In our September 1990 issue, The Interim briefly reported on a change for the better in the U.S. media’s abortion -reporting language. In the following article, Dr. Donald DeMarco expands on the U.S. media’s shift toward greater objectivity.
Between the Lines, a biweekly publication out of Los Angeles reports that the Los Angeles Times ‘ has banned the use of the term ‘pro-choice’ in its coverage of the abortion issue. According to the newsletter, which covers the politics of the media, L.A. Times’ Managing Editor George Cotliar circulated a memo to his editorial staff announcing the change in style. “Effective immediately, we are changing Times’ style on abortion terminology in ways I hope will bring greater precision and fairness to our coverage, of an emotionally charged debate,” the memo said. “The most obvious change involves the use of the term ‘pro-choice,’ which no longer will be acceptable as a description of those who favour maintaining legal access to abortion. The preferred terms will be ‘abortion rights advocates’, ‘supporters of legal abortion,’ ‘those who favour abortion rights,’ and the like.”
The Chicago Tribune has also retired the term ‘pro-choice’, following the experience of a staff writer Barbara Brotman. Ms. Brotman, after covering abortion issues for the Tribune, became convinced that a more neutral term was needed. After researching the issue, she stated that “It’s my impression that a number of papers are dropping the use of the term ‘pro-choice’.”
The New York Times has avoided using ‘pro-choice’ for some time, according to style expert Bill Connelly. The Washington Post has also been avoiding the expression. According to one of its editors, the Post prefers such terms as ‘abortion rights’ or ‘advocates of abortion rights’.
The Associated Press, the largest news agency in the world, and one that frequently serves as an institutional guidepost on style, has agreed to review the matter of employing the term ‘pro-choice’. “We’re always looking at these issues of style ‘says Deputy Managing Editor Charles Hanley. “I wasn’t aware of how widespread the dissatisfaction with ‘pro-choice’ is. It’s probably time for us to take another look at it.”
Re-examination of the term ‘pro-choice’ by the secular press is long overdue. It is a misleading expression in that it creates the impression that what is at stake is choice rather than the life of the unborn child. ‘Choice’ is not the issue. A woman may certainly choose life. It is life that is the issue.
William Safire offers us a bit of history in the evolution of the key slogans employed in the abortion debate. In his book William Safire on Language, he tells us that before Roe v. Wade, people were “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.” After the 1973 Supreme Court decision opponents of abortion looked for a handle that would not be considered negative. A good example was available in the generation-old movement to oppose the unionized workplace, which called itself ‘right-to-work’ rather than ‘anti-union’. On that analogy, ‘anti-abortion’ became ‘right-to-life’. Later it was shortened to ‘pro-life’.
Advocates of abortion then needed to counter the ‘pro-life’ appellation. They could hardly march under the banner of ‘anti-life’ or ‘pro-death’ (both of which are logical counterparts to ‘pro-life’).
The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights then took up the idea of ‘rights’ from their own opponents. They combined it with an old anti-integration slogan, ‘freedom of choice,’ and put forward ‘right-to-choose’. Thus, as ‘right-to-life’ became ‘pro-life’, so ‘right to choose’ became ‘pro-choice’.
National Day of Truth
What has brought about the recent reluctance on the part of the secular press to employ the abortion movement’s prized slogan? No doubt there are a multitude of factors. . One in particular comes to mind, a phenomenon in the United States known ‘ as National Day of Truth.
In May 1990, ‘pro-life’ advocates protested and picketed well over a hundred media outlets across the country, appealing to the press to be more honest and fair-minded in their reporting of abortion. In some cases apologies were successfully elicited and pledges were made by various newspapers to improve their media coverage.
While marching in front of the offices of The Providence Journal in Rhode Island, one picketer’s sign said much to deflate the rhetoric of ‘pro-choice’. The sign read: “Pro-choice, Your name’s a lie. Unborn kids don’t choose to die.” This sign was photographed and appeared in the Journal’s Sunday edition. Editor: The situation in Canada is for all practical purposes, unchanged. Toronto’s Globe and Mail employs the term ‘pro-life’ more frequently than it used to, but the term ‘anti-abortionist’ is still in vogue.
Other newspapers habitually use the term ‘anti-abortion’ to characterize any and all pro-life activities, including those of the new pro-life political parties, Family Coalition Party (FCP) and the Christian Heritage Party (CHP).
All Canadian newspapers – as far as we know -continue to employ the term ‘pro-choice’; never do they use ‘pro-abortion’, nor do they ever refer to abortion as the killing of unborn babies. For example, on January 9, 1991, two headlines in the Halifax Mail Star read “Anti-abortion groups urge end to MSI coverage” and in the Metro section, “Anti-abortion group to show fetus picture on billboards.”