NPR editor gets candid: 'Babies are not babies until they are born'

Last week, NPR released a memo on coverage of abortion and abortion opponents that sounds like something out of a Planned Parenthood propaganda manual. But this was a style guide to shape news coverage on America’s most influential radio network.

It was journalism policy in reaction to recent events involving a “fetal heartbeat” law in Georgia and an abortion ban in Alabama.

Question: What sane editor would unveil such insider advice that’s going to enrage people? I know NPR isn’t known as friendly to traditional forms of religion, but this was asking for war.

Language in the abortion debate is huge right now, according to this New York Times piece that ran Wednesday. If you don’t think any of this has to do with religion, read the comments attached to said piece.

A quick side trip into the Times piece reveals that:

The new laws that prohibit abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy have been called “heartbeat” legislation by supporters, a reference to the flickering pulse that can be seen on ultrasound images of a developing embryo.

But when the American Civil Liberties Union announced a legal challenge last week to one such law in Ohio, there was no mention of the word “heartbeat” in the news release, which referred to the law instead as “a ban on almost all abortions.” In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the governor’s race last year, called the measure in her state a “forced pregnancy bill.” A sign at a protest against the law in Atlanta this week turned the idea into a slogan: “NO FORCED BIRTHS.”

The battle over abortion has long been shaped by language. After abortion opponents coined the “pro-life” phrase in the 1960s to emphasize what they saw as the humanity of the fetus, supporters of abortion cast themselves as “pro-choice” to stress a woman’s right to make decisions about her body. In the mid-1990s, the term “partial-birth abortion,” originated by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, helped rally public opinion against a late-term abortion procedure. Abortion rights activists countered with “Trust Women.”

I remember when newspapers began changing the nomenclature of the movement back in the 1990s when some really unfair usage crept in. Those opposed were called “anti-abortion,” those for were called “pro choice.” One side got stuck with the issues label; the other got an ideological label. Guess which was more appealing to the reader?

In time, usage changed to “abortion-rights” and “anti-abortion-rights,” which phrased the debate in terms of “rights” but only in terms of the procedure, not the person. You never heard media refer to “fetal rights” did you?

Do read the rest of the Times piece, which seems to concede that the abortion-rights side may be losing the language battle.

Then we have Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices, who put out the aforementioned memo. He wrote in part:

NPR doesn't use the term "abortion clinics." We say instead, "medical or health clinics that perform abortions." The point is to not to use abortion before the word clinic. The clinics perform other procedures and not just abortions.

Do not refer to murdered Dr George Tiller as an "Abortion Doctor." Instead we should say Tiller operated a clinic where abortions are performed. We can also make reference to the fact that Tiller was a doctor who performed late abortions.

Note the “where abortions are performed” passive sentence structure. According to this Guttmacher Institute document, only third-trimester abortions were performed at Tiller’s Wichita clinic. This was not your average health outlet. The goal here is accurate information?

Memmott credited NPR’s health and science reporter with the following:

The term "unborn" implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born. They're fetuses. Incorrectly calling a fetus a "baby" or "the unborn" is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion. Use "unborn" only when referring to the title of the bill (and after President Bush signs it, the Unborn Victims of Violence Law). Or qualify the use of "unborn" by saying "what anti-abortion groups call the 'unborn' victims of violence." The most neutral language to refer to the death of a fetus during a crime is "fetal homicide."

Yep, all those articles about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s impending offspring talked about their “fetus.” What planet do these editors live on? The “babies are not babies until they’re born” rule is positively Orwellian.

The Associated Press, in its stylebook, favors the use of “fetus” as well, but does soften its language as follows by saying, “The context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases where fetus could seem clinical or cold.”

So much for that “fetal homicide” terminology. Continuing Memmott’s memo:

On the air, we should use "abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)" and "abortion rights opponent(s)" or derivations thereof (for example: "advocates of abortion rights"). It is acceptable to use the phrase "anti-abortion rights," but do not use the term "pro-abortion rights". Digital News will continue to use the AP style book for online content, which mirrors the revised NPR policy. Do not use "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in copy except when used in the name of a group. Of course, when the terms are used in an actuality they should remain.

Actually, NPR departs from the Associated Press here. AP policy says:

Use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don't use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.

NPR is really into this issue and has reported non-stop about what it sees as attacks on a woman’s right to an abortion.

On May 18, it ran this story about two women with divergent views on abortion; on May 20, it interviewed a female academic who has written a history of 20th century female pro-life activists; on May 22, it ran a piece about the lack of rape and incest provisions in the Alabama law.

With all the repeating of the “forced birth” talking point, “The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly what’s going on here. What about interviewing people who were conceived through rape but who are grateful for life? I see a lot of nitpicking about rights but not a whole lot of research into children conceived by rape who might have something to say.

The Memmott memo did get coverage by Fox and CBN and the Daily Wire. Otherwise, it was ignored.

Why? Because Memmott’s memo reflects how most mainstream media folks think and report?

In other words, this memo is not news to most journalists It’s the rules they’ve been reporting under for a long time. Memmott was just putting their rules on the record.

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