Behind the Shroud

Elizabeth Glass Turner

Elizabeth Glass Turner

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

• Question and minimize the statistics

• Attack the motivations of the truth-tellers

• Emphasize the strangeness of the victims

• Blame “out of control forces” for committing the violence

• Claim the victims are receiving good treatment

• Claim that what’s going on doesn’t fit the definition 

What do these phrases bring to mind? For me, they characterize a great deal of the dialogue, debate, and diatribe swirling around the mechanics and biological details of abortion which have been moved center-stage following the sting videos released online by a pro-life activist group.

To date, the videos show Planned Parenthood executives and physicians discussing the prices for which they’d be willing to donate the physical fetal remains of abortion to biomedical companies supplying research labs. The videos do not provide conclusive evidence that fetal remains are being sold, though there is an enormous grey area when the physicians and executives are haggling over prices for specimens.

Additionally, the more graphic releases have included footage of physicians and technicians sorting through tiny remains in a large specimen dish, discussing how large and how intact particular specimens should be; viewers hear grotesque sounds, blatant, unblinking descriptions, and see in haunting detail just what some of these “specimens” look like.

Unfortunately, the editing and title screens of the videos rather get in the way of the actual horror they simply portray: no dramatic quotes or replays are needed to underline what the viewer has just witnessed.

In the fallout, the president of Planned Parenthood issued a specific apology for the tone of one executive, yet continued to adhere to her talking points: everything done is legal, Planned Parenthood does not sell baby parts, and Planned Parenthood provides many other necessary services that meet the health needs of women, in particular low-income women. That an apology was made at all was extremely notable – and telling.

Everyone around the issue jumping to Planned Parenthood’s aid often slides into one of the above categories, however. What’s going on doesn’t fit the definition of a horror; the victims receive good treatment; a few callous doctors caught off guard are exceptions, not the rule; a developing infant is unlike a developed human; the video team acted out of motivation to end abortion rights; statistics supposedly indicate that limiting abortion would make it more prevalent; Planned Parenthood primarily invests in other services, etc, etc. We are told that abortion is for the greater good and tissue donation is for the greater good and that we should not antagonize providers of women’s health services, or else we show ourselves against women and their flourishing. “When you attack Planned Parenthood, you attack women’s health, and when you attack women’s health, you attack America’s health,” said one prominent winner of the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.34.49 AMAs you can probably guess, the above list is taken from a longer inventory of ways to deny a genocide; only a few words have been tweaked. (You can visit to read more on “12 Ways to Deny a Genocide.”) One of the most ironic ways? “Claim that what’s going on doesn’t fit the definition of genocide.” Originally applied on the website to the genocide in the Sudan, the principles at work remain eerily familiar. And what is the purpose of denial? “The objective of denial is to paralyze the political will of those who might take action to stop the genocide.”

Several recent articles have pointed out that a shift in the ongoing abortion discussion may be due quite simply to better technology: an ultrasound from the 1980s and a detailed 3-D ultrasound from today are almost incomparable. And as technology improves, the developmental progress of the preborn is easily witnessed: despite the alien-like proportions of an early second trimester baby, we see its fingers, its toes; by 17 weeks, we know a baby can respond to light sources outside the uterus or loud, startling sounds (like a raised voice of a doctor calling for an assistant at an abortion clinic). In other words, if hundreds of thousands of (would-be) American citizens are dying, there is a new degree of photojournalism to disclose the true nature of the victims.

Let me make clear that it is my privilege to live as a pastor, a mama, a woman, a theologian, and a friend. I know and respect many women who disagree with me on the question of abortion rights. From a pastoral perspective, I am committed to caring for women within my reach regardless of their backgrounds or choices. I do not demonize women who have had abortions, nor do I demonize abortion doctors, though, given their medical knowledge, they should be held responsible to a higher degree. The lives of all women – and all physicians – are just as valuable as the lives of the preborn. The broad social acceptance of abortion, however, should be challenged.

Euphemistically Speaking

The impact of the recently released videos doesn’t revolve around the legality or illegality of Planned Parenthood practices. The impact, quite simply, comes from the sudden, harsh removal of euphemism. When a woman signs a consent form to donate fetal remains, she is actually signing a consent form to donate tiny mangled legs, or intact kidneys, or brain, or spinal column. When physicians sit over salad and discuss “intact specimens” with biomedical buyers, they mean baby parts that are whole, and not destroyed by suction or by scalpel or forceps, depending on the kind of procedure. When the Planned Parenthood website phrases part of the procedure as “emptying the uterus,” the resulting “remains” would make most people run and vomit into a trash can.

Even pro-life supporters have become somewhat deafened to the reality of abortion. Yes, it happens, but ISIS is on the rampage, cancer is wreaking havoc, there are Pinterest craft ideas to try and movies to see. Normally, we don’t have to look if we don’t want to. And it’s not just that we’re squeamish about a medical procedure: you can watch knee surgery on cable and wrinkle your nose at its gory detail, but somehow, it doesn’t have the same impact, and we need to ask ourselves why.

Writing in Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection, Michael Gerheran explains the role of euphemism in making distasteful practices morally palatable. “Euphemism can have a powerful psychological effect, for imagination and disbelief are crucial in liberating people from moral dilemmas,” writes Geheran, an academic fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The language of denial allowed for Germans’ deeper entanglement in the crimes of the Nazi regime, as it created a reasonable doubt. Euphemism carried concepts that succeeded in obfuscating the worst crimes and, over time, became rooted in public discourse. …They could console themselves that Jews were being relocated to the East without evoking images of mass shootings or murder on an industrial scale. By shrouding the fate of their victims in obscurity, the Nazis were able to gain exceptional leverage over ordinary Germans by enabling them to accept distasteful elements of National Socialism and to take part in genocide.”

In his book The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) observed: “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms, and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously… Language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it… Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”

It should be noted that often, pro-choice feminists attempt to utilize euphemism in their favor, arguing, for instance, that the recent undercover videos somehow violated patient privacy by showing the “fetal remains” of an unknown (and never seen or recorded) woman. One might argue – pro-choice or pro-life – that true feminism refuses to euphemize the female body and experience, which means that rather than attempt to draw a shroud over what happens in an abortion, the true feminist would boldly stand and say, “yes, this is what it is.” To suggest that women are incapable of knowing that for themselves and then choosing abortion is either to infantilize them or to suggest that humans are often uncomfortable disposing of their own offspring – a point upon which we might do well to reflect.

What we take for “obvious”

In his book Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity, Harry Bruinius demonstrates quite clearly how “obvious” the benefits of forced sterilization were a hundred years ago, not only in the questionable eugenics of people like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger but even among those like President Theodore Roosevelt or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

According to a review of Better for All the World, Farhad Manjoo of Salon writes that Bruinius “suggests, probably correctly, that it was Americans’ tendency to reach for perfection that swayed us toward eugenics in the first place; this is the land of manifest destiny, after all, and it certainly was not manifest that our destiny be that morons run about all over the land. Moreover, it’s undeniable that eugenics did enjoy a certain logical appeal as a social tool. For people who were embracing science and technology in all corners of their lives, … sterilization had the benefit of being both novel and efficient. You didn’t have to be evil to support eugenics; you only had to have a fuzzy idea of how biological sciences worked … , as well as a general reformist spirit. That’s why progressives, rather than religious fundamentalists, were so hip to eugenics. The whole thing seemed like a can’t-miss idea.”

According to Manjoo, “Bruinius concludes his book by wondering whether modern scientific advances in genetics and bioengineering could usher in ‘a tipping point in which genocide — cultural, ethnic, or genetic — can seem a rational and desirable goal?’ Anything can happen, of course, and it would be naive to say that the United States is immune to committing genocide, either at home or abroad. But genocide is a crime of numbers, a horror of multitudes — of millions, not thousands. There is little to be proud of, and much to learn from, our nation’s rendezvous with eugenic genocide. But one can take solace that it was only a rendezvous, and not a full embrace.”

For many, abortion seems a necessary evil. It’s worth asking what future generations will think of this justification. Looking back on history, I think it’s obvious that Christians should not have burned each other at the stake over doctrinal arguments. In fact, I think it was rather barbaric. I think it’s obvious that segregated bathrooms are absurd, a sickening reality that seem nearly incomprehensible to me. And I do wonder what future generations (of the born) will think about our thirst to live lives unencumbered by the physical consequences of our physical activities, to live as we determine, personalizing every sphere of existence we inhabit until inconvenience becomes an evil greater than the suffering of our neighbor.

We cut off our moral sensibilities when we couch our actions in euphemism and remove blame for the “obvious” problems that come with living. Sometimes I wonder what a visiting alien race would think of us – we advanced humans in the iDeveloped world, suctioning our young out of our wombs as we watch “reality” television while studying for our law degrees and sipping on soy lattes.

Wanting a human isn’t what makes a human human. And if we grieve over our abortions, it at least is an emotionally healthy response. We should grieve. And every Christian in North America should pause and grieve over loss of life. But we should not allow ourselves to believe for a second that fetal remains are unrecognizable, or that abortion is a necessity.

So what might the faith community do, besides grieve the reality around our street corners and across our cities, that lives are lost and no news crew will ever, ever cover it? Perhaps we need to start thinking of literal, physical realities instead of only railing against the darkness, welcoming the vulnerable around warm lamplight. There are many resources for congregations to become trained and certified, resources reaching out to the faith community to adopt children or become foster parents.

Wouldn’t it be a powerful witness if Christians were known as people who opened up their homes at the drop of a hat in order to adopt the unwanted? We are called to share our very lives, to extend our tables (maybe literally putting in an extra leaf) and sacrifice a new car or yearly vacation in order to make room for and welcome the vulnerable.

William Wilberforce’s words have the impact of a bucket of cold ice water: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Somehow, none of us can say “I didn’t know” anymore. And once you have the responsibility of knowledge, you have the responsibility to act – or not.

Now you know. What will you do?

If you can’t find a starting place, I recommend reading about the life of Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who saw, and knew, and acted.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a United Methodist clergyperson and frequent contributor to Good News. She serves as the Managing Editor of Wesleyan Accent ( and is the campus minister for the Wesley Foundation of Wichita Falls (Texas). Her many writing projects include an essay in the recently published The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. 

Adoption Resources



  1. Rev. Gloria Lancaster Rhudy says

    Isaiah 40:11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
    A shepherd has to give special attention and care to the mother ewes who are expecting lambs. Without the lambs, there will be no future flock. For us, without the babies, there will be no future church.
    The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, the prophet, and said, as recorded in Jeremiah 7:31
    And they have built the high places to To’phet, which is in the valley of the son of Hin’-nom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.
    Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)
    For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
    Words of Jesus from Matthew 18:5-6 – And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

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