An abortion by any other name

scotus 01We 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,” . . .

ginsburg 02I thought these examples were interesting because the media struggle with the same issues. Here, here and here are examples of the media using the phrase “abortion doctor” in the past week.

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.

Print Friendly

  • Jerry

    Walking into the mine-field, I wonder what other Supreme Court decisions have used to describe doctor’s specialities. If typically the Court refers to doctors or others by their formal titles, then the colloquial usage is an issue. If they typically refer to others by colloquial titles rather than formal titles, then there is no or at least very much less an issue.

    Does anyone know?

    I also do agree that the language issue reflects the underlying contentious nature of the issue.

  • Str1977

    What a peculiar being Mrs Bader Ginsburg must be.

    She cares about linguistic niceties. The killing of human beings doesn’t concern her. Only covering up the facts.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Str1977 — putting aside the off-topic nature of your comment, isn’t this the entire point though?

    That some people believe earnestly that the unborn child inside me right now at 22 weeks of age is not a human being? That, as Roe argued, she only has the potential to become a human life? That she is undeserving of legal protection of her life?

    It would be easy if everybody agreed on the biology and legal protections for the fetus. They don’t. How does the media arbitrate in such a contentious environment?

  • Dan

    “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…”

    Does this mean that the Chicago Tribune leaves the ultimate decision up to the individual reporters? If so, it would be interesting to know how often, since 2004, the term “unborn child” has and has not been used in the Chicago Tribune for late term “offspring.” Also, do any other major newspapers use the term “unborn child”? I don’t recall ever seeing it in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. I’ve always assumed that those papers have a rule against using it — or is it simply that there is unanimity among the NYT and LAT reporters that the unborn child is not an unborn child?

    “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.”

    It’s more than how the debate is framed — it presupposes the outcome of the debate. “Unborn child” = no abortion, “fetus” = legalized abortion.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dan, the NPR interview gave an example of when the mainstream media tended toward the use of the phrase “unborn child”: during the Scott Peterson trial for the killings he was convicted of — that of his wife and the unborn child she was carrying.

    Also, even in the Roe V. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, it used both the terms “unborn child” and “potential human life” to describe what was growing in utero.

  • Jerry

    Following up Mollie’s comment:

    Abortion is a ‘perfect storm’ issue because so many things come together.

    First people are passionate on this topic. It’s of central importance to many for differing moral reasons.

    You then have the question of who decides moral issues – the state versus the individual. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of how the state (“nanny government”) goes too far and how individual liberty (junk cars on the front lawn) goes to far. So one issue is balancing the two.

    Then you have a question about when life begins. It may be unpopular now, but there used to be many who asked the question of when the soul enters the human body. From this frame-of-reference, you might derive a different answer about abortion before and after the date. And even without Aquinas, we have an operational answer – abortion often becomes murder when the fetus can survive outside the human body. That is why 3rd trimester abortions are a vastly different issue for many than 1st trimester.

    Then there’s a question about what to do about abortion if, as the vast majority, you don’t like abortions. Do you punish those who have them or offer positive alternatives or both. And complicating the issue for some, do you offer contraception as a better alternative? And if you seek to punish people who have illegal abortions, the question comes up as to how well it works given the history of back-alley abortions and other prohibition measures not to mention other studies about how well punishment deters crime.

    Then, of course, you have the political issues of ‘framing the debate’ where everyone tries to use words and terms which help their side. So we wind up with fights about what to call things.

    So, in the end, all I can do is repeat Mollie’s question:

    How does the media arbitrate in such a contentious environment?

  • Mr. Conservative

    Such a well-written and well-conceived (pardon the pun) piece. It was a pleasure to read it. Keep up the good work.

  • Gary

    Does not the fetus have unique human DNA? The MSM and the Court seems to ignore the advances in DNA research since Roe v. Wade was decided. Maybe DNA should be the deciding factor in determining whether to use the words fetus or unborn child.

  • Michael

    it used both the terms “unborn child” and “potential human life” to describe what was growing in utero.

    That’s not quite true. Roe and its progeny consistently refer to “fetus” when discussing the actual abortion procedure and to identify what is gowing in utero.

    “Unborn child” is used in Roe in the context of alleged rights, saying “unborn child” has no rights–or has rights–in comparison to an actual child or human being. The term is never used in the context of the procedure or in describing what is growing in utero.

    Thus, “fetus” is the language of the court and connected to the rights of the pregnant woman and therefore has become the de facto term used by the court when talking about Roe and abortion law. It’s not a term created by advocates, but a term used by the highest court in the land.

    I understand the desire to let ones biases control how things are described, but substituting legal terms and medical terms with those found in the Pro-Life Action League press release is always going to be problematic for journalists.

    As you’ve said before, “I know it’s hard to put personal views aside, but we simply must cover this issue better.” A good start would be to avoid using terms lifted from advocacy-group press releases.

  • Eli

    Jerry (and Mollie),

    While this is an extremely contentious debate I don’t think that it’s actually the responsibility of the MSM to arbitrate this issue — since that’s really the job of the Supreme Court. Seems to me that, in a black and white fashion, there will always be those that believe a child’s life begins at conception and those that believe it begins at birth (with the mother having total power over the unborn child’s life). The nine months in between is obviously the area of contention where some neutral ground does need to be found by the media.

    So where does that leave us? From my perspective I believe it might be helpful to look at the nine months as shades of gray and that the MSM ought do a better job than they have of reflecting this. While I’m aware that this stance is highly controversial in itself, to me partial birth abortion is an entirely different proposition than the morning after pill is. So, again from my perspective, claiming to know exactly when it is that *life* begins seems to be an incredibly arrogant one akin to knowing what’s going on in the mind of God. And, after all, we all saw what happened with Job.

    But I also think that compounding this controversy is the context of the particular climate of moral relativism that is dominating the mainstream at the time — which the MSM has a responsibility to reflect, as well. Roe v. Wade came about at the height of the feminist movement in 1973 and the pendulum has most certainly swung back towards those who believe in family values and that “life begins at conception”.

    Who’s to say who’s right in all this? Certainly not me but I do think that a civilized discussion between people with appropriate humility needs to continue and thank god for that.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The problem with Roe v.Wade is that it took away the right of the people (all,fathers and mothers, male and female together— and not by feminist or judicial fiat) through their elected representatives to debate and decide where the line should be put for legally defending human life. By DNA differentiation from mother, at start of heartbeat, at start of brainwaves, at viability outside the womb. By making a diktat on the issue, the court robbed the various groups that have strong opinions on the issue from being able to convince the public to their point of view and have it mean something by being able to affect the law on the issue.
    It is imperative for the proper functioning of our democracy that the media try to be as fair as possible in its News coverage and not, by use of loaded language, promote the pro-abortion side as it does so overwhelmingly now.
    Thus the discussion on this site is crucially important.

  • Dan

    In response to Michael’s argument that “‘fetus’ is the language of the court” and that it is “not a term created by advocates”:

    Justice Kennedy used the term “unborn child.” That is now the “language of the court.” (Apparently Justice Kennedy has been reading the Chicago Tribune.) Justice Kennedy at one point also used the word, gasp, “baby.”

    As for avoiding language “created by advocates,” we can often do so by taking Justice Kennedy’s cue and using the ordinary language that the vast majority of Americans use when expecting a child: “baby.” That’s what all expecting parents (including pro-choicers) I know call their children before they are born.

    [By the way, does anyone know the actual origin of the term "unborn child"? Michael seems to assume it is a creation of the pro-life movement but I don't know one way or the other if this is correct.]

    Michael also says: “‘Unborn child’ is used in Roe in the context of alleged rights, saying ‘unborn child’ has no rights—or has rights—in comparison to an actual child or human being. The term is never used in the context of the procedure or in describing what is growing in utero.” I haven’t gone back to look at Roe to see if this is correct but if it is it is a fascinating revelation of Justice Blackmun’s guilty conscience. If the court is merely depriving the child of his or her legal rights, the child is an “unborn child.” But once the killing process has begun, the child must be dehumanized and so reverts to the status of “fetus.”

  • http://religiousfreedom.blogspot.com/2007/04/is-naral-hostile-to-roe.html Casey Mattox

    If “abortion doctor” is a pejorative term, evincing hostility to Roe & Casey, then what about the fact that the Supreme Court’s own Reporter of Decisions, Frank D. Wagner, has twice used the term in his syllabus of the Court’s opinion. These were published with the Court’s opinions and are available to anyone (Justice Ginsburg and the media included) with a simple Westlaw search. While not the words of the Court, I am informed that at least the author of opinion being summarized reviews the syllabus prior to its release with the opinion itself.

    I’ve written more on this (and have the links) in a post at the Center for Law and Religious Freedom’s new blog.

  • Jerry

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan talks about ideally having the abortion debate in the political rather than judicial arena. But look at what happened in Mexico City with their pending abortion legalization vote. The “pro-life” side immediately promised an appeal to the court system to overturn the vote. That sure seems like ‘judicial activism’ to me. Neither side will voluntarily abandon any chance of having their side prevail. That might not be ideal but that is the reality of the situation.

    And I have to say that Tom’s language when referring to an Honorable Supreme Court Judge and the Honorable Speaker of the House shows in stark terms shows the depth of feeling in this area. I was tempted to reply in kind to certain darlings of the right such as Judge Thomas and President Bush, but it really does not further the debate. In spite of how I feel, I need to do my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume they are doing their best as they see their duty. Of course, I can and do say that certain policies are stupid and wrong, but that’s another matter.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry,

    I deleted Tom’s comment since it failed to comply with the standards we require commenters to adhere to. But thank you for not responding in kind.

    Everyone please keep to the topics at hand — how the media should cover these issues.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    In the real world, people do not say “How’s the fetus doing?” or “I have to eat for the fetus,you know.”

    Of course, since “baby” is not a “medical term”, the masses must have been brainwashed by those underhanded pro-lifers.

  • Procrastinus

    Can’t we just say ‘so-called “partial-birth abortion”?’

    As in the following:

    During a so-called “partial-birth abortion” the so-called “abortion doctor” delivers the so-called “fetus” into the birth canal with only the so-called “head” remaining in the so-called “cervix”. Then he takes a pair of so-called “scissors” and punctures the so-called “head” of the so-called “fetus” and uses a so-called “suction machine” to suck out the so-called “brain material” before using so-called “forcepts” to crush the so-called “head” of the so-called “fetus”. Afterwards he collects up all the so-called “fetal parts” to make sure there won’t be any so-called “infection”.

    Anybody got any problems with that?

  • Str1977

    Deacon John,

    “The problem with Roe v.Wade is that it took away the right of the people (all,fathers and mothers, male and female together—- and not by feminist or judicial fiat) through their elected representatives to debate and decide where the line should be put for legally defending human life.”

    Hmm, actually no … or rather: that depends on one’s stance:

    Someone concerned for the separation of the branches, balance between federal and state government and the legislation by the people and their representative is rightfully concerned about these issues … and sure it is an important issue.

    Someone concerned first and foremost about the defense of human life and dignity, about justice in the laws will be more concerned with the actual contents of the verdict. It doesn’t really matter whether it is parliaments or courts that legalize the killing of innocent human beings and I’d be more than happy to have a judicial fiat outlawing abortion.

    But then again, abortion was not generally illegal before Roe v. Wade and therefore the direct impact of the verdict was taking legislative rights away, so you are correct in the end.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Perhaps “so-called” is itself too widely felt to be “loaded”. Buckley relates a story of a man who asked an Atlanta cabbie to “take me to Dr. Martin Luther King”, and found the driver had developed deafness, until he said “take me to the so-called Dr. Martin Luther King.”

    I seem to recall someone complaining about a reference to “the so-called PATRIOT Act” on the ground that it impugned the “actual title” of the bill. I guess that means “the so-callled Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act” is out… or does it?

    I did not see any reaction to my comments on the so-called Terrorism Prevention and Effective Death Penalty Act becoming merely “a controversial 1996 law” in the Times.

  • S.

    “During a so-called “partial-birth abortion” the so-called “abortion doctor” delivers the so-called “fetus” into the birth canal with only the so-called “head” remaining in the so-called “cervix”. Then he takes a pair of so-called “scissors” and punctures the so-called “head” of the so-called “fetus” and uses a so-called “suction machine” to suck out the so-called “brain material” before using so-called “forcepts” to crush the so-called “head” of the so-called “fetus”. Afterwards he collects up all the so-called “fetal parts” to make sure there won’t be any so-called “infection”.”

    If it wasn’t so horrible, I would be LMAO!

    S.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael,

    I too wonder what “language of the court” should have precedence. While I would be willing to entertain the idea that a preponderance of use of one term might outweigh other terms, shouldn’t timing have something to say? Or at least the case in question? If covering this ruling, why avoid the language the court used?

    But really I have a separate question about general usage of terms in the abortion debate — why should the legal language have precedence in a media piece at all? In other words, why would a reporter use the “language of the court” to describe a fetus/offspring/unborn child? Why not use the the medical term? Or the political term? Or the vernacular? It seems to me the common usage should be used unless there’s a good reason against it.

    Both my pro-life and pro-choice friends refer to “the baby” when discussing the issue. They’re not denying the biology — they just have different ideas about the rights conferred upon same.

  • Michael

    I think the media, wisely, adopted the legal terms as the “neutral” terms at the beginning of the ethical debate about how to cover abortion. It’s probably too late to start redefining the ethics here, espcially given the environment we have where everyone accuses the media of being biased. To start adapting the language of the pro-life movement 34 years after Roe is probably not wise.

    I agree that “baby” is what most people–who plan to carry their unborn child to term–call what is growing inside them. That doesn’t mean, however, that that’s a good enough rationale to adopt the language of the pro-life movement. A large portion of the abortions in this country occur in the first trimester when the use of “baby” becomes loaded and arguably inaccurate. Pre-viability, calling the fetus a “baby” in the objective press seems grossly questionable.

    Thne problem, also, is at what point can the media say, “this is not a baby.” Many of your allies on the religious right and in the pro-life movement would like to limit access to contraceptives and define a “baby” beginnign at conception. Is that the road we really want to go down, calling a one-minute-after-conception cell combination a “baby.” Because that’s the slipperly slope we go down if we allow the pro-life movement to define good journalism.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Regarding what to call the unborn child, aren’t the clinical terms, in order,”zygote,” “fetus,” “baby?”

  • Cole

    Deacon John wrote, “The problem with Roe v.Wade is that it took away the right of the people (all,fathers and mothers, male and female together—- and not by feminist or judicial fiat) through their elected representatives to debate and decide where the line should be put for legally defending human life.”

    What about a constitutional amendment banning abortion? The people can still opt for that, can’t they?

  • Cole

    Also (pet peeve) the issue is not whether the thing is alive.

    (Here are some quotes: “That some people believe earnestly that the unborn child inside me right now at 22 weeks of age is not a human being? That, as Roe argued, she only has the potential to become a human life?”, “Then you have a question about when life begins”, “there will always be those that believe a child’s life begins at conception and those that believe it begins at birth”)

    The issue is what sort of moral standing it has or what sort of legal protection it deserves.

    I mean, come on, people who are against animal rights, for example, don’t deny that the animals are alive. That’s simply not the issue. Likewise with abortion.