Can we stop defaulting to ‘mother’ when talking about people seeking abortions?
By Laura Hurley, Safe Abortion Action Fund
Abortion has been in the global news a lot recently. We’ve seen positive outcomes from feminist campaigns in places like Argentina and Thailand, where the legal right to abortion has been expanded. Since abortion is such a common occurrence around the world, and such a ‘heated’ topic, it’s no surprise we see it crop up regularly in media reports.
As someone who works in the field, I keep an eye on this news, and am always interested to see the way reproductive rights issues are reported on around the world. One thing I’ve noticed, regardless of which continent the news comes from, is that certain phrases keep cropping up. One which particularly bugs me is: “abortion is legal to save the mother’s life”.
At first, this might seem like a fairly innocuous phrase. This is a common way to talk about the legal restrictions the majority of countries still place on abortion. Nearly everywhere around the world, our access to safe abortion care is limited to certain legal conditions. Even in very restrictive contexts, there is usually a clause which allows for abortion to be provided where someone’s life (or sometimes health) is in danger.
But look more closely — the word ‘mother’ here is problematic. This is not a neutral term when talking about people seeking abortions. In fact, ‘mother’ implies that just by virtue of being pregnant someone is already a mother, or a mother-to-be. What does this say about women and other pregnant people who do not have children, and those who may never want to have children? There is a sense that because we can get pregnant, having children and being a parent is somehow already our destiny!
As well as falling into outdated assumptions about women’s sole purpose in life being to reproduce, this is also just factually inaccurate. It doesn’t make sense for journalists to write about ‘mothers’ getting abortions, when that’s not what they mean. In fact, just over half of those who have abortions are parents. On top of this, ‘mother’ is gendered language which will not apply to some people (for example trans men) who need access to abortion care.
Abortion language matters
In just the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen this phrasing in articles from South Africa, the USA (bonus point here for the phrase ‘biological fathers’ too), and Italy. I don’t believe the intention is to stigmatize anyone’s reproductive choices, I think this is simply journalists unthinkingly repeating a phrase which is commonly used, especially in legal texts. When I have contacted journalists to point out that the word ‘mother’ in this context is not neutral, but rather loaded with meaning, they are usually quick to amend the oversight. However, when we look at the bigger picture, it’s clear that this kind of biased language is not wholly accidental.
Anti-abortion organizations have put a lot of time and money into trying to shape public consciousness about abortion. A lot of this work starts in the U.S but is exported across the world, in an effort to increase anti-abortion sentiment and block access to safe abortion services and information.
See how I chose not to use ‘pro-life’ to describe these groups? As pointed out in the book Unspeak, ‘pro-life’ “appeals to a sacred concept of ‘life’, and casts one’s opponents — those who think abortion should be legally available — necessarily as anti-life, in fact pro-death.” When we repeat language coined by the anti-abortion movement, like ‘pro-life’ and ‘unborn baby’, we are inadvertently reinforcing concepts which undermine reproductive choice and bodily integrity.
I hope to see more journalists (and those of us working in the field of reproductive rights and health!) thinking carefully about the language used to represent abortion. The news should seek to be as factual, clear and unbiased as possible. When we know how common the experience of abortion is, we should strive to always use language which is respectful and inclusive of people who have abortions. In the hopes of improving the way abortion is represented and spoken about I will continue to share helpful resources like IPPF’s abortion messaging guide and media guide for journalists. I invite you to do the same.