Identity Politics

How Even NPR Weaponizes the Language of Abortion

May 24, 2019
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“Language is a powerful weapon, and in the hands of a skilled person, it can be used to manipulate others.”

—Julius Caesar


Sure, Caesar learned later in life that shivs can be even more powerful weapons, but he had a point about language. It’s a lesson that modern liberals have learned especially well and that they use effectively—albeit more as a cudgel than a shiv—in this age of identity politics.

Sometimes the changes are positive! Describing someone as an “illegal alien” is technically correct but also has the effect of dehumanizing a person who is desperately seeking a better life for his family. Substituting the phrase “undocumented migrant” probably goes too far in obfuscating what’s actually happening. But there are helpful middle grounds—“unauthorized immigrant” or “foreign national”—and recognizing people’s inherent human dignity is a good thing for everyone. If you’re going to err on one side or the other, in general, you don’t ever look back in life and regret being too compassionate to others.

There have been other good evolutions in terminology. Calling those who’ve been sexually assaulted “rape survivors” instead of “rape victims” might feel like a hollow gesture, but if it offers even a small measure of empowerment, then what’s the harm? Honoring a transgender person’s preferred pronouns might seem tedious to an outsider, but is it really different from any of the normal common courtesies we extend to one another as we make our way through each day?

Liberals make a powerful argument that we’re all better when we speak to our fellow man (and woman, and pangender) in a manner that humanizes them. In the main, they are correct.


And yet, this bias for compassion ends abruptly with abortion. God forbid you call an unborn human a “baby,” because OMG, people might start thinking twice about Roe v. Wade.

In response to the abortion laws passed recently in Georgia and Alabama, NPR’s standards and practices editor published the organization’s abortion guidelines for readers. What’s striking is that NPR prides itself on fairness and impartiality but can’t see the biases of its own staffers creeping in on the hottest of hot-button issues.

Here’s a passage from NPR’s ethics handbook on fairness:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.

And a passage on impartiality:

So we strive to report and produce stories that transcend our biases and treat all views fairly. We aggressively challenge our own perspectives and pursue a diverse range of others, aiming always to present the truth as completely as we can tell it.

And, for good measure, respect:

We are sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture. We minimize undue harm and take special care with those who are vulnerable or suffering.

Yet NPR’s guidelines on abortion read like they were been handed down on stone tablets from Planned Parenthood.

They are against the term “partial birth abortion,” preferring instead “intact dilation and extraction.” They have a stark warning about how to refer to the two sides in the debate: “Do not use ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ in copy.” And there are some guidelines that defy any possible claim to impartiality. For example:

Do not refer to murdered Dr. George Tiller as an “Abortion Doctor.” Instead we should say Tiller operated a clinic where abortions are performed.

For some reason, NPR is content to identify a transplant surgeon, heart surgeon, and brain surgeon without such awkwardly twisted constructions (a doctor who performs heart surgery). But not an “abortion doctor.”

There is also a very strange paragraph lamenting the use of the term unborn. What could possibly be objectionable about that, you might wonder?

The term “unborn” implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born. They’re fetuses. Incorrectly calling a fetus a “baby” or “the unborn” is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.

This might be the most inane argument ever made in the entire insane history of America’s abortion debate.

The terms fetus and baby are not mutually exclusive. Fetus is a noun, yes, but one that describes a stage of human development. Just like infant or toddler or adolescent. The only reason to argue that a “fetus” is not a “baby” is to spitefully deny its humanity.

And by the by, if it’s medically incorrect to refer to a fetus as a baby, someone should alert textbook editors, science journalists, every obstetrician ever, the maternity industrial complex, and, um, Planned Parenthood.

Also, the claim that using the word “baby” is some nefarious “strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion” gives the lie to the idea that NPR seeks to be at all fair or impartial on this issue.

There is no passage warning against euphemisms preferred by the pro-choice movement, like “terminating a pregnancy” or “reproductive health care.” There are no calls to “consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides” or be “sensitive to differences in attitudes and culture.” Nope, it’s clear that, on this one issue, there are good guys and there are bad guys.

In this case, it’s the “bad guys” who want to be compassionate toward other people.

Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is the managing editor of The Bulwark.