Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth

There is nothing new about journalists arguing about the loaded language that surrounds our public debates about abortion.

For starters, there is the whole “pro-choice” vs. “anti-abortion” thing and all of the years in which editors in so many mainstream newsrooms granted one side of the debate it’s positive, vague, self-chosen label while slapping a label on the other side that was, for many, too negative and too narrow. Most of all, only one side of the debate had to wrestle with the ugly word “abortion.” Who can oppose “choice,” the ultimate buzz word of the American Way of Life?

I have also heard my share of newsroom debates about the word “fetus.” For example, in a news story about a pregnant woman, some journalists argued that it was best to avoid direct quotes in which the mother referred to her “baby” if, in the next paragraph, the reporter would be using the newsroom-approved term “fetus.” Didn’t that clash look awkward? Perhaps it would be best to paraphrase the mother to remove that tricky language?

Obviously, in the eyes of some journalists, it was always better to paraphrase all of the quotes from those religious nuts who kept inserting the words “unborn child” or “unborn children” into their soundbites.

Everyone knows that an “unborn child” is actually a “fetus.” After all, the dictionary says:

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

However, if this is the case, what in the world is going on in the top paragraphs of the following story in USA Today?

PHILADELPHIA – One clinic worker testified that she saw aborted fetuses moving, breathing and, once, “screeching.” Another described a 2-foot-long fetus that “didn’t have eyes or a mouth, but it was like … making this noise. … It sounded like a little alien.”

A third witness recalled how, as ordered, she used surgical scissors to snip the spine of an aborted fetus she’d found in a toilet, its arm still moving. “I did it once, and I didn’t do it again,” she said. “… It gave me the creeps.”

The creeps are an occupational hazard for jurors in the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, accused of running a clinic where seven babies were allegedly killed after botched abortions and an adult patient was given a fatal overdose of Demerol.

Now, isn’t the whole point of this aspect of the Gosnell trial — as opposed to many other hellish issues being raised in that courtroom — that associates of the abortionist have testified that, when performing late-term abortions with viable fetuses, it was his practice to administer drugs that induced labor, to deliver the children and then, after the births, to use the “snip” technique to kill them?

So the whole point is that the viable child was outside the mother’s body — past the moment of birth. Has anyone disputed that this happened in some cases, in a number of cases that needs to be determined?

If that is the case, why are some journalists using “fetus” language to describe the newborns that are being “snipped”?

Perhaps this new and, for me, bizarre journalistic debate has something to do with this other passage drawn from that USA Today piece:

In the Gosnell trial, “the debate suddenly has a visual argument,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports anti-abortion political candidates. “You look at pictures, and you think, ‘That’s a baby.’ ”

One photo, taken by a clinic worker and shown at the trial, showed a fetus whose gestational age was estimated by the medical examiner at 28 weeks at the time of the abortion. When it was placed in a pan, its body curled up in the fetal position. Gosnell, former staffer Kareema Cross testified, joked, “The baby’s big enough that it could walk to the store.”

Once again, there is that strange use of the word “fetus.”

But the whole point is that the unborn child was intact and alive and had been born, which meant it was no longer a “fetus.” The whole reason for the “snip” technique was to complete the procedure, to complete this abortion, outside of the womb. Are journalists, in effect, saying that an unwanted child is a “fetus” even after it has been delivered — as in born — alive?

Meanwhile, please notice that the language used in this USA Today story echoes the editing choice seen in a recent New York Times lede, which stated:

PHILADELPHIA – Through four weeks, prosecutors have laid out evidence against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion provider on trial on charges of killing seven viable fetuses by “snipping” their necks with scissors and of causing the death of a pregnant 41-year-old woman during a procedure.

That language would be accurate if Gosnell somehow “snipped” the spinal cords while the children were still inside the womb. But a key element of this trial — one of its central big ideas — is that this was not his practice.

Why is a living child that has been delivered still called a “fetus” in these stories? Why are editors at elite publications choosing to mangle this term, changing its dictionary definition?

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.

  • Richard Mounts

    Well, I cannot believe that journalists the NYT or USA Today would likely hire (college educated, journalism school grads) would not know the difference between a fetus and a baby. Certainly they must have had education enough to know how to find the definitions of those words if they knew that they didn’t know the difference. Maybe they did not know what they did not know.

    Maybe the reporters wrote “baby” but the editor changed it? Maybe their style books insist that since babies cannot be aborted, reporters must use “fetus.” Nah, I agree with many others that the MSM has a bias that leads to “pro-choice” good, “pro-life” … ooops, strike that … “anti-abortion” bad.

  • Thinkling

    I am curious as to whether we are seeing another Orwellian reengineering of words, of the word “fetus” to now simply mean “unwanted child”?

    Not explicitly a journalism point, but if true, the fact that segments of journalists are complicit, or even cheerleading, for this evolution, leaves me quite beyond comment.

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      Orwell is slowly becoming a prophet… 2014 is only (and exactly) 30 years after 1984 and so much is coming true.

  • http://thebigtruth.com Tragic Christian

    I’ve pointed out many times that MSM sticks two negative words — “anti-” and “abortion” — on the side that doesn’t support abortion, and “pro” and “choice” — on the side that thinks abortion is OK. See, the word “abortion” has a stink to it and they need to smear it on the ones they obviously don’t like. This stylebook convention is so ingrained that once the LA Times ran a review of an opera — I forget which one, but it celebrated live, love, sex, and eroticism — and reflexively changed the reviewer’s “messy, bawdy, pro-life message” (or something like that) to “messy, bawdy, anti-abortion message.” Of course, abortion was not what the opera was about, it wasn’t mentioned, it wasn’t a topic — it’s just that the copy desk would have the vapors if the term “pro-life” made it into print.

    The winner of the “your bias is showing” award is NPR, which piles it on with the term “opponents of abortion rights.” Only rarely is the other side called “proponents of abortion rights,” because abortion supporters never get stuck with the “abortion” word-stink.

    • Thinkling

      On this note of facepalmesque monikers, about a year ago I saw a piece in (IIRC) HuffPo where one side was labeled “pro-birth”.

      You really cannot make this stuff up.

      • Karen W

        As a reader of HuffPo, I believe I can clarify the term “pro-birth.” It applies to people who are keen to see babies born, but who take no interest in the children’s lives thereafter. To paraphrase George Carlin, “If you’re pre-birth, you’re golden; if you’re pre-school, you’re screwed.”

        • Thinkling

          Ahhh thanks. That makes, um, sense, in the way only such through-the-looking-glass verbiages can. That describes (outside of — perhaps — a few psychopaths) an empty set. So either an Orwellian construct from scratch, or a straw man that could make Ray Bolger blush.

          I guess I really, really shouldn’t be so surprised any more.

  • http://www.sanctuaryphoots.artistwebsites.com Rob Wilson

    The whole thing comes down to the George Carlin schtick about words and what they mean.
    Those in favor of life – the pro-lifers – lost the language battle early on. The terms we should have used and stuck to NO MATTER WHAT are pro-life and pro-death. One group is supportive and committed to protecting unborn life, the other is supportive and committed to bringing death to a baby at any stage of its life, from conception through birth and shortly thereafter.
    We even have a president, sworn to protect life, who is pro death.
    Control the language, control the argument.

  • Marty

    Terry, it seems obvious why editors are ‘mangling’ the term “fetus” — it doesn’t support their biased worldview. Actually, ‘reporters’ is a misnomer; they’re commenters, the industry has certainly earned its slick, snake oily reputation.

  • Thomas

    If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that if you really want to know the answers to these questions, you have to ask them repeatedly and publicly, and it works best if you ask on twitter.

  • David Naas

    If memory serves, over 20 years ago on SNL, there was a skit about the Supreme Court giving approval to “post-natal abortions”, so this couple was able (gratefully) to get rid of their obnoxious 12-yer old son.
    At the time, it was a joke.

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  • Julia

    I wish there was a “like” button for Tragic Christian’s comment.

  • sari

    The meaning of the substitution is clear. A “viable fetus” was slated for death, in or out of utero. Gosnell made his job easier by doing the job after rather than before.

    A newborn is slated for life.

    Intent means everything.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Then there’s this update that some of the murder charges have been dropped with respect to some of the “fetuses” http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/04/23/3-7-murder-charges-against-philadelphia-abortion-doctor-kermit-gosnell-tossed/

    Why? According to the defense attorney about the movements the staff saw: “These are not the movements of a live child. There is not one piece — not one — of objective, scientific evidence that anyone was born alive.” Except, according to the prosecution: “Why would you cut a baby in the back of the neck unless you were killing it?”

    Exactly.

    • Steve

      Hardly reported outside of Philly. I guess people don’t need to know.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I have never heard a pregnant woman ever refer to the child growing in her womb as anything other than a “baby.” And likewise never ” her fetus.” So isn’t the mainstream media insisting on using the word “fetus” a glaring example of media elitism as well as sexism of the grossest sort.

  • https://thebestthingireadtoday.wordpress.com/ Philokalos

    This is a *murder* trial. The man is charged with *murder*. So shouldn’t there be *murder victims* in the story covering the trial? These three nationally-recognized media-outlets already passed the sentence of “not guilty”, and are requiring you, the reader, to do the same.

  • barbarossa

    I wonder if someone snipped Gosnell in the back of the neck if he’d be referred to as a fetus?
    The author of this article is asking rhetorical questions. The answers are obvious even to the brain dead among us.
    As for the MSM; well we all know the agenda by now. YOU all don’t really count. You get the drivel and pablum called “news”. It’s good enough for the likes of you. It’s all basically either trivia, titillating toilet garbage and hand-outs from one gov’t agency or another, and it’s simply printed or posted in the paper or on a website with a “by-line” added to it.

  • Chris

    Its simple, MSM rule: preferably never use word “abortion” but if you must, use it in reference to opposition.

    COROLLARY: If you have to use the word “abortion” , you must use the word “fetus” or “embryo”.

    My hunch, they’re trying to be “sensitive”.

  • FW Ken

    So the Huffpo doesn’t know about the countless pregnancy assistance centers, preschools, family services, charitable relief services, and so on, all run by the largest pro-life organization in the world, that being the Catholic Church. But not just the Catholics, but many other Christian churches and non-denominational groups also pro-life. I wonder if George Carlin, or the editors of the Huffington Post, drive to disaster sites and provide food, water, clothes, and whatever-it-takes, at their own expense, as the Texas Baptist Men regularly do?

  • James Harold Thomas

    I wonder how far reaching this trial will go. If Gosnell is convicted for murder of these ex-fetuses, what if he appeals the conviction? And especially, what if the argument he makes is that the murdered babies had no right to life because the mother didn’t want them? If this trial itself isn’t Roe v Wade 2.0, I’m afraid that is going to happen eventually.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    I can’t speak for every newspaper, of course, but at all the ones I’ve worked for, we followed Associated Press style: “abortion-rights supporters” and “anti-abortion,” not “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”
    “Fetus,” “embryo” and “zygote” are all medical terms, so I’m fine with them in stories. But I won’t object to “unborn child” or “unborn baby” if it’s in a quote or suits the context of the story.

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