Abortion Language: Politically Correct or Politically Bomb-Throwing?

It stinks. It's too unwieldy. And it makes no difference.

That's what Erik Wemple, a blogger on news media issues for the Washington Post, had to say about NPR's style — and my support of it — on some terms related to abortion. The style opposes saying "abortion doctor" and "abortion clinic" in reference to doctors and clinics that do much more than just abortions. Wemple focused on the least explosive of the two terms, arguing:

There's nothing evil about "abortion clinic," unless, of course, you believe there is. But as journalistic shorthand for a place that provides abortions as well as many other services and procedures, it works just fine. There's a reason why the term pops up in other publications that care tremendously about the power of language: It's simple, accurate and neutral.

I appreciate where Wemple is coming from on language, and may agree with him most times. But when it comes to abortion language, his conclusion doesn't reflect the real world.

You can hear it best when you say "abortion doctor." Say it out loud, and tell me it doesn't sound like a slur, conveying images of coathangars and sleaze. Having thus reduced the doctor to scum — no matter the full range of medical services he or she might provide in service to humanity, and particularly to women — it is now a lot easier attack her or him, even violently in today's atmosphere, as has happened. The term "abortion clinic" is not too different.

The phrases may be linguistically correct and journalistically convenient, but words take on ever-changing meanings, depending on their use and how we as a society hear them. There is no objective measure to these meanings, but that is what editors and ombudsmen are paid for: to make subjective calls on what is fair and acceptable language to the country at any given point in time.

On the implications of "abortion doctor" and "abortion clinic," opponents of abortion rights would say: "Exactly! They are sleaze, and what they do is sleazy." The opponents pound home such word usage, including language like "pro-life" and "partial birth abortion," precisely because of the images they successfully have attached to these phrases.

You might then say, well, the phrases are common enough to be acceptable to Americans, and so be it. But many, perhaps most, Americans favor some form of abortion rights, according to the polls. Remember, moreover, that I said that editors and ombudsmen should make judgments based on language that is acceptable AND fair. I am open to any other ideas on what the yardstick should be, but that has been mine so far.

What then is fair? Certainly it's not the formula recommended by UCLA Professor Tim Groseclose in a column last week for FoxNews.com. His yardstick is U.S. senators. Concerning the use of "partial-birth abortion," for example, he argues that a news organization is "centrist" and thus presumeably fair only to the extent that it uses that term — as opposed to less graphic alternatives — in the same proportion as U.S. senators do. Sixty-five percent of the senators said "partial-birth abortion" in statements tied to a 2003 vote banning such operations, and so a news outlet should use "partial birth abortion" 65 percent of the time to be considered centrist, the professor said.

Heaven forbid. I don't think many people would consider senators, or any political leaders, to be good judges of what is centrist, fair or good linguistics. This has nothing to do with one's position on the late-term operation itself, which as a so-called "choice" method had and has few supporters.

Invoking heaven is purposeful here. Much of the abortion debate turns on religion and the question of whether a fetus has a soul. It is not for me — or any news reporter or editor — to proclaim an answer on so fraught a question. No believer can tell us with any certainty what God's answer is, either. One's position on abortion and the correct language to use is thus a totally subjective matter that goes beyond public opinion polls and political leaders. As a journalistic matter, it requires a subjective decision by editors using whatever frail human logic we have to respect as many sides of the debate as reasonably possible.

Finding the right balance means being wary of leaning toward the pro-abortion rights side, too. For years, they were successful in hammering home the phrase "choice," as if there were no possibility of another life in the equation. Many of these advocates, in fact, take pains to say they do not favor unlimited abortion.

In an attempt to be fair, NPR and much of the mainstream news media now use the more neutral phrases "abortion-rights advocates" and "abortion-rights opponents" in place of "pro-choice" and "pro-life" as labels for the opposing sides.

"Abortion doctor" and "abortion clinic" are unfair, too. These terms remove all nuance and feed into the image propagated by those who do indeed believe that anyone who has anything to do with abortion is "evil," to use Wemple's word. The doctors are obstetricians and gynecologists who do much more than perform abortions, and so do most of the clinics, to my knowledge. Calling them phrases such as OB/GYN doctors or family planning clinics that do abortions is more accurate and fair.

The abortion fight is a battle of images and messaging by both sides. Americans will make their own decisions in the end. It is up to the news media to avoid manipulating Americans as they struggle to get there.

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