We set a record at GetReligion last week for the post that received the most comments — 112 at this point. We looked at some of the coverage of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. For such a divisive issue, and with comments coming at it from all sides, almost all of the perspectives offered in the comment thread about how to improve media treatment of the issue were fantastic and informative.
Probably the hottest topic was what language to use when discussing the law and the procedure which it bans, which I brought up in the original post. I thought it was interesting the lengths to which the mainstream media were going to avoid using the term “partial-birth abortion.” I noted in my post that the term was not a medical term — although it has now been defined by federal statute. Intact Dilation and Extraction is the medical term. Sure enough, the first commenter — NigelP — chimed in on the issue with his view:
The reason nobody refers to the “partial birth” procedure is because there is no such medical procedure.
Other readers noted that the media use many non-medical terms when describing medical issues. For instance, reader Will noted:
“Stroke” is not a medical term. Let’s ascribe sinister motives to anyone who does not say “cerebrovascular incident” or “ischemic attack.”
Reader Kimberly offered further thoughts:
People can say “partial birth abortion” is a non-medical, more emotional label, but they can’t object to it as being inaccurate, as some have here. It’s absolutely accurate — the fetus is partially born — with the cervix dilated and the fetus delivered breech until it is almost entirely outside of the body with only the head inside the vaginal canal. Then it’s aborted, by collapsing the head so that it won’t be alive when it emerges completely (in which case it would be all the way born). Partial-birth abortion is absolutely accurate.
Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out a few more examples in his book — the press routinely says “heart attack” instead of the clinical “myocardial infarction,” and people know what it means even though it’s non-technical. When Congress banned “assault weapons,” the media used the term even though it was emotionally loaded (no pun intended) and non-specific as to what exact weapons were being banned. The insistence on using clinical specific terms only arises when it comes to this curious “method of abortion” that the majority of reporters find disadvantageous to the cause to define.
Reader Michael had a different problem with the term — its alleged creation by abortion opponents:
Terms created by neutral medical groups or a profession are different from terms created by politically-motivated interest groups as part of a strategic, political decision. The use of such terms in journalism about the most politically- and socially-charged issue of our day should be avoided at all costs, it would seem.
We certainly didn’t settle the debate but it helped to learn more about various arguments. I thought all of this was interesting as I finally got around to spending more time with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s well-covered dissent. I haven’t seen this discussed in the media yet, but Ginsburg took sharp issue with the majority opinion over some of the language used there:
Throughout, the opinion refers to obstetrician-gynecologists and surgeons who perform abortions not by the titles of their medical specialties, but by the pejorative label “abortion doctor.” . . . A fetus is described as an “unborn child,” and as a “baby,” . . .
While abortionist is more specific and has a longer pedigree, it’s considered by some to be pejorative. It’s hard to see how “abortion doctor” could be conceived as pejorative, considering abortion doctors call themselves just that. One wrote a book called Why I am an Abortion Doctor. Slate reporter Dahlia Lithwick used the phrase in 2005. The New York Times editorial board used it in a pro-choice editorial. The president of Planned Parenthood used the phrase and was quoted in a ruling supporting the right to abortion by the U.S. Court of Appeals. NARAL Pro-Choice America uses the phrase on its website, denouncing Sen. Tom Coburn for his opposition to abortion. Planned Parenthood uses the term on its site. And the Abortion Clinic Directory uses the phrase. More examples are here.
The term “abortion doctor” doesn’t appear in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. “Abortionist” does. I can’t find any help in my basic AP Stylebook — although I’m recovering from a sinus infection that may be affecting my research capabilities — but I believe the AP recommends the use of the term abortion doctor instead of the term abortionist because it says the latter connotes criminal behavior. It is true that the term “abortionist” was coined when it was illegal to kill a fetus. That may explain why some think its medical definition is pejorative.
“Fetus” was the second example offered by Ginsburg as preferable language to that used in the majoirty opinion. Fetus comes from the Latin, meaning offspring. Many people debate whether “fetus” is a better word for the media to use than “unborn child.” The AP Stylebook doesn’t have entries for “fetus” or “unborn child” — sometimes to hilarious effect.
When the Chicago Tribune revised its stylebook in 2004, it urged reporters to use the phrase “unborn child” for, uh, offspring who were nearing their due date, NPR interviewed the folks involved in the decision. Their discussion was very interesting and offered some help for the issues we’re discussing. This snippet is why they oppose the word “fetus” for late-term unborn children:
DON WYCLIFF: You’re safe, but you’re not reflecting the state of the language in society today. I might add that Roe v. Wade was not a decision that said the fetus or unborn child has no rights as a being. It said that — the rights of the child as a dependent being cannot outweigh the right to liberty of the mother. Normally, by the third trimester, one can assume that the mother intends to have this child. In most cases. And therefore, we are recognizing that, in her view, most often, the child is an unborn child and not just a fetus any longer.
RANDY WEISSMAN: One other thing that we clearly took into account was also the legal issues. The courts have started to recognize the human status in many instances. The Scott Peterson case in and of itself was not necessarily the changing point, but what it did point out was that a court could charge a person with murder of an unborn being — and– that kind of progression within the legal system has forced changes in a lot of different things, but certainly in our style and how we approach that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Surely you know that you’re entering a very dicey area by starting to refer to some fetuses as children. You haven’t avoided a debate. You’ve walked squarely into it.
DON WYCLIFF: We’re going to be in a debate no matter what we choose, and what we’re trying to do is reflect the state of the language, and medicine, and law in the society.
I love the candor from both the interviewer and her subjects. I also find it fascinating that the word used to describe the offspring in the mother’s womb changes based on whether or not the mother intends to continue or terminate the pregnancy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, you get quite a bit of reaction to the replacing of fetus with unborn child. It’s the words that you use that change the way a debate is framed.
I think this shows why we cover abortion coverage here at GetReligion. The use of the word “fetus” can have the effect of dehumanizing the offspring, while the term “unborn child” can humanize the offspring. There isn’t really a good middle ground, and both phrases could indicate a bias about your perspective on pregnancy. The arbiters of language used by the media are still working on an answer.
Anyway, what the media say does matter. Ginsburg used one of the New York Times Sunday Magazine pieces in support of her dissent: The one written by abortion rights advocate Emily Bazelon. The one about how post-abortion syndrome doesn’t exist. We discussed it a few months ago, and I wasn’t entirely critical of the article — I thought her look at how the abortion rights movement doesn’t address the issue was insightful. I just thought she should have talked to more than one woman — a seemingly non-representative one at that — who claims otherwise.
As frightening as it may be to consider — and as low of a bar as this referencing of The New York Times Sunday Magazine represents — the point is that the courts pay attention to what happens with media coverage of this issue. All the more reason to be careful with the language we choose and the topics we cover.