The Language of Abortion

Abortion.

The moment this word is uttered, people seem to need to take sides. The language for these sides has become confusing and alienating.

If people are pro-choice, does that make those who don't support abortion, anti-choice?

If people are pro-life, does that make those who support abortion rights, anti-life?

Even used as an adjective, the word abortion can set people off. Several listeners didn't like it when a Morning Edition June 5 story referred to Dr. George Tiller as an "abortion doctor." Tiller was murdered on May 31 while at church in Wichita, Kansas.

"He was an OB/GYN with a medical degree from the University of Kansas who provided late-term abortions," wrote Abigail Plumb-Larrick. " 'Abortion doctor' is as polarizing a pejorative as 'fundies' (to refer to conservative Christians) or 'illegals' (to refer to undocumented aliens.) NPR can do better." Parentheses are Plumb-Larrick's.

NPR decided to refer to Dr. Tiller as an abortion doctor because he only performed abortions, according to Julie Rovner, an NPR health policy reporter who has been covering the story.

The topic of abortion is so emotional that I agree with another listener who suggested it would be more neutral to call Tiller a doctor who performed abortions.

But did he perform "late-term abortions"? NPR's Science Desk editor Joe Neel recently instructed the staff and member stations to avoid using that descriptor because it's not accurate.

"'Late-term abortion' is a phrase that's been used quite a bit in the wake of the George Tiller shooting," said Neel. "But we should be careful about using this term — if we use it at all — because it is not only subject to misinterpretation, it's technically meaningless. The doctors who do these procedures refer to what they do as 'late abortions,' not late-term abortions. We should refer to them as 'late abortions,' too."

Why? Neel said:

"Most doctors who perform 'late abortions' mostly do abortions in the second trimester before a fetus could be viable. In the few cases where abortions are done in the third trimester - or after viability - the procedure is done almost always because of a fetal anomaly, or to preserve the health or life of the woman.

"Many states have laws that ban abortion after a certain point in pregnancy, though states must leave exceptions in these bans for abortions to protect the woman's life or health. The scope of these exceptions for health is a matter of considerable public and legal debate."

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