'Pro-Life' or 'Anti-Abortion Rights'? Journalists, Abortion, and Why Word Choice Matters

In addition to attempting to decipher the many twists and turns that are the Stupak saga, one of the biggest challenges in covering abortion in health-care reform has been finding the best words to describe those who support or oppose abortion rights. NPR's omsbudsman Alicia Shepard has an interesting, inside look at how her news organization has dealt with the issue—and, in the process, disappointed listeners. From Shepard:

Martha Hamilton winces when she hears an NPR correspondent describe politicians who oppose abortion as "pro-life."

"I am a 'pro-life' voter," said Hamilton, of Washington, D.C. "For instance, I would vote for someone opposed to the death penalty over someone in favor of it. However, 'opposed to the death penalty' would be a better, more accurate description of my position. Pretty sure I'm not who [the correspondent] is talking about."

NPR may be alone among major news organizations in how it identifies people who support or oppose abortion.

I checked with NBC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer and not one of them uses the terms "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

"We call them pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights because it's the right to abortion that we're talking about," said Linda Mason, CBS senior vice president of news and in charge of standards. "What does pro-life mean? That leaves people scratching their heads."

Ironically, Bill Marimow, now editor of the Inquirer, was one of the three senior NPR editors who approved the "pro-choice/pro-life" language five years ago. Now, his newspaper's staff uses the terms anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates. Neither Marimow nor Barbara Rehm, another former top NPR editor who authored the 2005 memo, said this week that they remembered anything about it.

"We do not use the terms pro-choice and pro-life and right-to-life," said Marimow, who worked at NPR from 2004 to 2006. "Looking at it with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think the words the Inquirer is using are highly preferable."

Shepard's article is worth a read for anyone interested in abortion or semantics. It drives home a point that is ubiquitous throughout abortion politics: the words you choose matter. A lot.

Similar evidence is bountiful throughout the history of abortion politics. One of the best examples is the story of an abortion procedure called "dilation and extraction." The late-term procedure was an exceedingly rare one: used in just over one-tenth of 1 percent of the abortions performed in 2000. But in 1995, the National Right to Life Committee had the idea to rename "dilation and extraction" as "partial-birth abortion." For anti-abortion-rights activists, it was a home run. Bans began to pop up everywhere, 31 passing in five years. Partial-birth abortion became a focal point in the abortion debate of the 2000s, engendering two Supreme Court cases (Stenberg v. Carhart in 2000; Gonzales v. Carhart in 2007) and the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 that remains in place. All of this happened because of a simple name change, showing just how important the words we choose are when we talk about abortion.