The words we use: on the mistake of media's use of "pro-life" framing
The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan got me thinking about something today.
Earlier today, the Washington Post published a piece by media columnist Margaret Sullivan about rhetoric and the role it played in the fight for (and against) abortion rights in the U.S. Her column, “The media fell for ‘pro-life’ rhetoric — and helped create this mess,” is an important piece of journalism worth checking out.1
In it, Sullivan interviewed Eyal Press, a journalist and son of Buffalo, New York, doctor Shalom Press, “one of the last Buffalo-area doctors willing to withstand the public pressure and continue performing abortions.”
“One of the great successes of the antiabortion movement was to stigmatize a very common medical procedure,” [Eyal Press] told me this week, “and to put people who defend abortion rights on the defensive.”
And part of that, he thinks, lies in the power of language — and a failure of media.
An award-winning journalist and author, Eyal Press knows a thing or two about how words can be deployed, or weaponized. When journalists agreed to accept terms such as “pro-life” to describe those who oppose abortion, they implicitly agreed to help stigmatize those who support it. After all, what’s the rhetorical opposite of “pro-life”?
The argument being made by Press in the piece highlights a problem in our press and our politics. He notes that the right has “claimed the moral high ground” on the issue of abortion by going on offense. “Pro-life” is not exactly a value-neutral term, yet journalists tend to treat it as such.
In the process, the issue of abortion has been “ripped out of context.” Too often, he said, the policies of those who oppose abortion fail to support life — including young life — in other ways. For example, the right has generally not supported strong gun-control measures despite the increasing prevalence of school shootings, nor has it shown much dismay over high infant and maternal mortality rates, especially for poor women and children.
Journalists need to do a better job of connecting these dots, he said. They should “unpack just what ‘pro-life’ means.”
Finding the right rhetoric can be difficult, but it’s a crucial task for journalists. Accepting “pro-life” on its face suggests that its opponents are “anti-life.” That’s simply not true and feeds into the idea that people who believe that women (as well as trans men and non-binary people who can get pregnant) should have the choice to either carry a pregnancy to term or to have an abortion if that’s what they choose — are somehow “anti-child” or “anti-babies.” That’s simply not true.
Additionally, accepting the “pro-life” language skews the fact that this is not a debate about personal views, but about public policy relating to what all of society must adhere to. Someone can personally disagree with the idea of abortion and commit to never having one without also having the audacity to think that their personal views should be the law.
You’ll rarely find a perfect term that all people on all sides will agree upon when it comes to language and labeling on contentious issues, but some are worse than others. “Pro-choice” and “anti-choice” are more accurate, more neutral descriptors of the two sides here2. If you really want to get into it, the best option would be to simply say what people believe: one side believes that abortion should be legal, and the other believes it should be criminalized. It’s that simple.
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It wasn’t until the late 1960s/early 1970s that anti-abortion groups started coalescing around the “pro-life” label.
The Words We Use
“Reform” of abortion laws? Would the denial of the right of the unborn to live truly be a “reform”? To use the word “reform” is to agree with the pro-abortionists that present laws protecting the unborn child should be changed. It is important in this debate to consistently use words that accurately and incisively describe the truths of which we speak. Let’s make words work for us, not against us. Let’s remove the camouflage and show “repeal” or “updating” of abortion laws for what it is and speak of “permissive laws,” “abolishment of all controls,” “denial of the unborn child’s right to life” or whatever is applicable.
“Product of conception,” “fetal tissue,” “glob of protoplasm,” “prospectus” and other high-sounding phrases are all direct denials of the humanity of the growing child. Make up your mind. If you are convinced that this is a human life, call it such. Then consistently speak of “he” or “she,” not “it,” and speak of the “unborn,” “pre-born,” or “developing child” or “baby.”
“Termination of pregnancy,” “interruption of pregnancy,” “retroactive conception” are all verbal gymnastics behind which to hide. “Induced abortion” is more accurate. “Killing the life within the mother,” “killing the fetus” or most to the point, “killing the unborn baby” directly face the issue, and therefore are the most honorable and preferable terms to use.
“Medical murder” implies a judgment of the abortionist’s knowledge of the humanity of the unborn child, and willful killing. This may not be true. We would suggest that the simple phrase of “killing” of the pre-born child cannot be challenged, is not judgmental and directly states what is being done. “Pre-natal euthanasia” is entirely accurate when describing killing of an unborn child because he is defective. Euthanasia (mercy killing) is killing an adult because he is or has become incompetent or defective. This can also apply to children in which case it is commonly called infanticide.
Do not accept the negative label of being “anti-abortion.” Rather, always speak of this movement and philosophy as being “pro-life.”
When referring to those who want abortion-on-demand, speak of “abortionists,” of the “abortionist mentality,” or of the “anti-life movement.” Never accuse another person of not being sincere but do insist on accurate terms.
You’ll notice that in addition to adopting “pro-life,” Willke also insisted on referring to doctors who perform abortions as “abortionists,” a term that popped up multiple times in Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Oh, and back to Sullivan’s column for a moment:
[Eyal Press] also objects to the term “abortion doctors,” since it concentrates on only one aspect of a doctor’s OB/GYN care. It would be like referring to orthopedic physicians as “ACL doctors,” except that it is much more negative. “This is a case where the media fell in line with a stigma label.”
“Pro-life” is not neutral, and prior to the very late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a sparingly-used phrase that often had nothing to do with abortion at all (and more to do with being anti-war in several instances I was able to find searching old newspapers).
Language matters, and when the press uncritically adopts the terminology of activists like Willke, they’re picking a side.
Maybe some in the media think that allowing the anti-choice side of this debate to dictate the terms of engagement preserves their place as neutral reporters of the news, but it’s actually the opposite. There are occasions where activists actually use value-neutral terms that actually do describe what their aims are (one example that comes to mind is the prison abolitionists, who believe in the abolition of prisons), but that’s not always the case.
It’s probably too late to course-correct how the press discusses abortion, but that doesn’t mean that journalists shouldn’t try to do better on this and on other issues. Take, for instance, the way “parental rights” has been co-opted by the right to defend their anti-LGBTQ and anti-“CRT”4 views. The implication being made here is that the people who aren’t on board with the anti-LGBTQ/anti-“CRT” crusade are somehow against parents having rights. That’s obviously false. And it’s even more insulting when you factor in that some of the states pushing this kind of agenda (Florida, Texas, etc.) are actively targeting parents of trans kids. If the right wants to whine about people referring to a certain bill as the “don’t say gay” bill, it can’t truly suggest that “parental rights” is in any way more accurate.
Additionally, in recent years there’s been a push to rebrand garden-variety anti-transgender views as “gender critical.” For years, self-identified radical feminists who opposed the inclusion of trans people as part of their feminism were referred to as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (or “trans-exclusionary radfems,” or “TERFs”)5. It’s right there in the name. The term was created back in 2008 as a way for radical feminists who did include trans people in their feminism to differentiate themselves from the trans-exclusionary set. But then members of this group decided to start calling themselves “gender critical,” and arguing that “TERF” is a slur. To be clear, I don’t think that either “gender critical” or “TERF” are value-neutral terms that should be broadly adopted by the press.
But how are these people actually “critical” of the concept of gender? To borrow from an old post by Cristian Williams at TransAdvocate: Pronouns? Keep ‘em. Gendered clothing? That’s fine. Segregated bathrooms? Also important. Gender binary? Reinforce it. Their arguments usually amount to arguing that sex is real and gender is fake… but then just attribute to sex what others might attribute to gender. Calling this group “gender critical” frames people who support trans rights as being uncritical of gender, which is simply inaccurate.
Rhetoric is a topic that journalists should examine carefully before injecting one group’s preferred terminology into the public conversation. As we’ve seen with the attack on abortion rights, carelessness can drive policy in unexpected ways.
“Smells Like Content” by The Books
Pretty much anything written by Margaret Sullivan is more than worth checking out. She’s a fantastic, insightful writer whose work has inspired my own. I’m just going to drop a link here so you can maybe, possibly, perhaps consider pre-ordering her memoir out this October.
And given that I don’t think there’s a single person on the planet who is “anti-choice” in the sense that they believe that all pregnancies should be aborted, the “anti-abortion” component of “anti-choice” is also implied, making it, in my mind, a neutral-ish way to describe that side of the argument.
Willke was the former president of the National Right to Life Committee and helped mainstream “pro-life” as the preferred term for the anti-choice movement.
Branding any and all discussion of race as “critical race theory” is another example of this, obviously.
I don’t personally refer to people as “TERFs” or as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or anything like that. I think it’s better to just describe what people aim to do. “This group opposes [insert whatever trans-related topic is being discussed here/legal protections/whatever]” usually covers the bases in a way that doesn’t distract from whatever point’s being made.