I have always been interested in words. This fall, I began my third year at Carleton University where I am studying linguistics. I recently did an article for The Interim blog Soconvivium about a story in The Atlantic, which discussed women waiting to have children and the means some might use if they grew too old to conceive naturally. The piece reminded me just how important correct language is when discussing issues like abortion.
A pro-life friend, who read The Atlantic article before I did, was perplexed by the use of the words “accidental pregnancy.” Pregnancy can never be “accidental.” It is a natural consequence of sex and part of what intercourse was designed to achieve. A doctor was also quoted in the article referring to these occurrences as an “oops.” What more demeaning term could be used for the existence of a valuable human being? Another line describes 87 per cent of fetuses carried by 45-year-old mothers as “normal.” Nobody who grew up in the later decades of the last century should dare use the word in that context today. It is widely understood as offensive towards people with disabilities.
What everyday terms do people use that might slant the way they think? An article from Secular Pro-Life focuses on some frequent linguistic missteps. For example, “parents-to-be” are parents now if life begins when science and pro-life advocates say it does. Similarly, I have been gently called out by friends for referring to babies-in-utero as “on the way.” “She’s already here – just on the inside where you can’t see her,” said one new grandmother.
Sarah Terzo of ClinicQuotes.com says that we should not call preborn children “it.” Using “he”, “she” or a generic name like “Peanut” makes the child more evident to those around us. Of course, there is still a debate on whether “unborn” or “preborn” is a more fitting description for that stage of life. The former’s similarity to “undead” apparently evokes images of zombies for some. I prefer “preborn” as well, but for a different reason: my mind seems to jump from “un,” a prefix meaning “not” to “never.”
The Secular Pro-Life piece also questions the way we calculate ages. As a young woman asked me while I was participating in the Genocide Awareness Project this past spring, if life begins at conception, why don’t we say children are nine months old at birth? A friend of mine with a new son found a simple way around this – rather than saying “three months old,” the father would say that his little one was “born three months ago.”
There is even a controversy over what we should call ourselves. Writers for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform and The Interim both make good points in vouching for their preferred labels. “Pro-life” may encompass a broader range of issues such as euthanasia, stem-cell research, and in-vitro fertilization. It also presents a softer, more positive image to the public. In today’s age of tolerance and affirmation, everyone wants to be for something instead of against it. On the other hand, “anti-abortion” is more to-the-point about one of the main issues we oppose. Using this term is more likely to make someone ask what abortion is, or why it is wrong. I am not sure which one I prefer and tend to describe myself as pro-life, however, I will not shrink from the other name.
What about our opponents? They would prefer “pro-choice” and I am happy to comply, because it allows me to clarify the choice they are in favour of. I no longer cringe at “anti-choice” either, because it affords me the same opportunity. Many of my peers use “pro-abortion.” Though I can see their rationale, I believe fruitful discussions start with the assumption that few people actually like abortion. The average person may not know what abortion involves, even though they appear to favour it. Therefore, I save that “zinger” for those who promote abortion at all costs.
Language is a key element of the abortion debate, and one I could spend a lot more time on it. For example, what are the connotations of “advocate” versus “activist”? If words are twisted or misused, as some media outlets and pro-choice organizations are wont to do, it is very difficult for our message to get across. Pro-lifers should do what we can to make our language clear – as clear as the reality of which we are trying to convince others.
Taylor Hyatt is a third-year linguistics student at Carleton University and a former summer student at The Interim.