The Banality of Abortion

In other words, by manipulating language, we can insulate ourselves from reality

Likewise, in the practice of abortion, we don’t talk about “dead babies,” we talk about “aborted fetuses” and the “products of conception.” We don’t talk about “organ harvesting,” but “tissue donation.” We don’t talk about “heads,” but “calvarium.”


In the Spring of 1961, Hannah Arendt sat in a courtroom in Jerusalem observing the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was a notorious war criminal, an S.S. officer responsible for coordinating the transportation of millions of souls to death camps across Europe. Israeli Intelligence agents tracked him to Argentina, kidnapped him and flew him to Israel for a trial.

Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher who had fled the Third Reich, was one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the politics of the 20th century. Her first book, a massive tome on The Origins of Totalitarianism, described its mechanisms — terror, fear, propaganda — and its origins — nationalism and imperialism. She saw it as the embodiment of what Immanuel Kant called “radical evil.” But sitting in that courtroom, she felt something in the foundations of her thought crumble. Eichmann wasn’t a vicious monster, eager to shed blood and lick it off his hands. He was a bureaucrat. A paper-pusher. Not Dracula, but Mr. Magoo.

This shocked Arendt, and sent her in search of language that could adequately describe the phenomenon. She landed on the phrase “the banality of evil,” which doesn’t dismiss the depths of evil itself as banal, but — far more terrifying — exposes the possibility that social and political realities can make the stomach-churning horrors of Nazi death camps a mere function of the state. They can happen without passion, without malice, with indifference. Not only that, as Eichmann himself testified, these social and political conditions can make someone believe that the horrors they commit are for the greater good.

While comparisons to Nazism are often overblown, I couldn’t help but hear the phrase “the banality of evil” as I watched each video exposing the trade of aborted children’s body parts by Planned Parenthood. A woman sips wine and munches on a salad while describing “less crunchy” techniques for extracting a baby from a womb. Another haggles over the prices of children’s organs and jokes that she wants a Lamborghini. Another shouts, “It’s a boy,” and proceeds to tear it limb from limb. Another recounts a woman who thought it was cool that she can stop and start a baby’s heart before cutting through his face to extract his brain.

These would be unspeakable horrors in any other context, but somehow, in our world today, these are acceptable. As Arendt described it in The Life of the Mind, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.” In other words, by manipulating language, we can insulate ourselves from reality.

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