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‘Notes on Language’: Rewiring the Terminology of Abortion

(Catherine Benson/Reuters)

Rewire.News, an online pro-abortion publication, is rarely worth paying attention to, but occasionally the site features an article that proves useful for highlighting a trend in the changing policy goals or rhetoric of the abortion-rights movement’s most radical wing.

The site’s latest editorial is an example of the latter, giving insight into how abortion advocates shift their language to influence public perception of what abortion is and, as a consequence, whether it should be permitted. “Notes on Language: Why We Stopped Using ‘Surgical Abortion’ at Rewire.News” is the title of the article, written by Rewire’s managing editor Regina Mahone, who outlines a recent change to the site’s style guide.

“Instead of referring to ‘medication and surgical’ abortion to distinguish between abortions induced by pills and abortions performed as an in-clinic procedure, Rewire.News will use ‘medication and procedural’ abortion,” Mahone writes. She goes on:

The term “surgical abortion” has been used by health professionals—and, until now, by Rewire.News—to define any in-clinic abortion not induced by medication. For pregnancies in the first trimester, which is when the vast majority of abortions occur, this involves a procedure called vacuum aspiration. The word “surgical” in this instance is misleading—the procedure doesn’t typically require cutting or suturing of any kind. It’s a five- to ten-minute process involving gentle suction to remove the products of conception from the uterus. [Emphasis added.]

Mahone then notes that “anti-abortion activists” have “weaponized” the term “surgical abortion” in the era of COVID-19, as governors across the country have deemed elective abortions “non-essential” in order to prevent the spread of disease and conserve medical resources for emergency procedures.

“Using language that accurately describes the realities of abortion care won’t stop lawmakers or state officials from trying to take away the constitutional right to abortion,” Mahone concludes, “but it does contribute to our ongoing efforts to reduce abortion stigma in the news.”

Articles such as this one are far more revealing than their authors intend. The battle for public opinion on abortion most often takes the form of a battle over terms. For instance, is a person who supports legal abortion in most circumstances “pro-abortion” or “pro-choice” or an “abortion-rights supporter”? Should those who oppose legal abortion be called “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” or “anti-choice”? Is a human being in utero a “fetus” or an “unborn child” or, as Mahone so blandly puts it, a “product of conception”? These quibbles tend to take up the most space in our broader arguments over abortion policy.

An editorial choice like the one Mahone outlines for Rewire gives away the game. In contrast to abortion-rights advocates, most opponents of abortion view terminology as a secondary concern. I care relatively little whether one wishes to use the term “partial-birth abortion” or “intact dilation and extraction” — my primary concern is that we discuss, and eliminate, a procedure that entails partially delivering a living human being, puncturing his skull, removing the contents, and dissecting his body for removal from his mother. Likewise, it matters little to me whether Rewire would rather refer to “surgical” or “procedural” abortion; what actually matters is what happens in that procedure.

My concern about addressing the reality of abortion is precisely why Rewire’s editorial staff has chosen to alter its terms and taken great pains to explain the reasoning behind that choice. What they call “reducing abortion stigma” is in fact an effort to further obscure from public view, through the use of vague or euphemistic language, the truth of what takes place in an abortion procedure. Mahone’s emphasis on clarity of terms is in fact part of an ongoing campaign to further obfuscate the indisputable fact that each abortion ends a human life.

Our dispute is not, in the end, over language or terms. It is a dispute over whether to permit the act that abortion is, no matter what we call it.

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