Control of the Language = Control of the Debate

In her February 21, 2006 article, Julie Rovner attempts to outline the short history of late term abortions, “without spin.” And she does a good job. As time permits, I will do a little more nit picking, but for now it is a good primer on the history of this particular facet of the abortion debate. It also contains an important lesson: control the terminology and you control the debate. Period.

Though 2006 seems like a long time ago, I think it is important to revisit the topic and her work is a good starting point. Of course, since 2006 one of the only providers in the country willing to perform the procedure was murdered — gunned down in cold blood, in church — and, as a result, women everywhere lost yet another person qualified to provide late term abortions as well as crucial family planning and other services.

Sadly, we can’t change the fact that Dr. Tiller was murdered. We can’t change the fact that the pro-life anti-woman movement has (and will likely stay) engaged in activities ranging from distribution of medically inaccurate information to domestic terrorism in order to ensure that women are not allowed to exercise their own judgment with regard to their reproductive health.

The good news is that we can stand up to attacks on choice, be they in the form of restrictions on abortion services, propaganda distribution by anti-woman forces, funding cuts for family planning clinics, abstinence-only sex ed programs or any other strategy our foes employ. We have great people and boundless resources at our disposal. We can participate in blogs (like feministsforchoice), we can email our friends, we can watch the Sotomayor confirmation hearings and even yell at the television from time to time.

But the single most important thing we can do to ensure that women and girls have access to safe, legal and affordable abortion and family planning services is to refuse to allow the other side to control the way that we debate abortion and choice. We can, indeed, we MUST refuse to talk about “partial-birth abortion” as there is NO SUCH THING. Late term abortions are a reality. The reasons for them are many and varied. But doctors do not cut healthy babies out of healthy women at 8 months gestation because the chick decides she needs to fit into her prom dress.

When the other side talks about the emotional devastation that women having abortions are sure to experience (because all women experience everything the same way, and all women really, really deep down want to be mothers so when they abort they just self destruct), we must answer. We must demand to know if giving a child up for adoption is easy and emotionally pain free and whether women who do it always fair better than women who abort. We must point out that more women die from pregnancy complications each year than from abortion procedures.

We must ask what they plan to do about the fact that, in the U.S., homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. We must ask why these same people vote for politicians that cut funding for well-woman care, school lunch programs and who were willing to go right along with Bill Clinton and GUT welfare services in the 90s while still working to make sure that women give birth to every fetus they conceive.

In short, we must have this debate. And we must have this debate on our terms. We must defend our remaining providers and we must fight for every dollar we can get to fund family planning programs. For some of us the fight will be a blog and clinic escort duty on Saturdays. For some of us it will be writing letters to the editor, calling our Senators and making sure to pass along important information via our twitter page. For others it will be on a much smaller scale — conversations with our friends, family and neighbors.

No matter your method, no matter what steps you take today, consider the language. Make your point based on your audience (different for me living in the old South than for a friend talking to her mom who lives in San Fran), but never forget that the anti-woman (and other right wing) movements have been so successful because they have figured out how to control the language we use to discuss important issues. They knew that calling the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act something, well, patriotic, would guarantee its passage just as calling late term abortions “partial birth abortions” would ensure that people were against it from the get-go.

We must remember that, no matter how outlandish their tactics seem to us, no matter how ridiculous their claims are to those of us who have taken the time to educate ourselves on the issues, they are very, very, very good at what they do. They have been quite successful over the years. They find ways to get people to respond to their message, while lulling nearly an entire generation into complacency by letting us believe that access to abortion is universal and that we will always have a choice–this done as they are having our funding slashed, terrorizing clinic workers, killing doctors and making sure that our most vulnerable populations are denied abortion and family planning services. And, of course, we cannot forget that they are stacking the Supreme Court, filing local, State and Federal elected positions with their minions and praying, hoping and planning for a reversal of Roe v. Wade..

Be vigilant, my friends. Keep up your work. And keep up the challenges to their control of the terms we use to debate our fight.


  1. Shanman 2000 says:

    Also if we control the terms of the debate then we open up the possibility of coalition building. Robert Eads died because no doctor would treat a man with a female body. He could not get access to care because of his gender. Thomas Beatie visited several doctors before he found one that would help him get pregnant. Changing the debate widens who can be involved and what can be addressed.

  2. Great analysis here, and your absolutely correct. The language matters alot, particularly when we are up against groups of anti-choice organizations that strategically manipulate language to provide women with false information about abortion.

  3. Mrs. Mastro says:

    Shanman — you are so right! Building coalitions is crucial to winning in the long run. If a trans guy or a conservative woman can see abortion/family planning access as important to them, they are more likely to be on board when the chips are down.

    Thanks, AJ :)

  4. freewomyn says:

    Great points. But to clarify, there is also no such thing as late term abortion because term implies the pregnancy is over – carried to term. The actual medical term is late abortion.

    Also, Dr. Tiller was one of three doctors in the US who performed late abortions. Dr. Bern in CO still performs them, although he will be retiring soon. Can’t remember the third doctor’s name off hand.

    I think pro-choice advocates need to be clear – the other side is not pro-life or anti-abortion. They are anti-choice. This debate is about so much more than abortion. It is about access to birth control, access to medically accurate sex we, access to pre and post natal care, the ability to choose one’s birthing plan, access to condoms and emergency contraception, and so much more. If we are intentional in our language we can open up space for dialogue and have a true debate. We have to, or we will fail as a movement.

  5. Mrs. Mastro says:

    Freewomyn–Perhaps I will take on some of the comments to this post in later posts, rather than continue some of this via comments. But the short response is that I am pleased and honored to be a part of what is a very important project — working both within the movement to frame our points and situate us so we can win back some lost ground and working on those folks outside our movement to build understanding of what exactly it is we are working towards.

    It strikes me that another tactic employed by the other side is to greatly exaggerate the “threat” of things like so-called partial birth abortion — if only three doctors (now, sadly, two) are/were performing the procedure, it doesn’t seem likely that these three are capable of performing vast numbers of them as the anti-woman folks claim!


  1. [...] Feminists for Choice is talking about language and the abortion debate. Vibinc has a post stemming from one of those irritating “you’re pro-choice, you must be pro-slavery for people who choose it, then” emails. And RH Reality Check had a live chat with the National Sexuality Resource Center on language, especially with regards to sexuality and sex ed (and I see Heather Corinna of Scarleteen was a participant). [...]

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