About News

Emotions of Abortion Debate Put Newswriters in a Language Jungle

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

I don’t know how journalists writing about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs abortion decision manage to meet their deadlines. They have to stop practically every other sentence to think and avoid words and phrases that are loaded like landmines.

I can’t think of any other issue in which the language has become so politicized. Journalists writing news stories seek truthful characterizations while steering clear of perceived partisanship. This may be impossible here.

How, for instance, should they describe the two sides in the abortion debate? It’s a lesson in media “framing.” Many news organizations, such as The Associated Press and NPR, do not use “pro-life” unless in a name or a quote because it’s an inaccurate spin adopted by those advocates to sound better. And it suggests, of course, that the other side is pro-death.

That side is not even “pro-abortion.” They don’t endorse abortion; they just want the option available. Yet many news outlets don’t use the more accurate “pro-choice” label. Instead, the most common phrasing is “abortion rights” advocates.

The other viewpoint most commonly gets described as “anti-abortion” or as abortion rights opponents. But proponents of that viewpoint don’t like either of those labels. In the first instance, they prefer to be for something rather than against something. In the second instance, they argue that use of “abortion rights” (or “reproductive rights”) focuses on the pregnant person and ignores the developing human life that also has a stake in the debate.

Speaking of which, what’s the right wording for that developing human life? Is it a “life” or not? Is it an “unborn baby”? One side says such wording bestows a humanness that isn’t warranted. News media prefer the scientifically accurate word “fetus.” The other side argues that denies humanness and sanitizes the acts required to terminate a pregnancy.

Journalists shouldn’t sanitize. That’s why many abortion rights supporters wish the news media would go further than describing the Supreme Court’s decision as simply voiding the constitutional right to abortion. Call it what it is, they say: “forced childbirth” or “government-mandated childbirth” or “denial of bodily autonomy.”

And the justices who did it? Reporters like to call them “conservative” or “Republican.” Those are safe words, but do they rise to the occasion? Are additional adjectives such as “radical” or “right wing” political or honest? (Both, maybe.) Every news outlet must decide. Sometimes the justices of the majority have been labeled as constitutional “originalists” or “textualists.” That may be granting a consistent legal logic that isn’t there.

In states where abortion becomes illegal, there’s valid concern about women resorting to “back-alley abortions,” a buzz phrase often used by abortion rights supporters that suggests dangerous procedures and criminality. Physicians for Reproductive Health, which advocates for the option of abortion, recommends the wording “self-managed abortion care,” which recognizes safe abortion by self-administered pill.

It’s a language jungle out there: Words packed with bias and politics and, even worse for journalism, words that are euphemisms. A divided, hyperpartisan audience is ready to pounce. Journalists must engage in conscientious but unfearing selections.

But let’s also acknowledge this: As important as language is, the journalism that the Supreme Court ruling calls for requires much more than making the right word choices. It requires coverage of the severe issues the court has created, such as extent of state restrictions, surveillance and enforcement methods, options for restoring rights, and the social, economic and psychological impacts on women and their children, especially those of color. There remains room to continue the debate about the morality of abortion, weighed against social consequences. And more broadly, there are valid concerns about the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and about other long-held rights that seem at risk.

The coverage should be unending and unafraid. Those might be the best word choices of all.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.