Opinion: How the language is shifting on abortion

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The great humanitarian, cartoonist and children’s author Dr. Suess scripted out a few phrases of wisdom on abortion. No. No, he did not.

But that fact hasn’t kept anti-abortion advocates from citing him. The late Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Geisel, is just too pithy to resist. And he’s dead, with only his widow and a legal representative to balk.

All of this helps explain a curious response from a doctor during a recent Fox News segment.

During the short clip the host of “Fox & Friends First” questioned The Associated Press’s updated guidance for journalists, which includes preferable words to use in reporting on restrictive abortion laws. The legislative measures focus on about six weeks of gestational age, often tying an abortion ban to inaccurate science and beliefs about when a human heart starts beating.

“I can only quote Dr. Suess who said, ‘A person is a person no matter how small,'” said Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, founder of My CatholicDoctor. “And likewise, a heartbeat is a heartbeat, no matter how small.”

Berchelmann was riffing off Dr. Suess’ “Horton Hears A Who,” the whimsical story of an elephant with a big heart and acute hearing. He hears the people, an entire community of Who’s in a speck of dust and insistently embarks on protecting them, eventually saving all of Whoville. It’s a great children’s story.

But to cite a line from this story, instead of having an adult conversation about human development, is in line with the idea that a stork delivers babies to parents (often depicted as heterosexual, white married couples).

When discussing pregnancy and abortion, the words Americans choose matter. Adherence to what is scientifically provable has never been the rule for many politicians, or for many anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates.

Here’s what the AP Stylebook’s Online Topical Guide offered on the issue: “Avoid using the terms “fetal heartbeat bill,” “heartbeat bill” and “six-week abortion ban” on their own without explanation. These phrases are shorthand for measures that would ban most abortions once cardiac activity is detected, around the sixth week of pregnancy.

The AP Stylebook adds: “The terms are overly broad and misleading given the disagreement over details, such as what constitutes a heartbeat at varying gestational ages.”

So when is a heart a heart?

The AP addresses that question in a section that says, “Advanced technology can detect a flickering as early as six weeks, when the embryo isn’t yet a fetus and it has only begun forming a rudimentary heart. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it is not accurate to call that a heartbeat. Experts at the college recommend using “cardiac activity” instead.”

There’s guidance about sensitivity, pressing reporters to be careful when clinical terms might seem too cold or lacking in empathy.

Another criticized section called on reporters to refrain from using “late-term abortion.” “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines that as “41 weeks through 41 weeks and 6 days of gestation.” It added that an “abortion does not happen in this period.”

The AP Stylebook recommended using the term “abortion later in pregnancy,” but cautioned that “there are varying definitions of the time period involved.”

The suggestions likely won’t have the impact hoped for. Part of the problem is the lack of copy editors at many outlets, as well as pop-up journalism sites where advocates for one view or another can claim reporter status. Many of these citizen journalists might not know, or care that standards exist.

Language is dynamic. It always has been and always will be. Words, over a period of time, can take on weightier or different meanings, often when they become fastened to a hot political issue.

And clearly, an adherence to more scientifically accurate terminology will deflate many current arguments by conservatives.

Journalists are guilty of pushing inaccuracies about abortion. They’ve hyper-focused on medically necessary abortions, instances where the life of the mother was endangered, or a fetus wasn’t viable.

Those stories tug at the emotions. They feature gripping details, with grieving mothers. But they constitute a very small proportion of the number of abortions in the U.S. It’s an inaccurate narrative.

Additionally, more than half of all abortions are now achieved via medication, by a pill. That fact should also shift the words chosen.

If people scrutinize the guide closely (there’s much there), they’ll see that the overarching theme mirrors tenants of strong writing. It advises writers to be as specific as possible.

Some of the suggested word choices might feel too clinical and devoid of emotion to be used effectively by either anti-abortion or abortion rights groups.

But if fairness and accuracy are the goals, as they should be for news reporters, that’s a very good place to start.

— Mary Sanchez is a columnist with Tribune Content Agency LLC.


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