Friday, March 7, 2014

Why Using the R-Word Isn't Pro-Life

I wasn't going to write this post.  Other people had already put into words any thoughts that I had on the subject and had said them more eloquently than any of the thoughts that were bouncing around the inside of my skull and so I thought I'd leave it as it was, sharing one of my favorite posts on facebook, but otherwise staying silent.  And then I saw a conversation below a post on the subject that was being shared on a prominent Catholic website and I made the mistake of reading the comments.

I didn't think the comments would be bad.  I mean, it wasn't like I was wadding into the comment section of the Huffington Post or National Catholic Reporter.  But I was in for a surprise.

As I scrolled down adult after adult were defending using the word "retarded" as an insult.  There was quite a bit of hand wringing that was accompanied by phrases like "save us from being too politically correct" and people telling other people that they needed to grow a thicker skin.

Oh and there was also a lot of "there are more important issues out there to waste time on this one."

That was what stopped me.  That was when I knew that I needed to write this post.

The words "retarded" and "retard" are pretty common derogatory terms in our culture.  They're used to describe situations and people that we don't like or that we think are stupid or ridiculous.  That guy that just cut you off while you were driving?  He's "just a retard."  A situation was really horrible?  It was "retarded."  (let me say that I wince writing that, but that I think that it helps to lay out what we're facing before we go any further...)

I'm sure the vast, vast majority of people who use the word, do it unthinkingly.  It's something they've used for years, decades even, and they don't give it a second thought.

But language matters.  The words that we choose and use matter.  And when we use the r-word, tying a word used for a group of people with whatever it is we dislike at the moment... well like it or not, the words we use have power.

We live in a society were the solution to knowing that a child will likely have this label if it's discovered while still in the womb is, far more often than not, to kill that child.  A great percentage of our population who face the possibility of this diagnosis have shown by their actions that they're okay with this label being a death sentence.  Plenty of the pregnancy books I read talk about like it's the obvious step to "stop this from happening" or to "eliminate the problem" (as in "pre-natal testing has done much to eliminate the problem...")

And I can't help but think that using the word that's been used for decades to describe those who are often most vulnerable among us as a common insult, does nothing to help the image that is going to come into a woman's mind when she's lying on the sonogram table and is given a frightening diagnosis.  Because it's likely that her entire life she's heard the word used flippantly for all that is bad or stupid or ridiculous in the world, and now she's thinking of it as applying to the life within her and she's making a choice that statistics show is likely to not be in the baby's favor.

Yes, the choice goes beyond that, but the word, the use of the word, the derision with which it's used in our culture, does nothing to help.  It hurts both the born and the unborn.  Because like it or not, when you use that word, you're also saying that that situation or person or whatever it is that you're speaking of with derision is like so many people who would be medically (or technically or clinically or however it's used) labeled with the term.

I feel like I stand on the edge of this issue, my heart aching for those who face it more directly in the special needs community.  It is not part of Maggie's diagnosis.  If I go back through her records I see that I was first told that she was "more severely autistic than is average in autistic children in her age group."  Her cognitive tests came back and were unimpressive, although the psychologist has repeatedly told me that it's inaccurate at this point because you can't really measure intelligence if the person can't communicate the answers to the questions.  No she won't point to the bear's knee or his ear or his nose... because she wasn't pointing at all at that time.  Developmentally she consistently measure around 18 months... which is probably why she and Patrick sometimes remind me of twins and relate to each other so perfectly.

But while Mae may not technically fit the label, we live in a world where those who are different are often called the r-word.  We live in a world where the news reports that a mother has killed her autistic child and there's a certain segment of society that the murder is somehow justified.  We live in a world where carefully worded prenatal books basically praise the murder of children who are seen as somehow less than perfect, because it's seen as the norm. An embrace of eugenic attitudes is creeping across our nation as surely as if we were in Belgium or some other nation that has decided it's okay to do away with those who do not fit the mold that we find "perfect."

So I lament the use of the word and the culture in which it's so often used to show disdain and dislike.  Maybe I'm just not "thick skinned" enough because I wince visibly when I hear it.  However I don't think that's the case.  I think that a physical reaction to a word that's used to tie a segment of our society who is often marginalized and pushed aside, to all that we dislike, is appropriate.

And if we're truly going to be pro-life we need to be respectful of all life and remove the word altogether from our vocabulary.  Use you're imagination.  I know we can do better than resorting to the r-word when we dislike something.

Let's take the word off the table altogether.  It might be tough at first.  It isn't easy to pluck a word that a person uses reflexively from their vocabulary.  It's easy to slip up and use it if you've been using it your entire life.  But if you use the word stop yourself and start again, renew your quest to have your words mirror the actual respect that you have for life.

Because it matters.  It matters so much.  And until we start showing respect for life in all of its forms and phases, can we really expect those who don't see the innate value of human life to give our arguments a second look?


  1. What a bold statement that has nothing to do with being pro life. If you are going to go as far to say that you should eradicate words such as retarded, why didn't you even begin to cite other words like colored, the n word, cracker, white, spic, gay, crazy (wouldn't mentally ill patients called crazy find that offensive), etc.

  2. So you disagree that being respectful of all life is a pro-life attitude. Interesting. And I don't think the proposal that we need to get rid of the derogatory words that you listed above is all that bold (is that surprising?).

    I absolutely support not usingthe majority of the words you just used.

    And obviously we don't agree on whether or not pro-lifers need to be careful to respect life in their speech beyond the womb, that's okay (amazingly more of people contacted me that do, so apparently it's not that much of a leap in logic).

    The thing is, when we're talking about the darkness in this world you don't have to go off and name every single evil, just to say that something else is evil. So I can write about the evil of murder without bringing up rape, and that doesn't mean I don't think that rape is wrong. Does that make sense?

    And crazy is most definitely not used with the same connotations as the r-word, since one can use "crazy" to mean hectic, for example, "this week has been crazy" is a statement that doesn't have a negative connotation, but basically means busy. On the other hand I've never heard "this is retarded" mean something even vaguely positive.

    But I have a feeling you and I are just going to have to agree to disagree Anonymous.

    In case your wondering, if you click on that first little link in the post this week was dedicated to eliminating the r-word. As a special needs parent it's a subject that's near and dear to my heart. That's why I wrote about it. Not as a slight to any of the other oppressed groups in the world.

  3. As someone who has been hurt by words, people fling around the word "midget" without a thought, my heart hurts when I hear the "r" word used. Amen, my sister, AMEN!!!!

  4. And I know what I'd left out. One reason that this particular word is more pertinent in the pro-life discussion (although again, I agree that derogatory terms could be done away with altogether) is that I don't know of a single group that you named in which babies are being aborted specifically because they've been diagnosed as fitting that criteria. Sure there are groups that have higher abortion rates but you don't hear about a child being aborted because they are a certain race. You do hear about kids being aborted because it's suspected they'll have handicaps.

  5. I never, ever heard my mother (or father) for that matter, use derogatory words about others. Really, when I think back, I never heard them call others names such as the ones listed by the first commenter above. Even in anger, they did not do it. If they described someone as "retarded" they meant it in the accepted diagnostic definition of the time: i.e. low IQ and low functioning. What I am saying here is that using crude words to degrade other people isn't what we should be doing as parents and we shouldn't be allowing our children to do it either; just like not allowing the use of cuss words. Certainly we cannot control other peoples' speech, but hearing such words used by other adults should raise an eyebrow , because it reflects a ignorance and vulgarity that is not very appealing. I believe it says more about the lack of dignity of the speaker, than it does about the person targeted. Our culture is dumbing down, and people do not hold themselves to a high enough standard in their social interactions. There ARE consequences to the words we use to express ourselves. We shouldn't gravitate to crude and vulgar words because they are "cool" or have a shock value, or subtlely allow us to dehumanize another and thus justify ignoring or eliminating them.
    Just my thoughts on the topic.
    God Bless. ~ Bonnie

  6. I think that sums it up really well Bonnie. I'm always amazed at how many people are ready to rally to the defense of crude, rude language. It seems like there should be a certain level of respect that just isn't a give anymore. And I do think that, in general, that's a change from the not too long ago past.

  7. Great post! I'm so tired of hearing ablist language like "retarded" and "lame" used to describe things that people simply don't like.

    It's dehumanizing and disrespectful.


  8. This post is excellent and I find myself reflecting on it again and again since first reading. It's all stuff I "knew" in my head independently, but you pulled it all together so beautifully here. It's a post I wish everyone would read.

  9. I think the people who use words in a derogatory way are the ones who are of a retarded mind. My brother never reached "average mental capacity," and was defined as mentally retarded. It was just a term to describe his noticeable condition. Early on, when he saw someone looking at him "funny" (he could tell), he would tell them: "I'm okay; I'm just a little slow" (He had trouble pronouncing the word retarded, but he never felt it a denigrating term, nor did we say it as such).

  10. Part of the reason many people consider destroying "imperfect" babies is because the thought crosses their mind that their imperfect child will be teased and ridiculed, possibly leading a very sad and lonely life. Surely, when we use terms like "retard" as a synonym for bad, poor quality, ridiculous, etc., it reinforces the idea that there is not a place in the world for people who have less than ideal abilities. Do we blame parents who fear that their child with intellectual disabilities will be tought of as simply "a 'tard?" We need to let families know that all children are welcome in this world, and that starts with not using a clinical diagnosis as a lazy word for anything that we perceive as negative.


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