Thursday, April 19, 2007

E-prime, or “To be or not to be.”

In 1965, D. David Bourland, Jr. proposed E-Prime in an essay entitled A Linguistic Note: Writing in E-Prime. The term refers to a modified English vocabulary, which excises all forms of the verb “to be.” The passive voice does not exist in E-Prime. More directly to the point, the proponents of E-Prime say that it forces the speaker to think differently. Consider the difference between the English sentence, “The movie was good,” and “I liked the movie.” The latter acknowledges the subjective nature of the speaker’s experience of the movie. Thus, E-Prime promotes clarity of thought.

E-Prime does tend to eliminate tautological arguments. My mind turned to E-Prime today, as I listened to a local radio show discussing the recent decision of the Supreme Court upholding the law outlawing a particular abortion procedure. A caller framed the question thus: “Whether or not the fetus is a human being.”

Calling a fetus a human being may lead to one answer, and doing the opposite may result in a different answer. As Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?” If the decision to call a fetus a human being dictates the outcome, then the desired outcome dictates the decision. When someone says, “a fetus is a human,” he or she intends to say, “I recognize a fetus as something with rights I wish to protect, even if doing so comes at the expense of an innocent woman, as in the case of rape or incest.”

Big Mitch comes to the opposite conclusion. I value the right of a woman to control her own body more than any rights that a fetus may or may not possess, whether or not we define a fetus as a human being. Furthermore, I don’t accept the proposition that calling a fetus a human being inexorably leads to the conclusion that the mother’s reproductive rights must be restricted.

Consider this case: A virtuoso violinist with a rare blood type becomes ill and needs a transfusion. His devotees determine that only you can serve as a donor. You are assured that blood donation poses no risks to you. Do you have a right to refuse? If you do refuse, does anyone have the right to compel you over your objection? Do you reach a different conclusion if instead of a violinist we hypothesized a cancer researcher whose students argue that his future work may greatly reduce human suffering? Do you have a right to refuse if a street person needs blood that only you can donate?

Note that in each of these cases, nobody can question that a “person’s” life depends on the your willingness to donate blood. Still, we place a high enough value on the autonomy of the individual that we respect the right of people to withhold consent to the taking of their blood.

Also note that in the above hypothetical, we stipulated that blood donation poses no risks to the donor. The case of pregnancy always presents risks, and until yesterday, sufficiently severe risks to the health of a woman constituted good cause for an abortion.

Over on Alternet Amy Goodman put it this way:
The Supreme Court's decision to uphold a ban on late-term abortion without an exception for the health of the mother sends a signal that, in many respects, the court thinks legislators, not doctors, are the ones best positioned to make health decisions.
In other words, the decision of the Supreme Court means that in the future the decision of a woman either to get or not to get an abortion may include Shakespeare’s existential question: “To be, or not to be?”

I wonder how one would say that in E-Prime.

“… and tell ’em big Mitch sent ya!”

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