Words matter. They hold power, they influence opinions, and they change minds. Nowhere is this truer than in discussions about abortion. The way the decision to end a pregnancy is framed, the way it is described, and the exact words and phrases used to refer to it can greatly influence views and behaviours.
That’s why Marie Stopes International (MSI) joined forces with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) to call for the BBC, a hugely influential broadcaster with a global weekly audience of over 400 million, to stop using the term ‘heartbeat bill’ in reference to bills introduced recently by some US states to restrict women’s access to abortion after six weeks.
In its response, the BBC stated that while it would not ‘aim to adopt it as our own description of the legislation’, it refused to stop using the phrase, stating that it was in ‘common usage’.
This is exactly what anti-choice groups want and is a direct example of how they are exploiting the mainstream media to insert dangerously emotive language into the common vernacular, thus legitimising and normalising it, and by association, their position on abortion.
Not only is the term ‘heartbeat bill’ inflammatory, it is also factually incorrect, a point picked up by the Guardian, which earlier this month wrote about its decision to review its style guide to remove reference to the misleading and manipulative term. The Guardian has chosen to reflect the factual advice issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) which states that there is no detectable heartbeat at six weeks, and to cease to use the phrase in its reporting. We are saddened that the BBC has not followed suit and is instead happy to amplify phrases which can put women’s health and lives at risk.
The term ‘heartbeat bill’ follows a long tradition among anti-abortion groups of using emotive and illustrative language to pull on heart strings and appeal to, and manipulate, broader audiences who are largely supportive of a woman’s right to choose. The phrase ‘pro-life’ has a similar purpose: to position anti-abortionists as being on the side of ‘humanity’, despite their complete disregard for the lives of the millions of women and children who suffer, and even die, due to restrictive policies on abortion.
A recent New York Times exposition of the language used to frame both sides of the abortion ‘debate’, also points to the term ‘partial-birth abortion’ as being instrumental in rallying public opinion against later-term abortions; and ‘dismemberment abortion’ being another example of the highly graphic and emotionally charged language anti-abortion groups use over and over again to ensure their words gain cut-through. This kind of language is emotionally manipulative, false and dismissive of women.
By contrast, as the NYT explains, the language of the pro-choice movement has centred around more factual phrases such as ‘safe and legal’ or attempts to explain procedures using medical terminology or legalese which many people don’t understand or connect with at an emotional level.
In response, some pro-choice organisations have strengthened the language they use, talking about ‘forced births’ and ‘forced pregnancies’, while recent moves to encourage women to share their own experiences through campaigns such as #ShoutMyAbortion and #YouKnowMe aim to put women, not foetuses, at the centre of discussions, and to reduce stigma.
At MSI we are unapologetically pro-choice and believe that the mainstream media should take a factual, impartial stance when reporting on the issues germane to the work we do, so as not to inadvertently amplify just one side of the debate.
We also talk openly and proudly about abortion, to remove stigma and stand up for the one in four women globally who will get an abortion in their lifetime.
We try to avoid too much of the medical and sector jargon which distances audiences from our mission; we are clear and straightforward in our language, and we will do everything we can to call out the inaccuracy and biased nature of terms like ‘heartbeat bills’.
We tell stories about our work in terms of its impact on women’s lives: on their opportunities and choices. And we aren’t afraid to tell emotional stories and to say the same thing time and again until we are heard.
Because words are powerful, and we should choose them — and use them — wisely.