The Power of Language: The Abortion Ban

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The Power of Language: The Abortion Ban

Gloria Feldt

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding the federal abortion ban is based on a public relations campaign of biased and inaccurate language. As a result, women's health will suffer.

"[The] partial birth abortion ban is a political scam but a public relations goldmine …The major benefit is the debate that surrounds it."

So said Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, a militant anti-choice group that blockaded abortion providers, in 2003.

Today's U.S. Supreme Court's Gonzales v Carhart decision upholding the federal abortion ban is based on that pubic relations goldmine. It is a travesty of language bought and repeated endlessly by journalists who were sometimes uninformed and sometimes just too lazy to get it right.

Indeed, the travesty of language around abortion is so pervasive that even Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the decision for the Court's majority, in addition to using the term "partial birth abortion", also used the term "abortion doctor" repeatedly in the ruling (Opinion Gonzales v. Carhart). Why did he not simply refer to doctors as "doctors", or if ob/gyns call them "ob/gyns"? If another surgical procedure were under scrutiny, would he have he referred to "tonsillectomy doctor" or "hysterectomy doctor"? Of course not. But those who want to take away a woman's human right to make her own childbearing decisions entirely have for so long used the term "abortion doctor" as an epithet that they have succeeded in getting even the highest court in the land to use their language.

Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.

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But such bias is just the tip of the iceberg in the battle over what losing plaintiff Dr. Leroy Carhart has called "partial truth abortion". There is no such thing as partial birth abortion. The term will be found in no medical book. It was made up in 1995 by Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right-to-Life Committee, and former U.S. Representative and current Florida appeals court judge Charles Canady explicitly to confuse, horrify, and deceive—to manipulate language with the intent of sensationalizing the abortion debate. In particular, they intended to take the focus away from the woman and place the attention and the greater value on the fetus instead. The leading medical associations all agreed this was a misleading term, but the media never checked their language and by 2001, 90% of articles were using the term without so much as a "so-called" attached.

As I reported in my 2004 book The War on Choice, an AP managing editor admitted when challenged that "partial birth abortion" was emotionally loaded, but said they continued to use it because it was instantly recognizable. Another major daily newspaper editor admitted it wasn't correct but said it was easier to use than alternatives.

Though an almost identical abortion ban was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the past, it was a different Supreme Court. Elections have consequences. Since then, President George W. Bush has had the opportunity to appoint two new justices to the Court, justices who are ideologically in sync with the biased language. That shift made all the difference to women today and will continue to affect women tomorrow.

Now we have a landmark Supreme Court decision, built upon the counterfeit foundation of a made-up term that the media accepted and used uncritically, and that has propelled the highest court to issue a ruling allowing to stand a law which at a minimum:

  1. Does not provide adequate exceptions for a woman's health, which means that a fundamental legal principle of the primary importance of women's health has been overturned.
  2. For the first time upholds a federal law which steps directly into the physician's exam room and tells him or her what medical technique cannot be used even if the physician's judgment is that it is the safest to protect her health and future fertility.
  3. Will not reduce the number of abortions but will over time, according to the doctors who know women's health best, cause an increase in medical complications, and possibly even deaths.

The public relations goldmine of those who aim for nothing less than to eliminate reproductive justice at all times from all women has paid off for them today. Language, after all, has consequences too.

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