In the Abortion Debate, Words Matter

Martha Hamilton winces when she hears an NPR correspondent describe politicians who oppose abortion as "pro-life."

"I am a 'pro-life' voter," said Hamilton, of Washington, DC. "For instance, I would vote for someone opposed to the death penalty over someone in favor of it. However, 'opposed to the death penalty' would be a better, more accurate description of my position. Pretty sure I'm not who [the correspondent] is talking about."

Now that abortion is in the news regularly connected to health care overhaul, Hamilton and other listeners are once again taking issue with the terminology NPR uses to describe people who support or oppose abortion.

Since 2005, it has been NPR's policy to use the term pro-choice to identify anyone who advocates on behalf of abortion rights and pro-life for anyone who advocates in opposition to abortion.

"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."

So Hamilton, who favors abortion rights, would be considered pro-choice if she were to appear on NPR as part of a report on the abortion issue—not as she identified herself as a "pro-life" voter on capital punishment. The terms can get awfully confusing.

NPR may be alone among major news organizations in how it identifies people who support or oppose abortion.

I checked with NBC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer and not one of them uses the terms "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

"We call them pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights because it's the right to abortion that we're talking about," said Linda Mason, CBS senior vice president of news and in charge of standards. "What does pro-life mean? That leaves people scratching their heads."

Ironically, Bill Marimow, now editor of the Inquirer, was one of the three senior NPR editors who approved the "pro-choice/pro-life" language five years ago. Now, his newspaper's staff uses the terms anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates. Neither Marimow nor Barbara Rehm, another former top NPR editor who authored the 2005 memo, said this week that they remembered anything about it.

"We do not use the terms pro-choice and pro-life and right-to-life," said Marimow, who worked at NPR from 2004 to 2006. "Looking at it with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think the words the Inquirer is using are highly preferable."

Even NPR's website, npr.org, doesn't follow the on-air dictum.

Instead, NPR's website follows the AP style guide, which says to use "anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice," according to Susan Vavrick, senior copy editor for npr.org.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post advise staff to avoid the terms "pro-choice," "pro-life" and "right-to-life" because those terms are coined by advocates in the abortion controversy and should be viewed as loaded terms, according to the newspapers' stylebooks.

"The political and emotional heat surrounding abortion gives rise to a range of polemical language," reads the Times stylebook. "For the sake of neutrality, avoid pro-life and pro-choice except in quotations from others." The Times uses "abortion rights advocate" or "anti-abortion." [latter was corrected @ 3:34 p.m. March 19, 2010.]

NPR uses pro-choice and pro-life, several editors said, because it's more conversational and not as cumbersome to say on air as "abortion rights activists" or "abortion opponents." The problem with NPR's current terminology is that it uses non-neutral language favored by the opposing special interest groups.

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 doesn't use "anti-choice" or "pro-abortion."

"By positioning themselves as 'pro-life', this group essentially won the war of words," said Andrea Tyler, linguistics professor at Georgetown University. "These labels set up particular frames. It doesn't seem like a good thing to be anti-choice. But it's worse to be anti-life. So there's an inequality in the frames when you say pro-life and pro-choice. Being the opposite of pro-choice is not as bad as being the opposite of pro-life."

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.

TERMINOLOGY AT OTHER NEWS ORGANIZATIONS

Washington Post
Abortion rights advocate
Anti-abortion

New York Times
Abortion rights advocate
Anti-abortion (corrected 3/19/2010 3:34 p.m.)

Philadelphia Inquirer
Abortion rights advocates
Anti-abortion

CNN
Abortion rights supporters
Anti-abortion activists
Pro-abortion rights
Anti-abortion rights

NBC
Pro-abortion rights
Anti-abortion
Anti-abortion advocates

CBS
Pro-abortion rights
Anti-abortion rights

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