Neutral abortion terms?


Journalists have long debated how to appropriately define proponents and opponents of issues, because let's be honest: it's usually more fun to be for something then be against it.

We received an e-mail this morning from a reader who was frustrated by how journalists describe Rep. Bart Stupak and his friends "anti-abortion" while they describe his opponents "pro-choice."

Why does the media insist on calling Stupak and company "anti-abortion"???? I understand relabeling Republicans - one can argue they don't consistently support life. But pro-life Dems support social safety nets, many oppose the death penalty, etc. - their policy positions flow from a consistent and logical premise. One can disagree with the premise, but the relabeling doesn't disagree with it - it dismisses it. Why are pro-choice groups not called "pro-abortion"?

Yes, I know this is a third post today that is hooked on health care, but we've emphasized how abortion was a key factor in the debate. Describing proponents and opponents of legalized abortion becomes difficult when you're trying to shorten the idea to get the point across quickly.

Since 2005, NPR has portrayed both sides of abortion activists as positive for something by using the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life," but NPR's Ombudsman Alicia Shepard is pushing for change on her company's choice of words.

NPR should stick to more neutral terms -- such as anti-abortion and abortion rights -- rather than continue to use the loaded language embedded in pro-choice and pro-life.

NPR Managing Editor David Sweeney says he will review the language policy as it stands and make a decision shortly about whether it needs to be updated. He will let me know the outcome of that review and I'll post that here.

Is "abortion-rights advocate" a neutral term? One side thinks the debate revolves around whether we should have the right to an abortion, while the other side would argue over whether a fetus should be considered a life. By using "abortion-rights," readers start with the assumption that we're debating over whether abortion is a right. Since Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, perhaps it makes the most sense in editors' minds.

Shepard does some good reporting, finding that NBC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer do not use the terms "pro-choice" or "pro-life," opting for "abortion rights" and "anti-abortion" or "anti-abortion rights."

She writes about the long discussion about whether "pro-life" encompasses just individuals and groups who oppose abortion. It's worth considering how the major advocacy groups describe each other.

NARAL, Pro-Choice America, which advocates for abortion rights, prefers "pro-choice" to describe its position and refers to the other side as "anti-choice," according to a spokesperson.

The National Right to Life Committee, which lobbies against abortion, refers to its supporters as "pro-life" or "right-to-life." It views the other side as "pro-abortion," said a spokesperson.

NPR's website follows AP style, but Shepard wants a shift on the air for broadcasters to use "abortion-rights advocate" and "anti-abortion." Perhaps it's easier to say pro-life and pro-choice on the air (because it's fewer syllables), and that it's probably easier to describe interviewees, because that's how people are likely to identify themselves. Here's the original memo:

"The terms pro-choice and pro-life are in such widespread use these days that they're just as neutral as their alternatives (abortion rights advocate or abortion rights opponent)," said the 2005 memo authored by three people who are no longer at NPR. "Just as important, the phrases allow us to write more colloquially -- e.g., to identify someone as a pro-choice Democrat or pro-life protester, rather than using wordier, less conversational descriptions."

Shepard doesn't discuss why "pro-abortion" would not be used, but my guess is that she would say people who are on that side don't necessarily think abortion should be used 100 percent of the time. Maybe she would say people who want legalized abortion aren't necessarily for abortion, but they rank a women's right to choose above other arguments. But I'm guessing here, so I wish Shepard had explained this side a bit better.

Using the term anti-abortion seems appropriately descriptive, since people who oppose legalized abortion are fundamentally against the act of abortion. Many people who are opposed to legalized abortion think abortion should be legal in circumstances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. So should anti-abortion be avoided because opponents don't always oppose abortion? Using "abortion foes" conjures up certain emotions like hostility, though, and should be avoided.

Unfortunately, clearer phrases like "a proponent of legalized abortion" and "legalized abortion opponent" probably don't fit a Twitter-like attitude of shortening everything to its abbreviated form. If you have suggestions, let's hear them.

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