As a reporter who covers abortion politics, I knew that my profile of late-term-abortion provider Dr. LeRoy Carhart would elicit a strong response—and it did. But I did not figure on the discussion that started with two companion pieces I wrote for NEWSWEEK's Web site: a critique of a recent Esquire magazine story on abortion provider Warren Hern and an essay on watching an abortion for the first time. The stories spurred conversations in online reproductive-health and religious communities about language—which words we use, or ought to use, when talking about abortion. (Article continued below...)
There were disagreements about how to best identify doctors who perform abortions. In the Esquire critique, I questioned whether the magazine could accurately call Hern the "only" late-term specialist, given that Carhart offers similar procedures and trains other doctors in the practice. Esquire writer John H. Richardson noted that Carhart will perform late-term abortions only under very limited circumstances: if the fetus cannot live more than momentarily outside the womb. "I don't see how anyone could describe this as 'specializing,' " wrote Richardson. Even the word "abortionist," which NEWSWEEK used on its cover, sparked disagreement. Carhart says it's a perfectly fine term ("You have to be proud of what you do," he says), while Hern, in a letter to me, says he considers it offensive—a pejorative label that opponents use.
Tiny phrases that I never thought would cause controversy were the subject of online posts of their own. In my essay, was I right to describe what I saw in Carhart's suction tube as "pinkish fluid"? That description elicited at least a dozen interpretations and criticisms of my word choice. Some readers suggested I should have used a more biological term, such as "embryo"; others thought that I should have used the phrase "unborn child." The emotional confusion I experienced watching the abortion—I described Carhart's patients as "doing their best to balance competing emotions about their abortions, simultaneously sad and relieved, conflicted but confident"—was read as both evidence of pro-life leanings and proof that I had not done enough research on the medical procedure to be able to watch it objectively.
It would be easy to dismiss these discussions as just a matter of semantics. But in conversations about abortion, no word is just a word. The titles "abortionist" and "abortion doctor," for example, have markedly different connotations. They have the power to end a discussion (among people with dissimilar views) or push it forward (among people who agree) in ways that, it turns out, are not always easy to foresee.