The gods of style struggle with abortion

I decided to look in the Reporter’s Holy Book, by which of course I mean the AP Stylebook, to see what those gods of style have to say. The entry for abortion reads: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

I guess only one side gets to choose their name. Not fair. Not balanced. . . .

Posted by Stephen A. at 9:05 pm on July 25, 2005


Thanks for jumping back to the question at the heart of the original post. These language issues show up in the press all the time, often with bizarre results.

Right now, the media has two options under the AP bible. Like I said, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights are imperfect terms, but they are certainly better than the even worse spin that was in place in the 1980s — anti-abortion and pro-choice. Click here to see David Shaw’s classic Los Angeles Times series about that era.

Now, you can take a magazine approach and use pro-life and pro-choice, indicating that these are the terms the groups apply to themselves. This is a fair approach, but still does not unpack the terms in any way. It still leaves us with only two camps.

My point, concerning Jane Roberts, is that at some point — on left and right — the press has to move past the easy labels and discuss what people actually believe. Yes, she is anti-abortion. But that is not all she is. If this topic is going to hit the Hill linked to her husband and the U.S. Supreme Court, the hearings ought to dig beneath the stereotypes, and the MSM will have to cover that. This will require a more nuanced approach to language.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not Pope Benedict XVI.

For the matter, the Rev. Jim Wallis is not the Rev. Carter Heyward.

Joe Lieberman is not Barney Frank. And who knows WHAT Hillary Clinton is these days, although I think we know where her heart is.

Registered Democrats who are opposed to abortion on demand are not the same as old-guard Republicans, when it comes to issues related to health care, education, jobs and other issues related to, well, the agenda of a group such as Feminists for Life. The press is going to need to do some stretching.

One gets the impression that, for most MSM journalists, this is the only issue that matters. As that great Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd once quipped, the cultural right is trying to repeal Woodstock. Abortion rights is the ultimate safeguard of the sexual revolution.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • C. Wingate

    The interesting thing is that the Wash. Post article I linked to earlier does approach Ms. Roberts as a real human being with her own views and some personal participation in the whole procreation issue arena. The contrast between that article and the LA Times article is severe.

    Then the Post has to spoil it by pairing this article with an extremely catty criticism of how they dressed their kids for the press conference, but hey….

  • Andrew Careaga

    I agree that the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels are inherently biased. They are also inaccurate and ironic. For instance, many abortion opponents who call themselves pro-lifers have no qualms supporting the death penalty, but who would ever think of calling supporters of capital punishment “pro-death”?

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog.


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  • Megan B.

    John B. said in the other thread: ““Choice” is not an ambiguous term, fraught with philosophical ambiguities and vagueness, a subject of debate in itself. “Life,” however, is very much so, as indicated–even when restricted to the abortion debate.”

    I think this is the whole point. I’m actually surprised to see how many people think that abortion rights supporters are getting away with something by getting to use the “favorable” label of pro-choice. Being called “pro-choice” doesn’t seem like a stirring victory to me; I think it’s a relatively prosaic label. I like it better than “abortion rights supporters”, which you could argue cedes the ground on whether abortion is a right. Now, if they tried to call themselves “pro-woman” and the media accepted that, well, then, we’d have a different situation (and one that would be more parallel to “pro-life”, in my opinion).

  • SEV

    one can be pro-choice and pro-life… but how is being anti-abortion and pro-death penalty consistent with being called pro-life. Everyone wants to put themselves in the best light, but that doesn’t mean it’s honest.

  • Tom Harmon

    SEV: Can one be pro-choice on rape and yet still be anti-rape?

  • Megan B.

    Tom: Technically, yes. The fact that being pro-choice on rape is morally reprehensible clouds your example.

    I am pro-choice on tobacco (cigarettes should not be criminalized), but anti-tobacco (cigarette use should be strongly discouraged).

    I am also pro-choice on atheism, but anti-atheism. :)

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Here’s The Dallas Morning News offical style: “abortion rights supporters” and “abortion rights opponents.” Which uses neither side’s rhetoric of choice and while clunky has the benefit of being accurate beyond controversy: One side supports the right to abortion, the other opposes it. “Life” and “choice” can be argued about elsewere…

  • C. Wingate

    Um, no. People oppose abortion; they don’t oppose a right so much as they would say that no such right exists, or that it is trumped by the unborn’s right to life. “Abortion rights opponents” sounds like a bunch of fascists.

  • dw

    Then what IS the correct pair of terms? Pro-babykilling and anti-woman?
    Eugenicists and troglodytes?
    Freidanites and Terryites?

    Can anyone come up with an pair of short phrases to accurately describe both sides without bias or malice? And we’re talking short, something a reporter could use and could be recommended to the AP, so no 25-word summations.

  • Stephen A.

    I agree that “abortion rights opponents” doesn’t seem to fit the bill for fairness.

    Opposing “rights” is just about the worst thing one can be said to do in this society.

  • Victor Morton

    Exactly, Mr. Wingate/Stephen. To call something a right is always already to give the game away in this society. It’s like the term “gay marriage.” Using the phrase implies that such a thing exists, when the argument of those who are agin’ it is that it doesn’t.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Whether or not someone is in favor or opposes abortion, per se, is generally *not* what we’re writing about. When this issue gets to be journalism, we’re usually writing about people who want there to be a legal right to an abortion or that there *not* be a legal right to an abortion. There are, in fact, people who say that they are personally opposed to abortion but believe that as a matter of law there should be a right to have one.
    So perhaps “supporters of the right to an abortion” and “opponents of the right to an abortion” may be less ambiguous. It’s also too many words to become universally accepted boilerplate…1:-{)>

  • Victor Morton

    Whether or not someone is in favor or opposes abortion, per se, is generally *not* what we’re writing about.

    Yes it is, at the deepest level. In order to say there can be such a thing as a “right to abortion,” one must have always already, implicitly or explicitly, come to a moral judgment about abortion itself, as an act. The rhetoric of “rights” and “choice” is meant to obscure and hide this moral judgment, but it is not any the less there.

    There are, in fact, people who say that they are personally opposed to abortion but believe that as a matter of law there should be a right to have one.

    Yes, there are, but their stance is deeply incoherent and confused, and in most cases (I would infer) merely a way to seem neither judgmental nor callous, to have it all ways. What on earth is the basis for their being “personally opposed” if “there should be a right”?

  • C. Wingate

    ” There are, in fact, people who say that they are personally opposed to abortion but believe that as a matter of law there should be a right to have one.”

    Yes, but in context they appear as “abortion rights advocates”.

  • Kate

    I’m fine with “pro-legalized abortion” and “anti-abortion” myself, though *some* of us who use the term pro-life in self-reference are intentionally indicating a support for human life in all forms and all stages, inclusive of death penalty issues – so don’t go and write us off so quickly. The pro-life, pro-death penalty, knee-jerk Republican stereotype is getting really old, and is rarely totally accurate.