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It’s Okay to Say the Word “Abortion”

Protestors participate in a rally against one of the nation's most restrictive bans on abortions

The fight against the recent wave of ultra-restrictive abortion bans has been strong. As I write this, more than 500 protest events are taking place in all 50 states as part of a #StoptheBans Day of Action. But as fiery and as vocal and as public as this pro-choice pushback is proving to be, there’s still a large swath of people who have trouble using a very important word: abortion. Apparently, there are also some organizers that are shying away from the word.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but it’s okay to say abortion. It’s not a dirty word and it’s not a dirty thing. There are other terms that can be used, but they are not all interchangeable.

“Pro-choice” is great, but abortion isn’t always a choice, especially when we’re talking about later abortions done because of a health risk. Medical terms like “procedure” or “D&C” are fine, but they don’t apply to every case. If you’re looking for a word to describe the healthcare right we’re fighting for, it exists. It’s “abortion.”

So why are so many people hesitant to use the word abortion? I can only think it’s because anti-abortion activists have succeeded in imposing yet another meaningless taboo on accurate, descriptive language.

Controlling language is a major anti-abortion tactic, and for the most part, the rest of us just tend to let them. But there is nothing wrong with the word abortion. It is not shameful, and it does not carry connotations of harm to children (since an embryo or fetus is not the same thing as a child!), as anti-choicers would like us to think. It is the descriptive term for a medical procedure.

Anti-choice language isn’t about accurately reflecting scientific and medical facts regarding abortion; it’s about manipulating our feelings. And language matters when it comes to our feelings. They work tirelessly to ingrain into us that abortion is a shameful word–one to be equated, at least on some degree, with actual murder–and they do so to make sure we’re equally ashamed of the act itself.

They use terms like “pro-life,” again, to equate abortion with death. They use terms like “heartbeat bill” to make us imagine a fully-formed child at six weeks. In reality, what exists at that point is essentially a collection of cells showing electrical activity in the fetal pole.

They use seemingly innocuous but insidious phrasing like “late-term abortion” in order to subtlely control the conversation. On the podcast Boom! Lawyered (which I could not recommend more–it is incredibly informative and also really entertaining), hosts Imani Gandy and Jessica Pieklo recently explained the difference between late-term abortion and later abortion.

Imani Gandy: The word “term” is a medical term for the end of pregnancy. It has a specific meaning. It means the 37th to 40th week of pregnancy, so when a person is at term, it means that person is about to give birth.

Jessica Pieklo: So “late-term” suggests exactly what the antis are doing, conflating abortion with birth, and we don’t want to do that, right? We don’t want to do that, because patients and providers lose in that equation, patriarchy wins. Democrats aren’t out there advocating for aborting already born babies like Republicans are claiming, so later abortion, not late-term abortion.

Anti-abortion language choices are often subtle and meant to sound like medical terms, but they are deliberately misleading and manipulative. Anti-choice activists have been far too successful in entrenching their chosen language into the mainstream conversation. Giant, reputable news outlets–the same news outlets that are constantly accused of being too liberal!–use terms like “pro-life” and “fetal heartbeat.”

We have let anti-abortion conservatives set the rules for these discussions and they play dirty. They have set themselves up with the image of being the protectors of “life,” when really, all they are doing is endangering the lives of pregnant people (since it’s been proven that abortion rates actually go down and people have safe and legal access to it). They’re pretending the fight against abortion has always been about religion, when it actually began as a business tactic and continues to maintain an oppressed class of poor women, especially women of color.

So what can we do about all of this? Well, start by not being afraid to say the word abortion. Put it on your protest signs. And just because another term has become the default, we don’t have to use it if it’s inaccurate and manipulative. No one says we have to say “fetal heartbeat” except the conservatives who created the term. And we don’t have to let them steer this conversation just because they want to.

(image: Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.