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LANGUAGE MATTERS

13 phrases US doctors want removed from our vocabulary about abortion

An anti-choice protester holds a sign that reads "let their hearts beat"
Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
Fetuses don’t have developed hearts in the early stages of pregnancy
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated

Update: On June 24, 2022 the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, writing that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”

Abortion is a gynecological matter, in that it pertains the functions and health of the biologically female body and as such, says the American College of Obstetricians (ACOG), it should be discussed in accurate scientific terms.

“The language we use when discussing reproductive health has a profound impact on what people hear and learn,” wrote the organization in a statement, adding that many of the common terms used to discuss abortions are rooted in anti-choice rhetoric.

The use of terms such as “fetal heartbeat” to refer to “fetal cardiac activity”or “unborn child” in lieu of “fetus” is a subtle and powerful weapon to project biases over abortion, a woman’s choice protected in the US and established as a human right (pdf) by the United Nations.

The right words for talking about the abortion

ACOG’s new guide stresses the importance of removing the stigma around abortion, beginning with the way it is discussed. The vocabulary presented by the organization replaces common phrases with more accurate terms, and details the reasons (pdf) why changing the vocabulary is important.

In some cases, such as “late-term abortion” or “partial birth” the terms have no medical meaning. In others, such as “elective abortion”, they are simply unnecessary. But in all cases, the incorrect term is deliberately used to cast a negative light on the choice to have an abortion, framing it as a moral rather than a medical decision.

These terms are then used in public debate, and end up informing restrictive policies, and subtly influencing the conversation around abortion.

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