When Subject Is Abortion, We Choose Our Words Carefully

SHURSHOTS

Writing Designed To Avoid Inflammatory Rhetoric

October 14, 1990|By Edward H. Shur

As last month's primary election drew closer, the abortion issue once again came to the forefront of the campaign debate.

Several readers have questioned our use of "abortion opponent" and "abortion-rights" supporter.

Why, they ask, don't we use the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice?"

One such letter came from Gene Edwards of Eldersburg, who referred to my Sept. 16 column about Larry Haines' defeat of Sharon Hornberger in the Republican Senate District 5 race.

"Your editor . . . consistently refers to 'abortion-rights candidates.' In fact, most of those he refers to were Pro-Choice, a moderate position that allows individuals rather than the government to decide the issue.

"The Pro-Choice position is simply that government doesn't belong in the bedroom where family planning decisions may be made.

"Many who embrace this view are religious, God-fearing people whose beliefs are somewhat in conflict with their church's Pro-Life stance. While they personally would prefer other means over abortion, they recognize it should be an individual decision and not regulated by government decree.

"Perhaps Mr. Shur is unduly influenced by the 'politically active' Church of the Open Door (where Haines is a member) (And Closed Mind).

However, I believe he will find the Pro-Choice viewpoint to be not only viable, but quite prominent throughout the nation."

The abortion issue is difficult because it involves emotions that run the gamut. Each side believes the debate is black and white.

Two summers ago, editors and reporters from The Baltimore Sun, our parent, met to discuss terminology and found the debate to be more shades of gray. The group found it impossible to find a simple description of each side in the debate that didn't run the risk of irritating the combatants.

While "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are the terms preferred by their respective partisans and angrily opposed by their opponents, their faults are imprecision and the semantic gamesmanship they play on their opponents.

Their advantages are that they immediately are recognizable by readers as descriptive of a broad point of view.

"The problem is that, perhaps especially with this issue, language itself is as contentious a field of battle as are the moral and legal questions," law reporter Lyle Denniston, who has covered the issue for decades from the U.S. Supreme Court, said at the time.

But in the end, a consensus was reached and the following style was adopted:

* The basic neutral reference for the position opposing legalization of abortion, or, as appropriately modified, for the people advocating that position, will be "anti-abortion" (or, for example, "abortion foes," "opponents of abortion," "abortion opponents," etc.) We will not, in news stories, use the term "pro-life" as a neutral reference. "Pro-life" is permissible if it is part of a quotation within a story.

* The basic neutral reference for the position supporting the availability of abortion services or, as appropriately modified, for the people advocating that position, will be "pro-abortion rights" (or, for example, "supporters of abortion rights," "advocates of abortion rights," "abortion rights forces," etc.) We will not, in news stories, use the term "pro-choice" as a neutral reference. "Pro-choice" is permissible, however, if it is part of a quotation within a story.

* Headlines present a special problem because our basic neutral references -- "anti-abortion" and "abortion rights" -- are lengthy. So we will permit "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in headlines where no other options appear workable.

* The term "abortion" will be used as the medical procedure because it is in common usage and doesn't obscure what we are talking about (as "terminating pregnancy" would).

* The term "fetus" will be used to refer to the potential person/child being carried by a pregnant woman. This is the medical and legal term.

"Unborn child" or "pre-born child" or "baby" or "person" tend to assume the answer to the question of when life begins. Each also tends to subordinate the medical reality (at least prior to the first 23.5 to 24 weeks of pregnancy), because of the medical and scientific findings about when adequate brain function has developed to sustain independent physical survival. The phrases "potential child" or "potential baby" simply seem awkward and forced.

* A woman carrying a fetus will be called a "pregnant woman," an easily understood and perfectly descriptive word commonly used.

The problem with the word "mother" is that it assumes birth; literally, a mother is a woman who has borne a child. The phrases "potential mother" or the more common "mother-to-be" are, for the purposes of abortion stories, contentious, although mother-to-be is perfectly acceptable for ordinary usage.

* The medical facility where an abortion is performed is a "clinic" or "hospital" and should be further explained as either in- or out-patient. We do not, for example, use the provocative word "abortuary."

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