By K.J. Farrell
Part 1 of this series focused on concern that the anti-abortion movement has with numbers in their claims that the media discriminates against them. Part 2 focused on news coverage and extremist branding. Part 3 concerns semantics and will end hopefully enlightening you about abortion-related discrimination that does exist in media.
All who have worked in the trenches of abortion know that each side has preferred terms for how they are described. Readers here know the arguments well. My own bias deems pro-choice terms as sensible or logical and anti-choice terms as manipulative or deceptive to downright maniacal. I only spend time and space on semantics because the terms used by media continue to be highlighted by anti-choicers as evidence of discrimination.
Pro-Choice Includes Pro-Life
In polls about abortion, people can be unsure whether they identify as pro-life or pro-choice. Many who choose the pro-life identity also believe that abortion should remain legal or that Roe vs. Wade should not be overturned. The term, “pro-life”, causes confusion, which explains why on occasion there will be reports about a “shift” among the public to the “pro-life position.” When the poll is looked at in detail, the majority support legal abortion with variations in restrictions.
The fundamental problem with referring to anti-abortion organizations or people as pro-life remains, that time and again they demonstrate that they are pro-fetal life; they are pro-birth. Thus, it makes the most sense to refer to them as anti-abortion or anti-choice. There is no evidence that their “support” is extended beyond the duration of pregnancy for women that took their advice and gave birth, thinking that “sidewalk counselors” or deceptive Crisis Pregnancy Centers would actually help them beyond giving birth. Even the help offered to women who choose adoption is limited. All who consider themselves pro-choice are pro-life; they value living beings, meaningful contributions in life, comprehensive reproductive healthcare, sex education, and the ability of women to choose for themselves the appropriate response to their pregnancies or to prevent pregnancy completely.
If the media referred to one group as “pro-life”, it would falsely imply that the other group was not pro-life. Although “pro-choice” is inclusive of all views, it is not used. The media generally uses “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights” or “abortion foes” and “abortion rights proponents”. Neither side is completely satisfied although such terms offer clarity to dispassionate readers.
In recent years, anti-abortion organizations have failed in their attempts to market restrictive legislation as “protective” and claim the media is discriminating. The media uses “restrictive” when any legislation is proposed that creates new barriers to an existing policy or law. For example, when states increased the drinking age from 18 to 21, the media did not refer to the laws as “protective” of the commuting public.
In short, it is impossible for the media to semantically satisfy anti-abortion people and organizations. A fetus is not a baby. “Partial birth abortion” might evoke emotion; the medical term is “late term abortion”. Media refers to doctors who travel between clinics as “contract physicians” and while some abortion providers do not mind being referred to as an abortionist in the same spirit of other “ists” (oncologist, gynecologist, and so on), it can imply negativity thanks to the anti-abortion movement’s portrayal of abortion providers as unprofessional, unsavory, not-real doctors.
Words do count. Their meaning – semantics – influences perception, which then influences policy. The media does not discriminate against the anti-choice movement through semantics. Rather, the media is being fair and responsible. Period.
For all the attention given to media discrimination and bias towards the anti-abortion movement, discrimination against abortion actually is a concern. It has always been irksome to see male politicians conduct Congressional hearings about abortion and contraception, usually excluding women from testifying. A couple of years ago, the Daily Beast reported that a study by The 4th Estate found that, “Among 35 major national publications…men had 81 percent of the quotes in stories about abortion… In stories about birth control, men scored 75 percent of the quotes…” Why is that? There are plenty of females in leadership positions quite capable of talking about abortion and birth control.
In January, 2014 various online publications, including the reproductive health journal, Contraception, reported the results of research concerning abortion-related plots in American film and television during 1916-2013. Conducted by University of California, San Francisco’s Abortion Onscreen Program, the research concluded in part, “Patterns of outcomes and rates of mortality are not representative of real experience and may contribute to social myths around abortion.” Slate (1/17/14) also reported on the study, “…Hollywood grossly exaggerates the risk of abortion…” and quoted a researcher commenting, “The linking of abortion and death can be very salient in the public’s mind. It just creates this social myth of abortion as more dangerous than it actually is.” The Abortion Onscreen Program’s website states that, of 385 abortion-related plotlines, “…these depictions contribute to social myths about abortion, abortion providers, and abortion patients, they can have real effects on women’s experience of seeking abortion care. Media studies scholars argue that cultural representations have political effects as well…” The evidence is clear. It is also empirical. There is media discrimination involving abortion – it most definitely is not against the anti-abortion/anti-choice movement. Anti-choice organizations long ago branded themselves as they have; their accusations about media bias are contrived and only serve to reinforce their branding.
After reading through the research and numerous reports interpreting its content, I was reminded of John Irving’s Cider House Rules (1985), made into a movie in 1999. Dr. Wilbur Larch, the director of an orphanage, secretly provides abortions after seeing the devastating results of those done in back alleys. Homer Wells, who grew up in the orphanage and loved Dr. Larch as if he was his father, trained to become an obstetrician but he thought abortion was wrong. He eventually decides to do as Dr. Larch and perform abortions, hoping that one day they would be legal and other doctors would provide them. How abortion was treated in the book and the film was greeted with mixed thought. In reality, Irving presented abortion to us with a tone of, well, reality. Is it too much to ask the same from Hollywood today?