Style choices on abortion talk

regretIt would be hard to write a more angry, snarky headline than the one atop that piece by Ken Shepherd that the Newsbusters crew shot over the bow of the nation’s best known evangelical magazine.

Here it is:

Christianity Today Favors ‘Anti-abortion’ Over ‘Pro-life’ Label?

Are you upset yet? Let’s note the crucial part of this report:

Evangelical magazine Christianity Today is using the term “anti-abortion,” rather than “pro-life,” to refer to a ad which NBC has refused to air during the Super Bowl. …

By using “anti-abortion” in its headline, Christianity Today appears to be following the lead of the Associated Press. The AP calls for the term “anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice” in its Stylebook. AP goes further and frowns on the term “abortionist,” saying it “connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions,” so a reporter should “use a term such as abortion doctor or abortion practitioner,” it counsels.

While many journalists and news agencies outside the AP follow the Stylebook, including (for the most part) this organization, they are free to supercede the manual where they see fit. For example, our very own NewsBusters Style Guide has this mandate for our contributors:

Refer to both sides [of the abortion debate] using their preferred language, pro-life and pro-choice.

OK, I’ll bite. This is a really strange item. What Newsbusters is saying is accurate. Associated Press style uses the terms anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights. Of course, it is always appropriate to allow, in direct quotes, activists to define themselves. Thus, you often see “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in news reports.

All of this replaced an older, very biased set of terms that dominated MSM news reports back in the 1980s, when I was working in mainstream newsrooms. Most newspapers used anti-abortion on one side and pro-choice on the other, granting the left its slanted label of choice while making the other side accept a label that it hated.

Now it is still, sadly, common to see the loaded, spin label pro-choice floating around. One hardly ever sees pro-life used, other than in direct quotes. But, frankly, there has been progress on this language issue.

So what did Christianity Today do wrong? I guess I am biased, in that I think the current style guidelines are acceptable — or, at least, equally awkward for activists on both sides. There is no solution that will please everyone or anyone. Also, Sarah Pulliam is a sibling of this blog, a fact that should be mentioned in this kind of dispute.

What’s the point of all of this? It seems to me that the question is whether Newsbusters thinks that CT is a news magazine or a movement magazine — an advocacy publication — for those who oppose abortion. My reading is that CT‘s news pieces, especially in its online operation, are written in a fairly traditional news style. It’s essays and features are, well, essays and features.

Is it wrong for CT to use AP style? I think not. Besides, there are plenty of progressive evangelicals — many of whom no doubt subscribe to Christianity Today — who are now pro-abortion rights. Correct?

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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.

  • Raider51

    I have no problem with being labeled “Anti-abortion.” I am. I am also “anti-slavery,” “anti-trafficking,” and “anti-genocide.”

    I have subscribed to CT for over 20 years. Sometimes I disagree with stories it publishes; sometimes with style. I have no quibbles with this.

    On the other hand, the Newsbusters website, while occasionally making a valid point, does seems to be idiosyncratic on most of its coverage.

  • Shaun G

    One of the reasons that I think people gravitate toward “pro-life” and “pro-choice” is that they’re, well, short. “Anti-abortion” isn’t so bad, but the shortest corresponding term for “pro-choice” is “supporter of legal abortion,” and that’s a mouthful.

    For my own part, I like to use “pro-life” and “pro-choice” for the sake of brevity, with a disclaimer that I acknowledge each is viewed by the opposing side as a spin term. I figure if you use both consistently, the spins should cancel each other out.

  • hoosier

    I don’t see how that headline is angry or snarky. It makes the point pretty succinctly. I’ve only ever sort of glanced at CT, and from what I’ve seen, I am also surprised that they follow AP style here. I would expect them, again after only cursory readings, to tow the party line here, using pro-life and pro-abortion. That they don’t is actually interesting, and something I wouldn’t necessarily find out on my own. So how is it angry or snarky?

  • Dale

    In answer to hoosier’s question, what is and isn’t snarky depends on the context. This is a conservative website writing about an evangelical Christian magazine. The headline, especially the question mark, suggests that CT’s word choice reflects a change in policy. The CT editors found it snarky, replying:

    A two-second search would have shown that we use pro-life quite a bit, Ken. What was the point of the post? To suggest that CT is compromising on abortion? What the heck?

  • MzEllen

    I prefer “anti-abortion” and self-describe as that. Having watched my husband die with a particularly nasty type of cancer, I’m a little squishy on “end of life” issues. I am also supportive of the death penalty in some cases.

    “Pro-life” includes all three of those issues (abortion, end-of-life choices, and capital punishment). Thus, I am not entirely “pro-life”.

    I am very comfortable with “anti-abortion”.

  • hoosier

    I think you’ve got a point, Dale, but I read the question mark not as suggesting change, but rather as suggesting surprise. Certainly the question mark’s ambiguous, though. Does leaving it out significantly change the meaning? I think it would, then it looks like “just the facts, ma’am.” Here, there’s an ambiguous questioning of the decision, either, as I took it, a questioning of one’s own pre-concieved notions of how this magazine operates, or, as you took it, a questioning of the vintage of this editorial decision.

    On another note, is Newsbusters the press? We can argue about the journalistic creds of CT, but Newsbusters? Is GR now going to go after every moronic comment on every blog or advocacy site out there? Not that you can’t if you want to, it’s your bandwidth, but just curious about what constitutes ‘the press’ in this day and age. Heck, maybe you’ve addressed it and I’ve missed it, but it’s certainly a fundamental question.

  • Julia Duin

    The problem with using “abortion rights” is the mental picture you get is “abortion-is-right.” And plunking “anti” in front of a noun, well, instant negativity. Of course the perfect solution would be to call both sides anti-abortion and pro-abortion, which is the truth, isn’t it? If you allow it, then you’re for it. Tell, me how does CT refer to the pro-abortion crowd? I didn’t see that in the above post.
    My own publication uses “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” I used to work for a newspaper that used “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion,” which was quite unfair in that one side got an ideological label and the other side got the issues label.

  • Jeremy Weber

    Below is the response CT online managing editor Ted Olsen sent to Newsbusters (now updated):

    A two-second search would have shown that we use pro-life quite a bit, Ken. What was the point of the post? To suggest that CT is compromising on abortion? What the heck?

    The headline is specific. The ad is against abortion. It’s not about embryonic stem cells, assisted suicide, emergency “contraception,” etc. It’s about abortion. And it’s against it. It’s an anti-abortion ad from a pro-life group.

    Can you name one mainstream pro-life group that considers anti-abortion pejorative?

    Proud to be anti-abortion,

  • gfe

    I see that Christianity Today has responded to the article. CT is saying that the ad in question was specifically anti-abortion, and that the magazine continues to use the label “pro-life” where issues in addition to abortion are involved. Sounds reasonable to me.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Curiously enough, according to a Knights of Columbus survey from last year, some people who are generally anti-abortion are put off by the “pro-life” label.

    Is there any controversy over the accepted usage of descriptions of abortion law? “Liberalized/conservative” abortion law sounds tendentious to me. Wouldn’t “permissive/restrictive” be more descriptive?

  • Judy Harrow

    I think Kevin’s (#9) suggestion of “permissive/restrictive” is the most descriptive and least judgmental terminology I’ve seen yet.

    Re Julia (#7): few if any of us on the “permissive” side are actually pro-abortion. We do not advocate that women have abortions. Rather, we understand abortion to be a fail-safe, a safety net. We want to keep it available for those times when either contraception fails or circumstances radically change (e.g. the loss of a partner or of a source of income). The basic principle is that parenting is a serious and long-term commitment, even a Sacred one, and should only be undertaken joyfully and responsibly.

    And, yes, many of us are religious. We just hold different religious beliefs than the “restrictive” side.

  • tmatt

    Newsbusters raised an AP style issue that affects MSM.

    I thought the subject was important, since it keeps coming up in comments.

  • danr

    “permissive/restrictive is the most descriptive and least judgmental”

    I’m not so sure… it seems to fall into Julia’s (#7) point about the pejorative connotation of “anti” (bad) vs. “pro” (good). “Permissive” sounds rather nice, whereas no one likes to feel they’re being “restricted”.

  • Brian Walden

    If the AP stylebook is going to use abortion rights, I’d prefer them to counter it with something like unborn rights rather than anti-abortion. Or conversely if they insist on using anti-abortion, counter it with pro-abortion rather than abortion rights. It’s such a sensitive topic that when you assign the term rights to one side and not the other, there’s a connotation that one side is fighting to take away God-given rights.

    Personally I’m not sure the whole argument from rights is encompassing enough for every situation. Framing the argument in terms of rights only describes 20% of the population. It’s the people at the extremes who think that women have the absolute right to abortion for any reason at any time or that babies have an absolute right to live. When covering one of these groups, describing the them as an “abortion rights group” (or with the novel term “unborn rights group”) fits. But for the 80% in the middle, it’s really more about pragmatism than rights. Pro-abortion/anti-abortion or Pro-Life/Pro-Choice seem to apply to this group more than anything containing the word “rights.” Kevin’s permissive/restrictive label may be even more precise.

  • Jerry

    I think words become fighting words when an issue becomes contentious. Then we get, amongst other things, semantic debates like this one.

    Permissive/restrictive is an intriguing suggestion because it applies to the debate about what the law should be rather than the desired outcome.

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  • Kevin J Jones

    Of course, “permissive” sounds like “permissiveness,” with connotations of laxity.

    The “liberalization” framework can provoke oddities like “pro-life liberals oppose abortion liberalization.”

  • Br. Robert, OP

    I’ve usually used “anti-abortion” as one aspect of the “pro-life” movement. Does the AP stylebook recognize that pro-life encompasses more than just opposition to abortion? that it includes (for example) opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, support for children of single or troubled parents, some kinds of opposition to the death penalty, or some tendencies toward pacifism?