The Language We Use When We Write About Abortion

With the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, how we talk about reproductive rights is more important than ever.

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A leaked opinion draft from the Supreme Court has shown that conservative justices are considering overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion. While it’s not the final ruling, which was originally expected sometime in the next two months, it’s spurred a strong public reaction and prompted us to share how we write about abortion.

As always, we aim to write about what has long been a highly politicized issue with the most straightforward language. That’s why we say “abortion rights” advocate rather than “pro-choice,” and conversely, “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life.” We use the scientific terms to discuss pregnancy in general: "embryo" for the first seven weeks of human development and “fetus” starting in the eighth week of pregnancy.

We try to give context around the trend of abortion restrictions and describe how terms like “heartbeat” bills are misleading. The lawmakers behind these bills say they want to prevent abortion as soon as a “heartbeat” can be detected, around six weeks (two weeks after a pregnant person’s first missed period). But what’s being measured around six weeks is more accurately described as electrical activity, as fetal heart valves are not yet formed. We don’t use this term outside of quotes.

“Late-term abortion” is also not based in medicine, and it can imply that a person is having an abortion when they are close to or at full-term. Abortions after 21 weeks of gestation are rare and can be called “abortions later in pregnancy.” Relatedly, “emergency contraception” is a more accurate term for contraception used after unprotected sex than the “morning-after pill,” which is a bit of a misnomer because you don’t have to wait until the next morning and you can take it for up to five days after sex.

And finally, we use gender-neutral language to be accurate and inclusive of the population affected by access to abortion. We all understand that abortion is historically and politically a women’s rights issue. No one’s saying you can never use the word “woman.” We’re just going to write “pregnant people” when we’re talking about pregnant people.


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