. He will settle into the lifestyle he’s been fighting for years, and even feels relieved about it.
In hindsight, Orwell’s take on abortion should not have been a surprise. This was a man dedicated to telling the truth even when the truth is difficult or even ugly, and to the rejection of any attempt to gloss over reality for the sake of political or personal convenience. How would he answer the question of abortion? By looking at the facts and forming a conclusion accordingly. Of course he would recognize that a human is a human, and that the choice to kill such a helpless little human could not be accepted.
Given the importance of those facts—the humanity of the pre-born and the inhumanity of abortion, we need to keep sharing them with as many people as possible. As Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Editor’s Note: This article was first published at Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform on November 12, 2013, and is reprinted with permission.