May 31, 2019

As nearly one third of the state legislatures in the United States consider enacting “fetal heartbeat bills” — the movement by lawmakers to outlaw abortion as early as six weeks gestation — the debate over abortion has become a war of words and their meaning.

At six weeks gestation, a fertilized and dividing egg is called an embryo, according to the Cleveland Clinic and other medical sources. Fetus is the accurate medical term eight weeks into gestation and up until birth. And that shoosh-shoosh sound? That’s not really a heartbeat, because there’s no heart yet. Instead, it’s an electrical impulse that will eventually become the heartbeat.

Language around abortion is designed to manipulate emotions rather than facilitate a dialogue for journalists and for their readers.

Several news organizations have acknowledged the flawed terminology and recently started to replace the more headline-esque “fetal heartbeat” language with more cumbersome but accurate phrases like, “embryonic pulsing” as the Daily Beast recently wrote or “after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’ heart” as The New York Times noted. Both stories were about Louisiana’s legislation, the latest state to pass such a bill.

Language use is tricky and often fails us as we attempt informed conversations about abortion. Indeed, most Americans have made up their minds, and the general breakdown of support for legal abortion has been consistent over the last 40 years, since the Supreme Court issued the historic ruling. Roughly half of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances. Another 30% say it should be legal in all cases. Twenty percent of the American public support outlawing it.

Abortion opponents have a successful track record of introducing terms that summon emotion and thus shape our public debate. Their argument that a fertilized egg is a human life and thus deserves the same human rights and protections as every other human is less effective when using sterile scientific language.

Introduce words like baby, heartbeat and child, and the argument gains a certain moral gravity. Combine those warm words with alarming, albeit inaccurate, terms like infanticide and partial-birth abortion, and the scales start to tip. It’s a triumph in which abortion opponents take great pride and attribute to their legislative successes. As abortion opponents told The New York Times, “saving a baby with a beating heart” is powerful.

In response, activists working to keep abortion legal have introduced their own weaponized language, including “forced births” and “forced pregnancy.” Those might not have quite the emotional pull of a baby’s heartbeat, but the imagery is efficient.

Social media has also changed the debate, allowing many women to collectively reject the shame and stigma associated with abortion and tell their stories, surfacing the fact that one out of every four women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45.  But those who support legal abortion, despite being in the majority, still mostly find themselves debating an issue framed by opponents.

“There are not that many people you see doing this well,” said Mary Zeigler, reproductive historian, law professor and author of two books on the history of Roe v. Wade. “But also, no one’s doing it badly, either. It’s getting even harder.”

The Florida State University law professor said she faces the same challenges as journalists when she interviews people about their views on abortion.

“I try to use neutral scientific language, but often that choice is perceived as supporting legal abortion,” she said. “But when I’m reflecting someone’s views, I try to do it in their language.”

She said the journalists she’s observed covering the debate struggle to appropriately use the language of abortion opponents.

“Some reporters have a hard time getting certain abortion opponents to talk to them,” Zeigler said. “There’s an assumption that the media is pro-choice. That makes it hard (for journalists) to get information from abortion opponents.”

There’s probably no getting away from the loaded language. News organizations, like NPR, have issued memos and warnings encouraging reporters to find neutral language. And critics suggest there is no neutral language — that choosing science and rejecting rhetoric is actually taking sides.

So what are we to do, those of us who believe in civil debate, who want to consume informed opinions and scientifically sound journalism? Here’s my advice for both journalists and news consumers:

  • Since we probably can’t get rid of the language, the most we can do is notice it. Pay attention to the words and how they’re being used. Are the words chosen by a neutral narrator or a passionate partisan? In both cases the words might be loaded, although the motive for using the words is likely different. The activist seeking to outlaw abortion will use words designed to give the argument weight. Often a narrator who desires neutrality is searching for words the audience will find familiar, even if those words aren’t scientifically accurate.
  • Video is a particularly powerful medium in shaping the debate because the words and images combine to tap into powerful concepts. In this recent NBC Nightly News story, images of an ultrasound showing movement and a state senator declaring, “We should look at when the heart starts beating to determine when life starts,” compete against a much shorter snippet of an unnamed woman declaring the law “blatantly unconstitutional.”
  • Give more weight to voices that reflect true expertise. Everyone is an expert in his or her own story. So a woman telling her story of getting a needed abortion or regretting an abortion is a true expert. So is a gynecologist describing abortion procedures, or a religious leader discussing theology. But those voices are often hard to find, overshadowed by politicians and activists assuming expertise they do not have.
  • Describe religious beliefs and theology accurately and with respect. The religious views on the definition of human life are well-established. While they vary from faith to faith and denomination to denomination, it’s not hard to find an expert who can accurately describe them.
  • No matter what your personal views on whether abortion should be legal, accept that there is definitive science that uses a common and accurate language.

The best news stories about abortion find a way to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the science, giving sources a way to authentically express their views, and allowing those views to be heard by those who hold a different view. This OnBeing podcast interview with Francis Kissling, president of Catholics for Choice, is the best example of this approach. The interview originally aired in 2011 and was rebroadcast last year.

Among the many brilliant observations Kissling makes:

“You have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other and that if we can’t figure out how to do that and there isn’t a crack in the middle where there are some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this thing is going to continue.”

Journalists should consider it their mission when covering abortion to help the audience see people with different viewpoints as human, and not evil.

Kelly McBride is the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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  • You use the daily beast to define the heart beat? That is not fact checking that is fact choices. Why not use the Cleveland clinic like you did already and share what they call 4 week heart tube that beats.
    It’s a shame that you claim to be non partisan fact checkers.