Unspeak: Abortion and the battle over language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jan 28 16:28:14 UTC 2007

Sunday JANUARY 28, 2007 Last modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 4:53 PM

Abortion and the battle over language
Commentary by Erik Gable

Some time ago, I received a letter from a reader asking why The Daily
Telegram used the phrase pro-choice to describe people who want to keep
abortion legal but anti-abortion, rather than pro-life, to describe people
who dont. I was a little puzzled, and I actually wondered if the reader
was thinking of a different newspaper, because the answer is simple. We
dont. As a matter of fact, our policy is to avoid the terms pro-choice and
pro-life entirely in news stories unless theyre part of a quotation or a
groups proper name, such as Lenawee County Right to Life or Lenawee County
Pro-Choice. For the record, a search of the Telegrams archives for the
past several years reveals that those words have occasionally slipped into
news stories when they shouldnt have but it actually happened more often
with pro-life than with pro-choice.

But as a general rule, we eschew both phrases in favor of more neutral
terms. A recent book titled Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons
Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, which was reviewed
this week in the online magazine Slate, helps explain why. The term
unspeak is described by author Steven Poole as a term that contains an
unspoken political argument. Unspeak, he writes, is an attempt to say
something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so
having to justify itself. Unspeak, Poole argues, is an effective way to
silence your opposition by defining the terms of an argument before it
even begins.

If you say you are pro-life, people on the opposite side of the issue must
by definition be anti-life. If you say you are pro-choice, people on the
opposite side must by definition be anti-choice. Both terms, of course,
are deeply flawed. The issue at the core of the abortion controversy is
not whether personal freedom is good or whether innocent people should be
murdered. Its about when life begins. Its not about whether people have a
right to life; its about whether an embryo or a fetus counts as a person
in the first place. But pro-choice and pro-life sound better, and both
terms are useful for demonizing the opposition by implication because
being anti-life puts you on the same level as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or
John Wayne Gacy, while being anti-choice makes you a totalitarian who
wants to control every aspect of other peoples lives.

Politicians and their press secretaries have begun to take notice of this,
of course, and now we have candidates for office saying abortion should be
legal while also declaring themselves pro-life. Depending on your
position, thats not necessarily a contradiction but it does go against the
commonly accepted shorthand. As a result, the already-flawed terms
pro-choice and pro-life are also starting to become meaningless, which is
yet another reason they dont belong in news stories. If we use those terms
in the newspaper, were blindly following the lead of people who are trying
to phrase the debate in the best possible way for themselves and the worst
possible way for their adversaries but were also using vague, imprecise
euphemisms out of a public relations playbook instead of saying what we
really mean.

Erik Gable, news editor of The Daily Telegram, can be reached at 265-5111,
ext. 265, or by e-mail at erik at lenconnect.com.



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