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Of Mothers and Fetuses and Abortionists

Two recent articles highlight the powerful influence that language has over the way people think. Word choice is at the centre of an article about USA ‘abortionist’ Warren Hern . He hates the word abortionist: ‘the opponents of abortion have turned it into a degrading and demeaning word that has the same negative connotations as the most despicable racial epithet’.

But the author argues that it is the right word, an accurate word, and our discomfort with it is only a measure of how poisoned the language of abortion has become. The article does not refer to Hern by his name but uses the poisoned word, the ‘abortionist’, ignoring both the normal convention referring to people the way they want plus Hern’s abhorrence of the word. This produces an accusatory tone that suggests that the author is antagonistic towards Hern, although other that name calling the author does not seem unsupportive of him. Perhaps the author is expressing his mixed feelings. 

In a second article ‘abortion advocates’ are criticized for insisting that are not ‘pro-abortion’ but ‘pro-choice’. The author notes that that when people are in favour of legalizing the death penalty, they don’t get upset at being labeled pro-death penalty. When most people take on a cause, they don’t usually mind being associated with the motivation for that cause. It is suggested that abortion advocates are the only exception. 

But does being labeled as pro-abortion parallel being pro-death penalty? I suggest not. Someone who is pro-death penalty does not favour killing itself, but favours the penalty being an option for some convicted criminals. Similarly, those who are pro-choice favour women having the option of abortion; they are not promoting aborting fetuses.

Perhaps the term pro-abortion is rejected because of ‘negative connotations’ associated with the word abortion. People may be pro-death penalty but are less likely to claim to be pro-hanging which may have more negative connotations. Similarly, they may say they are pro-euthanasia but they are less likely to claim to be pro-assisted suicide. This may also be one reason that termination of pregnancy is sometimes used in the first half of pregnancy instead of abortion.

For some time I have considered myself pro-choice. With some reluctance I come to the conclusion that the author has a point – I should identify myself as pro-abortion. I would prefer to be pro-choice but that may seem evasive and does not identify the cause.

To argue for the use of correct terminology runs the risk of being accused of being politically correct, or PC. But even medical journals focus on language. Editors realize the importance of word choice – men and women are no longer referred to as husbands and wives they were in 1984 (Stray-Pedersen B, Stray-Pedersen S. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1984; 148: 140–144). The best term to use for miscarriage has been the subject of extensive debate (Freeling P, Gask L.  BMJ 1998; 317: 1028).

Nowhere is language more sensitive than in caring for pregnant women. It might be expected that professionals caring for pregnant women would be particularly careful to use appropriate language. The virtual universal uptake of prenatal testing means that doctors cannot predict which women will ultimately seek abortion. Some doctors are careful – those caring for women requesting abortion would be unlikely to refer to the pregnant woman as a mother, or the fetus as a baby. The woman does not currently wish to either be a mother or have a baby. Care with language acknowledges that using the terms mother and baby may suggest an anti-abortion attitude and could risk adding to the distress and difficulty of the woman’s decision. 

It is wrong to call a pregnant woman a mother. A mother is a female parent, one who has borne a child (de Crespigny et al.  Br J Obstet Gynaecol 1999; 106: 1235). Pregnant women and mothers have contrasting rights and responsibilities: pregnant women have the right to abortion in at least some circumstances in most western countries, while it is illegal for a mother to kill her child.

The definition of a baby is less clear cut. Some dictionaries include both unborn and newly born human beings as a baby, while others define a baby as a child in the first year or two of life. Although couples often think of and refer to their fetus as a baby, most will request abortion when a major abnormality is detected, particularly in the first half of pregnancy.

The woman decides when she would be unlikely to request abortion i.e. when she confers some status on her fetus. This is commonly following completion of prenatal testing which for most is around 20 weeks.

Professionals should try to use language that is not offensive to the woman. Doctors are in a position of power – their word choices may influence decisions of women and their partners. The term mother should be reserved for times when it is grammatically correct – a woman who has borne a child. ‘Fetus’ is the best term until at least until 20 weeks, and sometimes later (de Crespigny L. Aust NZ J Obstet Gynaecol 1996; 36: 435).

We know that language can be offensive. That is why most probably agree that it is right to have laws against discriminatory and sexist language.  We also understand why the advertising industry invests huge resources into choosing an appropriate name for a product.  And we recognize the reason that the anti-abortion movement commonly prefers to use 'killing of babies' instead of abortion.

Women considering abortion face what must be one of the most emotive personal issues. Yet it is common to see mother and baby used during pregnancy, including in the press and by professionals.

Careful word choice can no longer be reasonably claimed to be mere PC. Language has a powerful effect on the messages that we send.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. “It is wrong to call a pregnant woman a mother. A mother is a female parent, one who has borne a child.”


    What (genetic, biological etc.) relation does the woman have to the individual in her womb then? Is she a proto-mother of some kind? In terms of straight forward genetic biology she is the mother, and that makes perfect grammatical (and common) sense.

    I can see why many are driven to deny this genetic and biological picture, since they’re trying to shoe-horn in the permissibility of killing offspring. There are loads of ways women can be made to feel less bad about having an abortion (also men made to feel less bad about promoting abortion), and dehumanising the unborn (through language use) is undeniably one way this is done. However, it is instructive that for the many women who are negatively affected by having an abortion, the counselling process focusses heavily on the humanity of the preborn, to the extent of naming the baby, and grieving for the child lost.

  2. These are fine points, but I have a question about “audience”: to whom is this advice about careful word choice directed? Doctors? Journalists? Everyone? If the latter, I’m worried, because it’s true that language DOES have a powerful effect, namely, the power of persuasion. I agree with the grammatical points you make, e.g. about “mother,” but at the same time, I see the point of someone using that term in ways that run afoul of your 20 week starting line: it’s to get others to look at the pregnant woman as a mother, as someone “with child,” and thereby to look at the fetus as a child.

    I agree that there are contexts in which some of the terminology you discuss would be inappropriate, precisely because word choice often is intended to have a persuasive effect. But perhaps that shows that where one shouldn’t be in the business of persuading–say, in one’s capacity as a medical advisor, or a reporter–then one should be careful to avoid wordings that any sensible person recognizes are “charged” terms within the ongoing moral debate.

  3. I do not think you have been given any good reason to identify yourself as pro-abortion.
    Would people who are pro-death penalty be satisfied with sentencing judges merely having the choice of imnposing the death penalty in certain cases? Not likely, if the choice were never in fact taken to impose it!
    The difference between people who are pro-death penalty and people who are pro-abortion-choice (this is a properly neutral term) is that the former favor the thing in question being applied in certain circumstances. Death penalty advocates are not concerned primarily with protecting judges from interference with their freedom to choose.
    Many of those who are pro-abortion-choice conscientiously refrain from making any judgment about the circumstances, if any, under which an abortion should be chosen – thinking this a matter for individuals to decide for themselves. The important thing for them is only that the choice is available for individuals to make.

  4. Lachlan de Crespigny

    Thank you for your comments.

    Stephen: If the definition of a mother was related just to genetic biology then a pregnant woman would be a mother. Fortunately in these days of prenatal testing and legal abortion it is not – using the same word for a female parent and a pregnant woman would cause confusion in some situations.

    Matt: The “audience” is primarily professionals caring for pregnant women who, in some cases deliberately, and in others thoughtlessly, use language that is potentially confusing or upsetting to pregnant women. But it is also to everyone who does not aim to use language to convince others of their position. I also would not necessarily oppose people using language to promote their views as long as they are doing it knowingly and reasonably.

    Simon: I like pro-abortion-choice – it is a good and accurate term even though it might be a little clumsy in general use. I accept your points about pro-death penalty. But to me it does seem valid to say that people supporting causes are not always pedantic about whether the name indicates that they are for the principle rather than for the action. Some people say they are ‘pro-the-Iraq-war’ – they are not pleased there is a war, and they presumably are not pleased that people are killing each other in Iraq, but feel that the issues are worth fighting for (although I am not clear what they are).

  5. “Fortunately in these days of prenatal testing and legal abortion it is not – using the same word for a female parent and a pregnant woman would cause confusion in some situations. ”

    Lachlan confusion to whom? I agree with Stephen on this one. Humans have a history of using language to justifiy harm to other humans, one should be very skeptical when one starts changing conventional language meaning to downplay that harm.

    Afterall the relationship is primarily a biological reproductive one; I’m not sure anyone would be game to deny this relationship in other species, so why should we start know?

    Having said that I think both sides use language to further their aims often coopting the others use of terms to point score.

  6. Lachlan de Crespigny

    SimonJM: Confusion in the minds of pregnant women is arguably the most troubling. When a fetal abnormality is diagnosed women will often ask a question that means: ‘Is it OK to consider having an abortion’? Doctors can inappropriately influence decision-making by using language that suggests that abortion is unacceptable.

  7. I do not agree that pro-choice and pro-abortion are the same thing at all. I would describe myself as pro-choice, but definitely anti-abortion. I think women should be given education, access to contraception, financial support to keep their children regardless of marital status, financial support and respite care for parents of disabled children, etc, and anything else that will reduce the abortion rate. I just don’t think abortion should be illegal, but do not agree that this equates with being “pro” abortion. I would be happy to be called “pro-keeping the legal option open while educating and supporting parents to make it less necessary,” but “pro-choice” is a lot shorter.

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