PC Verbal Engineering

Semantics are the weapons in the abortion controversy. Nowhere have the semantic weapons been more effective than in the labels the news media apply to each side.

  • Media use the term 'foetus' rather than 'pre-born child' or 'baby' unless abortion is not involved.
  • Traditionally the media have called individuals by their chosen designation, i.e. "pro-choice" or "pro-life".
  • The media use advocates of abortion chosen name "pro-choice."
  • "Pro-life" is rejected by the media who use the terms "anti-abortion," "opponents of abortion," or "anti-choicers."
  • Abortion opponents say the way the media misrepresents the issues involved undermines their position.

Politically correct language, verbal engineering and abortion

Propaganda is a partner to revolution. Persuading people to embrace new ideas, new concepts, is helped by the astute use of language and slogans.

The Bolsheviks in 1917 employed the inspirational "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"

The Nazi's: "Ein (One)Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Fatherland! Ein Fuhrer!" Germans called such slogans "Thinking with the blood."

Vladmir Lenin first coined the phrase "politically correct". "Ideas," he said, "are more dangerous than guns. We do not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?"

Political correctness is seen by its proponents as a way of neutralising prejudice and according respect to others. It is also seen as verbal engineering that avoids reality by employing euphemisms to make acceptable what was previously unacceptable.
They created slogans that reasonated with the language of the emerging feminist movement

Abortion-rights pioneers Lawrence Lader and Dr Bernard Nathanson, were faced with the challenge of changing public and political perception. They created slogans that reasonated with the language of the emerging feminist movement: "The right to control my own body." "Not the church, not the state, women shall decide their fate."

They succeeded in identifying abortion-rights with human rights, social progress, personal autonomy and freedom. A major advance was the adoption by health bureaucracies of euphemistic language to describe the abortion procedure and who or what was being aborted.

Opponents of abortion speak of the "baby", "unborn child", "killing", but the language of medicine is about "termination of pregnancy" (TOP) "interruption of pregnancy", "the pregnancy", "products of conception." 

Whose language for public discourse?
The arrival of abortion as a socially progressive human right posed a challenge for the media. Readers or viewers were having abortions. Newsroom staff were having abortions. What sort of language could be used that was social sensitive and acceptable. That didn't upset a news outlet's audience or readership.
"Reproductive rights", "a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy", is more acceptable and less controversial than, "a mother should have the right to kill her unborn baby."


The mainstream media use the term "fetus" (the preferred term of abortion-rights advocates), rather than "baby", "unborn child", or "pre-born child" (as abortion opponents prefer). "Fetus" is medically correct, value-free and non-emotional.

"Semantics are the weapons with which this civil war is being fought," wrote U.S. syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, referring to the labels the news media apply to each side.

According to Frances Kissling, executive-director of Catholics for a Free Choice, abortion-rights advocates made a shrewd tactical decision when they shifted the terms of the debate from "the question of whose rights will prevail, the woman's or the fetus, to who will decide, women or the government."
The tactical decision to employ the term "pro-choice", emerged from focus group research.

The tactical decision to employ the term "pro-choice", emerged from focus group research. U.S. public opinion surveys had consistently shown an essential contradiction. Most Americans thought that some restrictions should be placed on abortion, but also that the choice to have an abortion should be made by the individual woman.

Thus abortion-rights advocates want to be described as "pro-choice". But because abortion opponents believe that the key issue in the debate is about the life of the fetus, they would like to be known as pro-life.

However, this causes problems of balance in the eyes of some editors. Accepting "pro-life" could be construed as accepting their side of the argument. Conversely the same could be said of using "pro-choice".

"Pro-life" is widely seen as an emotionally-loaded term that implicitly suggests that the other side is "anti-life" or "pro-death". By a process of elimination, the common usage is now "opponents of abortion", or "anti-abortion".
"In making one side ‘pro' and the other ‘anti', we inevitably cast one in a positive light and the other in a negative."


A Los Angeles Times reporter, Karen Tumulty, who specialised in abortion, claimed that "In making one side ‘pro' and the other 'anti', we inevitably cast one in a positive light and the other in a negative."

How semantics in abortion can be a potential minefield, is illustrated by what happened at the Milwaukee Journal when the editor decided that the term "pro-life" would be used to balance "pro-choice".

On receiving the memo, 80 reporters and editors petitioned him in protest. After listening to the staff's objections, the policy was revised. Both "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were abandoned. "Henceforth," the editor wrote, "the paper would use descriptive phrases such as 'anti-abortion groups' and 'abortion-rights advocates'. Although 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' should be part of a journalistic vocabulary, they should be used sparingly and generally should not appear in headlines."

Alleged Misrepresentation
Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and abortion opponent, who has written a book on abortion, claims that the media's repeated mischaracterization of the U.S Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision have helped undermine efforts to have Roe reversed.
The Supreme Court actually said a women could have an abortion even in the last three months of pregnancy


She argues that for several decades major newspapers have given the impression that Roe vs. Wade allows only first-trimester abortions, when in fact the Supreme Court actually said a women could have an abortion even in the last three months of pregnancy if that were necessary for the preservation of her life or health.

A few editors have assigned a particular journalist to cover abortion full-time, specifically so they can get to know the issues and individuals involved and provide reports that are broad, informed and fair.

Nancy Myers, director of communications for the U.S. National Right to Life Committee, says she doesn't expect reporters to be totally objective about abortion because: "anyone who spends any amount of time on abortion and professes to be impartial or undecided, is either stupid or intellectually dishonest."

"What we want are reporters who recognize the validity of both sides of the debate and convey the many facts and arguments to the readers."

"Newspeak"
In 1948, the George Orwell's classic book "1984," which used the term "Newspeak," which was used to describe the language of the land of Oceana, and which was engineered to make impossible the communication of ideas which were not acceptable to Big Brother.

The book tells the story of a society where a repressive bureaucratic elite attempts to manipulate the very thoughts of men by controlling their language.

Old words, with comfortable, familiar meanings, are either scuttled into disuse, or are redefined to fit the elite's pernicious perspective. They are either slyly sidled, or are emptied of their common significance, only to be filled with some alien denotation.

According to this Newspeak, words like honour, justice, morality, science, and religion cease to exist altogether, while words like war, peace, freedom, slavery, and ignorance have their meanings completely transposed.

Many claim that the media have effectively used this "Newspeak"  regarding abortion.