Among the things journalists are taught to avoid — including obscenities, libelous statements and claims known to be untrue (unless you’re quoting a politician, of course) — there’s one figure of speech that we aren’t often warned about, but we learn by hard experience never to use.

It’s irony.

The dictionary’s first definition of irony is “a humorous or subtly sarcastic expression whose real meaning is the opposite of the usual sense of the words used.” (As in using “smart move” for a foolish act.)

Journalists learn quickly that most readers expect straightforward language and will take whatever you write in its literal sense, with any ironic subtext gliding past unnoticed.

If they discern the double meaning, they may be amused — or they may think you tried to fool them and get mad at you. The downside outweighs the upside, so writers avoid irony.

Still, as a literary device, it can produce a wry grin. Thus, Garrison Keillor’s spurious radio ads for “The Professional Organization of English Majors” (I’m a member, by the way) have English majors using their skills at work — which their jobs never require.

In one, Keillor played an English major impressing a female moviegoer with his insights on films — while working as an usher. The irony — unstated, so as not to spoil the effect — is that all the jobs the ads portray are minimum-wage. Want a better job? Next time, major in something useful.

The problem is, many things that are ironic are not fully humorous, but sadly so. Even Keillor’s irony takes its bite from the fact that many newly minted English majors do find the job market a challenge.

But irony can go far beyond sadness to actual tragedy — indeed, to events and trends so momentous in their impacts that even the word “tragic” cannot express the full meaning of what has happened.

Thus, the definition of irony I have in mind isn’t the literary one. It’s No. 3 in my Webster’s, “a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what might be expected or considered appropriate.”

Here’s the warning. I started this column on a lighter tone, because I have learned some things I found so disturbing that I couldn’t approach them directly. From this point on, the ironic theme that will be discussed is a very dark one, and if that bothers you, well, you can turn a few pages and find the comics. I won’t blame you.

Unfortunately, I can’t avert my eyes from this, and neither, I think, could any morally responsible adult. In the past couple of days, I have read a number of articles on abortion that I found unutterably tragic and I intend to describe them in the space that remains.

Still here? OK, I refer first to an article about pro-life groups trying to fight abortion in the former Soviet Union, which mentioned as an aside that in the 70 years of Soviet power, there were an estimated 240 million to 270 million abortions.

Contrast that with the total deaths on all sides in World War II: about 70 million. The Soviets’ war on the unborn thus amounted to three full world wars — in their nation alone.

Second, I want to cite a series in The Economist, a book review by Jonathan Last in The Wall Street Journal and columns by William McGurn in the WSJ and Ross Douthat in The New York Times, all discussing a new book with an infinitely tragic ironic theme.

The book, by Maria Hvistendahl, is “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.” Her diagnosis is simple: The availability of abortion around the world has led nations and cultures in which boy babies are valued more than girl babies to abort far more unborn girls than boys — often, as Last notes, with the direct encouragement of the United Nations and International Planned Parenthood for purposes of population control.

The number of girls aborted so far in such nations is about 163 million — roughly equal to all the women and girls alive in the United States today.

Thus male-female birth ratios, which normally run 105 boys to every 100 girls (nature knows more boys die young), to soar as high as 125 boys per 100 girls in some regions.

The irony? Abortion, which feminists in Western cultures see as a basic liberty (a woman can’t be equal to a man if she is chained to children), has resulted in the deaths of far more girls than boys. The Economist gives that a name from a 1985 book: “Gendercide.”

But for the author, and apparently many other feminists of both sexes responding to her book, the tragedy of the “missing” girls (as Douthat says, “They’re not missing, they’re dead”) isn’t the real problem.

Their real fear is that pro-life advocates will use it to argue against abortion in general — which they continue to defend because an abortion ban is the “feminists’ worst nightmare.”

That’s because, as Douthat notes, they view “the right to terminate a pregnancy (as) a fundamental liberty, like freedom of speech or freedom to worship, and fundamental liberties by definition trump consequentialist arguments about their negative effects.”

In the nations practicing sex-selection abortion, the negative effects (beyond the loss of 163 million lives) include the lack of wives for millions of young men, who then may turn to aimlessness and violence. Gendercide could well lead to war.

And in this country, with our 55 million legal abortions, McGurn points out that it is not the KKK that aborts 60 percent of African-American babies in New York — and it is not “Christian fundamentalists” who abort 90 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome.

When will the price of this feminist “liberty” become too high for us to keep paying it?

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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