The Corner

Politics & Policy

Poynter, Media Bias, and the Scientific Terminology of Abortion

(Catherine Benson/Reuters)

Over at the Poynter Institute — self-appointed “the world’s most influential school for journalists” — Ethics and Leadership Chair Kelly McBride has some advice for reporters on what terminology to use when covering abortion. Like the NPR reminder about “longstanding guidance” for policing the language of the abortion debate a few weeks back, McBride’s contribution is couched in the tone of a neutral observer determined to provide readers with accurate information, aiming to eschew the politicized rhetoric on either side of this controversial topic.

But McBride’s introductory remarks betray her right off the bat:

As nearly one third of the state legislatures in the United States consider enacting “fetal heartbeat bills” — the movement by lawmakers to outlaw abortion as early as six weeks gestation — the debate over abortion has become a war of words and their meaning.

At six weeks gestation, a fertilized and dividing egg is called an embryo, according to the Cleveland Clinic and other medical sources. Fetus is the accurate medical term eight weeks into gestation and up until birth. And that shoosh-shoosh sound? That’s not really a heartbeat, because there’s no heart yet. Instead, it’s an electrical impulse that will eventually become the heartbeat.

She goes on to praise the New York Times and the Daily Beast for employing phrases such as “embryonic pulsing” and “after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’ heart” in their coverage of heartbeat bills, as well as for avoiding “words like baby, heartbeat and child,” which she says lend “moral gravity” to the argument against abortion.

McBride presents these decisions as evidence of a growing desire in the media to cover abortion impartially, to opt for neutral scientific terminology instead of inaccurate (in her view) terms like “heartbeat,” “infanticide,” or “partial-birth abortion.”

But these choices aren’t neutral at all. Media outlets consistently implement scientific terms only to conceal the reality of abortion and assist those who favor access to it. Far from invoking science to report on heartbeat bills impartially, media outlets have in fact deferred to pro-abortion doctors and celebrities, who insist that a “fetal heartbeat” is a mere “cluster of pulsing cells” or “electrical activity” and demand that the press refer to the legislation as “fetal pole cardiac activity” bills.

Wish granted, I suppose.

But this ostensibly conscientious parsing of biological terminology studiously obscures the scientific reality most relevant to this debate: Every abortion procedure ends the life of a genetically distinct, living human being.

A journalist might use the medically precise term “intact dilation & extraction” to refer to what is colloquially called a “partial-birth abortion,” for instance, but regardless of which phrase appears in an article, the procedure still entails partially delivering a living human being, crushing its skull, and removing its brain (or, for the more precise journalists, its “cranial contents”).

And whether journalists refer to the “electrical activity” of an unborn human being’s “cluster of pulsing cells” as a “heartbeat” or not, heartbeat bills protect the life of a distinct human being — not a clump of cells, not a parasite, not a part of its mother. The media consternation about scientific precision is a sideshow to distract from that scientific fact.

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