abortion guidelines
Love Matters India

How to write (and not write) about abortion

To mark the Global Day for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion (28 September), Love Matters brings to you a handy guide to words and phrases that should be avoided when reporting about abortion, along with alternatives for these words.

Abortion or medical termination of pregnancy is a sensitive issue because of the conflicting opinions people hold about it. Unfortunately and frequently, media-descriptions can add to the problem by sending out unscientific and incorrect meanings thereby, making it seem like an evil and undesirable practice.

To mark the Global Day for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion (28 September), Love Matters brings to you a handy guide to words and phrases that should be avoided when reporting about abortion, along with alternatives for these words.

A change in the nature of reporting would help millions of women gain control over their bodies and help them take their own decisions, without the shame and stigma currently attached to it.


Pregnant woman NOT pregnant mother

Any woman who is pregnant need not necessarily already be a mother to children. To be a mother, the relation has to be with respect to another person, that is, a child. Her relation to the foetus developing in her womb becomes that of mother-child only after delivery – when a young human is produced. So, ‘pregnant mother’ has no meaning, per se.


Foetus, NOT unborn baby/child

A foetus is not a child until it has independent personhood outside the pregnant woman’s womb; so, it cannot be called a child. The term ‘unborn child’ is meaningless. Quite often, we hear and read a highly inappropriate term of calling the aborted pregnancy an unborn baby.

The foetus cannot be called a baby until it is outside of the womb as existing by itself as a young human being, i.e., as a baby. The correct terms to use are pregnancy or foetus.  


Terminate a pregnancy NOT drop the baby

To terminate a pregnancy is another way to describe abortion. But using the term 'drop the baby' is incorrect and inappropriate and creates a wrong mental image for those who read and hear it.


Sex-selective abortion NOT foeticide

Sometimes, the pregnant woman or her relatives get tests done to determine the sex of the to-be-born child (a practice that is illegal in India), based on how the foetus is developing. These tests are usually done to end the pregnancy if the sex is not male, due to son-preference in many cultures of the Indian sub-continent. This practice is called sex-selective abortion, as the reason for terminating the pregnancy is the sex of the child that will be born if the pregnancy is carried to full term.

However, sometimes, this kind of abortion is called foeticide. The term foeticide is completely wrong. ‘Cide’ in the word foeticide is a Latin word that means ‘the act of killing’. This is incorrect usage because to kill, the being has to be alive and existing by itself. ‘Life’ or ‘to be living’, is possible only after birth. And, in this sense, ‘being alive’ does not apply to a foetus.


Preventing unintended pregnancies NOT preventing abortion

What can be prevented is unintended pregnancy – through giving knowledge about contraception-devices and their proper usage to sexual partners, improving access to contraception devices, and so on.

However, it is not possible to prevent abortion if an unintended pregnancy has occurred. Preventing abortion can only mean denial of abortion service to the woman who wants this medical service. Hence, preventing unintended pregnancy is the correct term to be used.

More than one abortion NOT repeat abortion

Though inadvisable to have more than one abortion (since it affects the woman’s health), a woman might have more than one unintended pregnancy – due to unavailability of contraceptives, failure of contraceptives, inadequate knowledge about contraception-choices, lack of say in reproductive-health decisions, and so on – and might have to seek abortion more than once during her life.

This should be referred to as the situation of seeking ‘more than one abortion’, as against calling it repeat abortion. While seeming logically wrong, the word ‘repeat’ used with abortion gives it a negative connotation that seems to blame the pregnant woman for being irresponsible and repeating the abortion procedure.


Woman’s right to life and decide

When rights and ethics are discussed in the context of abortion, they have to be the rights of the pregnant woman, her health and well-being. She is the only person whose human-rights exist and are to be regarded. The foetus does not have personhood, i.e., is not a person until it is fully-developed and independently functional human being outside the body of the pregnant woman.


Pro-choice or pro-life/neither

These are the most important and widely misused terms about the ideological attitudes towards abortion: the ones who think the option for abortion should be available and the ones who think abortion should not be allowed under any circumstance. The former should be called pro-choice (or safe-abortion advocates, or abortion-rights advocates), and the latter should be called anti-choice (or anti-abortion advocates).

However, often, people who oppose abortion are called pro-life. This wrongly implies that those who support the option to have abortion -- the safe-abortion advocates or the abortion-rights advocates – are anti-life. But, this is not true. These persons wholly support the rights of life, well-being, and choice of the pregnant woman, meaning they support her right to choose what she wants to do with the unwanted pregnancy, i.e., they are pro-choice and pro her life and well-being.  Either ways, it is best to drop these descriptions where unwarranted so as to leave the decision to the woman.


Using images that evoke stigma

Abortion is not always a sad choice and so mustn’t be the imagery. Often editors use stock images of foetus, babies or women with depressed or sad faces when writing on abortion. This kind of imagery immediately reaffirms the shame, stigma and guilt associated with abortion. A picture is worth a thousand words and such an image would undo any amount of progressive attitude that a text article may demonstrate.

Thus, it is extremely important to use pictures that accurately demonstrate the mood, emotion and essence of a story. A woman with a bold confident posturing (for a reproductive choice she has consciously made) could really help unsettle the deep-rooted negativity associated with abortion in our society.


Image guidelines
Love Matters India

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