The battle over language and abortion

Interesting editorial by one Erik Gable from a small-town newspaper in the States.

Some time ago, I received a letter from a reader asking why The Daily Telegram used the phrase “pro-choice” to describe people who want to keep abortion legal but “anti-abortion,” rather than “pro-life,” to describe people who don’t.

I was a little puzzled, and I actually wondered if the reader was thinking of a different newspaper, because the answer is simple. We don’t.

As a matter of fact, our policy is to avoid the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” entirely in news stories “” unless they’re part of a quotation or a group’s proper name, such as Lenawee County Right to Life or Lenawee County Pro-Choice.

For the record, a search of the Telegram’s archives for the past several years reveals that those words have occasionally slipped into news stories when they shouldn’t have “” but it actually happened more often with “pro-life” than with “pro-choice.”

But as a general rule, we eschew both phrases in favor of more neutral terms. A recent book titled “Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality,” which was reviewed this week in the online magazine Slate, helps explain why.

Erik goes on to neatly summarise how both sides of the abortion debate use “Unspeak” (author Steven Poole’s term for a particular type of “spin”) to frame an issue by using terms that contain an unspoken political argument, so that obviously anyone opposing the “pro-life” argument is a homicidal monster while obviously anyone opposing the “pro-choice” argument is a totalitarian monster.

Of course, the position lies between the two extremes of monolithic homicide and totalitarianism, and is also more complicated as well than merely Erik’s statement that the crux of the debate is this:

It’s about when life begins. It’s not about whether people have a right to life; it’s about whether an embryo or a fetus counts as a person in the first lace.

He’s got half of it there. However, he’s missed out the whole matter of even if an embryo/foetus is a person, is it right to force another person to give of their blood and body to keep that person alive? We don’t force people with perfect tissue matches to donate their organs to keep another person alive, so by what principle is it determined that pregnant women don’t have the right to refuse to donate their uterus and blood and bone matrix?

Despite Erik’s disapproval of the ‘unspeak’ nature of the term “pro-choice” I do intend to keep framing my arguments using the term, because those unspoken political arguments are important to my position, and it saves time. I don’t claim to be unbiassed on this issue.

Erik is right that journalists attempting to report objectively should avoid such terms, although I notice he doesn’t specify his alleged more neutral terms. I hope he doesn’t view “pro-abortion” as a neutral term, because reproductive rights advocates don’t want more abortions, we want to minimise abortion through universal sex education and comprehensive contraceptive provision, keeping abortion as a safe and legal last resort in family planning.

Those of us who are reproductive freedoms advocates don’t need to eschew the term “pro-choice” when engaged in robust debate, but Erik’s essay has made me remember that it is only a small minority of anti-abortion advocates who really are totalitarian womb-police: the rest of the movement just find abortion icky. Abortion is messy and bloody after all: where we part company is that pro-choice advocates acknowledge that sometimes the icky option is the necessary choice.

Categories: culture wars, language, Politics

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12 replies

  1. “…while obviously anyone opposing the “pro-choice” argument is a totalitarian monster.”
    I don’t see how “monster” is entailed, but “totalitarian” doesn’t seem a bad first approximation for people who think the State should remove women’s autonomy, bodily sovereignty, and personhood. The removal of reproductive rights from women (and the concomitant criminalisation of those providing sexual health services) is just one essential tool of larger power structures that seek complete control over women politically, economically, and socially.

  2. Hi girls, 🙂

  3. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is a United States law which defines violent assault committed against pregnant women as being a crime against two persons: the woman and the fetus she carries.

    This law was passed in 2004 after the murder of the then pregnant Laci Peterson and her fetus, Connor Peterson.

    Can you see the double standard ?

  4. The “born alive” rule is a legal principle that holds that various aspects of the criminal law, such as the statutes relating to homicide and to assault, apply only to a child that is “born alive”. Recent advances in the state of medical science have led to court decisions that have overturned this rule, and in several jurisdictions statutes have been explicitly framed or amended to include unborn children.
    The born alive rule was originally a principle at common law in England that was carried to the United States. Its original basis was that because of the (then) state of medical science and because of the rate of still births and miscarriages, it was impossible to determine whether a child would be a living being. This inability to determine whether a child in the womb was in fact alive, and would be successfully born, had ramifications with respect to the laws relating to assault and to homicide. (It is not possible to kill a child that has already died, for example.) Thus the act of a live birth was taken to be the point at which it could be reliably determined, in law, that the various laws applied.[1][2]
    However, advances in the state of the art in medical science, including ultrasonography, foetal heart monitoring, and foetoscopy, have since made it possible to determine that a child is alive within the womb, and as a consequence many jurisdictions, in particular in the United States, have taken steps to supplant or abolish this common law principle.[1]
    As of 2002, 23 states in the United States still employed the rule, to lesser or greater extent.[2]
    The abolition of the rule has proceeded piecemeal, from case to case and from statute to statute, rather than wholesale. One such landmark case with respect to the rule was Commonwealth vs. Cass, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where the court held that the stillbirth of an eight-month-old foetus, whose mother had been injured by a motorist, constituted vehicular homicide. By a majority decision, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts held that the foetus constituted a “person” for the purposes of the Massachusetts statute relating to vehicular homicide. In the opinion of the justices, “We think that the better rule is that infliction of perinatal injuries resulting in the death of a viable foetus, before or after it is born, is homicide.
    In People v. Davis [872 P.2d 591 (Cal. 1994)], the California Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s addition of the phrase “or a fetus” to the state murder law in 1970, but held that the term “fetus” applies “beyond the embryonic stage of seven to eight weeks.”
    (California Penal Code 187(a) says, “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”) In People v. Dennis [950 P.2d 1035 (Cal. 1994)], the California Supreme Court upheld inclusion of fetal homicide under Penal Code 190.2(3), which makes a defendant eligible for CAPITAL PUNISHMENT if convicted of more than one murder.

  5. Lara, I see that argument and subscribe to it up to a point. Certainly more than a few of the nearly-dead white males at the forefront of anti-abortion movements seem to have totalitarian yearnings. I’m just trying to separate those out from the vast mass of anti-abortionists who haven’t seen past the “what about the luvverly baybees” rhetoric to the heart of the womb-police state that the leadership is building up to.

  6. Oh look, ausblog’s Bruce has done his usual search of all the blogs posting about abortion and popped up like clockwork. At least you seem to have hammered out a few new pieces of boilerplate, Bruce. Don’t abuse the privilege though, will you?
    I’m not sure why you think your argument about foetal homicide laws regarding assaults on pregnant women carrying viable foetuses have any relevance to the real abortion debate. I challenge you to find more than a handful of controversial cases of women aborting viable foetuses where there was not genuine danger to the mother’s health or a serious foetal genetic abnormality. The overwhelming majority of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks, long before foetal viability: late-term abortion of healthy viable foetuses is a pseudo-issue.
    This bit of your boilerplate’s still the same, though:


    As long as you’re not one of the women who has a violent negative reaction to it, or one of the women with a mood disorder that is exacerbated by hormonal medications (like me – lucky my husband was willing to undergo a vasectomy, eh?). You’ve been told before that it’s not a magic bullet, but you still push it as if it is one.

  7. There might be a culture gap problem going on. In Australia or England, the anti-abortion folks are probably not on the same level of crazy as our anti-choice folks here. But organized “pro-life” movements in the U.S. are monolithically opposed to women’s rights to choose whether she has children at all. They oppose the use of contraception, for instance. They are anti-gay and anti-premarital sex and basically have one formula that all women should adhere to, which is get married young, have a bunch of children, don’t have financial independence, stay married regardless of the quality of your marriage. So they are truly anti-choice.

  8. I guess there’s nothing stopping a term chock-full of an unspoken political argument being an accurate term nonetheless 🙂
    Interestingly Erik’s editorial only addresses why the paper doesn’t use “pro-life” or “pro-choice” – the term “anti-choice” isn’t used by the letter-writer or by Erik at all. That’s another reason why I wish he hadn’t weaseled out on stating exactly what his preferred “neutral terms” are.
    Some of our “pro-life” advocates take all their speeches from a Stateside playbook, Amanda, there’s no doubt of that. Thankfully they’re just a noisy minority of the anti-abortion advocates here – the anti-contraceptive hysteria has largely not taken hold.

  9. I still fear the anti-contraceptive hysteria, however, given the increasing Catholic Church hold over healthcare, and moral panics over white-middle-class birthrates. Australia is at risk for some major complacency issues in this area.

  10. The Catholic Church’s attitude to contraceptive/abortion issues not only for themselves but for all their employee and leaseholder medical staff is definitely a concern, and I wouldn’t want to downplay it in any way.
    Australia’s lack of widespread religiosity is a comfort though, as it means most Australians are less vulnerable to the clarion call of the pulpit-thumper, which means the movements here have a lot less momentum. Does recognising that make me complacent? I hope not, I certainly wouldn’t assume that could never change.

  11. You’re so not complacent; that was one of those hand-wavey nebulous “Australia”s meaning “The people who would never in a million years be reading this blog”.
    And sorry about my little comma problem up there. *blushes*

  12. I like your reply to Ausblog, tigtog. These cases demonstrate that in some examples unborn children are given rights equal to those of actual humans. Thus, the child had a right to self-determination. I cant see how this is relevant to the abbortion debate either.

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