Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth

Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth April 24, 2013

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?

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