Words matter, of course. So we’ve been talking at Dublin Inquirer a bit about which ones we should use when reporting on the debate over whether to repeal the 8th Amendment.
How should we describe the two sides? The most common terms for the opposing camps in any debate over abortion are “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. But are they fair and accurate?
Each camp has chosen its moniker to make itself look good. And each side would presumably urge (even pressure) journalists to use its preferred terminology. They might even try to say that any media outlet that does not adopt their preferred terminology is biased against them.
But journalists do not always need to use the terms that their sources use or suggest or demand. Sometimes these terms are loaded or misleading, and journalists would do better to disregard them and choose their own terminology.
For example, we’ve run into trouble when reporting on the efforts to get some new housing in place fast in Poppintree, to give homeless families homes before Christmas 2015. Dublin City Council has used the terms “modular housing”, “rapid-build”, and “pre-fabs”, and we have used their terms.
But each of these terms is misleading when it comes to the houses in Poppintree. They were not built using modular construction as far as we can tell but are traditional timber-frame builds, and they were not all prefabricated in a factory and just installed on site, and they were not built at a pace that I would term “rapid”.
Rather than transcribing the terms that city officials and city councillors used, we’d have done better going our own way, and simply calling them something like “housing for homeless families”. It should be the same with any terminology: journalists should think through the implications of the words they’re using, rather than just adopting the ones others use.
When I was a reporter at the Charleston Daily Mail in the US state of West Virginia from 2000 to 2002, I remember the stylebook there decreeing that we were to use the terms “pro-choice” and “anti-choice” (rather than “pro-life”). (Although I don’t have a copy of the stylebook to check, so I’m not completely sure.)
Whatever the terms were that they used, that insistence on independence in their choice of terminology made a big impression on me. So we’ve been talking inside Dublin Inquirer about what terms to use for the opposing sides in the debate over the 8th Amendment, and in articles about abortion rights in general.
As we see it, the issue at hand in this debate over the 8th Amendment is choice.
One side wants to repeal the amendment and change the law so women can choose whether or not to have an abortion. The other side does not want them to have that choice. Hence, “pro-choice” and “anti-choice”.
I would argue that my pro-choice stance says nothing about whether I am pro- or anti-abortion. They are separate issues.
And a person’s position on abortion says nothing clear about whether they are pro- or anti-life: an abortion could save a mother’s life, and some anti-abortion activists may also be pro-capital-punishment, supporters of certain wars, and/or carnivores.
So “pro-life” does not seem like the best available term – for people who are anti-choice, or for people who are anti-abortion.
I reached out to the pro-choice group Abortion Rights Campaign on Sunday, asking what they thought of the idea of us using the terms “pro-choice” and “anti-choice”.
“We would welcome the use of that terminology,” spokesperson Janet O’Sullivan replied by email. “We do not encourage people to have abortions, we advocate that every person be allowed to choose the outcome of their pregnancy. Therefore we are pro-choice. Those opposed to making abortion legal and accessible campaign against people having that choice.”
I also reached out to Breda O’Brien, the Irish Times columnist, and asked her the same question.
“Anti-choice is not accurate, as pro-life people are fully in favour of non-violent choices that do not end human life. In my case, that applies from conception to natural death,” she told me by email.
I disagree: opposing a woman’s right to make what you see as a violent choice that ends a human life, is still opposing her right to choose. So, in a very literal sense, you are still anti-choice in the context of the abortion debate.
O’Brien suggested that, “In general, I think it is best to use the terms that people use for themselves, or prefer, so I would suggest pro-choice and pro-life.”
This latter suggestion sounds to me like the policy that the Sunday Times follows when it comes to describing the camps in the abortion debate.
“Our style guide is silent on abortion, possibly because we are the Irish edition of an English paper where abortion is less of an ongoing controversial topic,” Colin Coyle, the news editor of the Sunday Times, told me by email. “As an editor, I allow groupings or organisations describe themselves how they wish, as long as it’s not offensive.”
“We have used pro-life, pro-choice and, another contentious one, Right2Water in our news pages,” he said. “We have also used the phrase anti-abortion to describe members of the pro-life movement, which I wouldn’t remove if I saw it in copy … although we have never used anti-choice in our news pages. If an opinion writer wants to use the phrase, that’s fine.”
Again, I disagree: I don’t think we should necessarily describe people or groups in the way they ask to be described. In fact, sometimes I think it’s our obligation not to, if that makes for a more accurate article.
For example, if Exxon Mobil started insisting that journalists call them “the clean-environment company”, I think we should ignore that. And if Donald Trump tried to get reporters to call him the “pro-immigration, anti-racism candidate”, they should not comply.
O’Brien suggested that if Dublin Inquirer is not willing to use the standard “pro-choice” vs “pro-life”, then she “would suggest anti-amendment, or pro-amendment, as they are also accurate. Anti-abortion is also accurate, and less pejorative and inaccurate than anti-choice.”
These seem like very sensible suggestions, and you may well see “pro-amendment” or “anti-abortion” in our news pages (or “anti-repeal”, or “anti-abortion-rights”).
But, unless it’s part of the proper name of an organisation or in a direct quotation, you won’t see us using the term “pro-life” in our articles on the debate over the 8th Amendment and abortion.