Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

On the term 'IVF'

J Ziegler

The moral realities of what is known as 'IVF' have been spoken of by others. What I have to say here is about its name, and after all mere linguistic terms are minor. But we communicate with such terms, and confusion can result from misunderstanding them.

We name dogs for what they are: 'dogs'. This is simple naming, nomination. But it is natural enough to name things by some character they have, rather than by what they are, as we might call dogs 'man's best friend' or a man 'tall'. This is de-nomination, naming down.

However, there is a tendency to seek to de-nominate things when there is something to hide. Think of the terms of description used by those who have something to advertise for profit, and of the fancy job titles now in fashion.

As an aside, in this connection, if I were in a position to do so, I would propose appointing, as figurehead (I do not say patron saint) of all real-estate agents, Erik the Red (or was it Leif Erikson? - one of those old Vikings): the one who wished to attract colonists to the land he had discovered, and so called that icy island 'Greenland'. To be fair to him, apparently in those times there was more 'green' there than there is now.

Thus are things given names in spite of what they are: euphemism. Consider 'privy', meaning 'private place' and already a euphemism for 'latrine', which came from 'lavatrina', a bath, and gave place back to 'lavatory', meaning 'place of bathing', then 'toilet' - 'small work', meaning tidying oneself - , and lately in America, back to 'bathroom'. Well, 'IVF' is a 'bathroom' word. It is perfectly clear to use the word 'bathroom', in that everyone knows what you mean, except when you want to speak of a room for bathing.

But when it is done to deceive, it may not be technically speaking a lie, but it has the same intention. Hitler spoke of 'the final solution of the Jewish question'. Thus someone, embezzling from another, was said to be 'tickling the peter'; thus the mafia, aiming to murder, would take victims 'for a ride'; and thus an immoral act, de-nominated from a medical procedure, becomes In-Vitro Fertilization.

And so when 'IVF' comes to lose its capacity to hide something, we will find other terms used in its stead, as 'contraception', which is indeed an apt term, has given way to 'family planning', 'sodomitic' to 'gay' (which at least is shorter), and as 'abort' has given place to 'choose'. We don't hear of a wife-basher's 'right to choose' (she's his wife, isn't she?), and of politicians on that account being 'pro-choice'.

Since 'IVF' in common usage means something morally bad, yet in-vitro fertilization is not necessarily wrong, then we should have to invent another term for legitimate medically corrected conception; maybe MCC, for example. But what is now generally spoken of as 'IVF' signifies something inevitably immoral, to the point where in practice there is no need to qualify the term in condemning the thing. And, of course, the condemnation is necessary and urgent.

But, I say, let us make at least a beginning at calling things by their proper names. Let us take care to dispel any notion that we condemn because it is 'in vitro'; we condemn because it is bad for other reasons. What about referring to it generically as 'unnatural interference with conception'? We might actually be able to counter 'IVF' with the term "UIC".

J Ziegler

J Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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