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The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Language War
They want to reporters to stop using the word ‘ban’
Usually I cover anti-abortion strategy in the daily newsletter, but I decided something this important needs to stand alone. The short version is that the anti-abortion movement is pressuring journalists to stop using the word ‘ban’ when describing abortion legislation. And because these activists will claim that using ‘ban’ is indicative of pro-choice bias, media outlets obsessed with false notions of objectivity just might give in to their demands.
Before I say more, some background:
If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve been obsessed with the word ‘ban’ and the way that conservatives and anti-abortion activists are suddenly refusing to use it. It started a few months ago with Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, who began to replace the term ‘national ban’ with ‘national standard’ or ‘national consensus’.
In a statement about Donald Trump’s stance on abortion, for example, Dannenfelser told The New York Times, “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard…” And this is from her statement last month responding to Nikki Haley’s abortion speech:
“When Ambassador Haley talks about national consensus on late-term abortion, we are in agreement. The consensus already exists. Polling shows 72% of Americans support limiting abortions by at least 15 weeks…The pro-life movement must have a nominee who will boldly advocate for this consensus…”
Once Dannenfelser and SBA Pro-Life America started to use ‘consensus’ and ‘standard’ as a replacement for ‘ban’, we saw the trend everywhere.
During a CNN town hall earlier this month, former New Jersey governor and current Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie said the federal government shouldn’t be involved in abortion “until there’s a consensus around the country.” He went on to say, “I want to see that consensus, and then as president, I want to build off that consensus. Let’s leave it to the states and if a consensus emerges, we’ll know it.”
To the pundits who don’t know about the anti-abortion movement’s strategic language shift, Christie was equivocating. In truth, he was signaling support for a national ban.
Even when Republicans are being explicit, they still won’t use the word ‘ban’. Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham announced that he’d “introduce legislation soon, creating a national minimum standard of 15 weeks.” And when Rep. Elise Stefanik held a press conference to announce that House Republicans would be pushing a 15-week ban, she also didn’t use the word—instead, she said that lawmakers have a role at the federal level regarding “building consensus” on abortion.
The good news is that the language change is a sign of weakness: Anti-abortion legislation is so deeply unpopular that Republicans are too afraid to call their own bans ‘bans’ anymore. In North Carolina, for example, when lawmakers were trying to frame their 12-week ban as a ‘reasonable compromise’, sponsor Sen. Joyce Krawiec said, “this is a pro-life plan, not an abortion ban.”
It’s also not a coincidence that activists and legislators are using a word like ‘consensus’ at the same time that they try to change the rules around ballot measures and make it more difficult—if not impossible—for voters to have a direct say on abortion. They need anti-abortion laws to sound like something everyone agrees on. Otherwise, voters might be reminded that a small group of extremists are enacting bans that Americans decidedly don’t want.
Conservatives also know that voters are influenced by what they think other people believe. Since most Americans actually oppose abortion bans, ‘consensus’ is a sly way for the anti-abortion movement to rhetorically inflate their numbers. The hope is to convince voters that their friends, families and communities are anti-abortion—and so they should be too.
While the eradication of ‘ban’ started quietly, now anti-abortion activists are being explicit. This week, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, called the term “the big ban word.” He told The Nation’s abortion access correspondent Amy Littlefield, who covered the group’s annual conference, that polls showed that using the word made abortion policies much less popular. And so now, political director Karen Cross told Littlefield, “We want to talk about ‘protections’ and not ‘bans.’”
Conservatives using dishonest talking points is nothing new, especially when it comes to abortion. But their next step in the war on ‘ban’ is far more insidious: They’re pressuring mainstream media outlets to stop using the word, as well. Reporters who don’t comply will be accused of pro-choice bias.
I wrote about this a bit last week, when a representative from SBA Pro-Life America successfully pushed a reporter from The Hill not to use the word ‘ban’ because “when you say ‘ban,’ that is really misleading to the American people because then they think there’s not exceptions.” This echoes something that Dannenfelser told Astead Herndon at The New York Times early this month:
“Ban means everything, so a federal limit means partially banning. Banning is not the word that we use because it’s not accurate.”
This is incredibly important: They are deliberately defining the word ‘ban’ so that it won’t apply to any abortion legislation. If a state has a total ban, for example, but claims to allow life-saving abortions—the law isn’t really a ‘ban’ under this definition, because there’s an ‘exception’.
At the same time that the anti-abortion movement is working to redefine ‘ban’, their plan to pressure mainstream media outlets is becoming clearer. In Dannenfelser’s interview with Herndon, she accused the reporter of “trying to be helpful to your cause” after he asked her if a 15-week ban was just “an initial step to an overall goal of limiting abortions at most instances.” It’s a reasonable question, but Dannenfelser immediately resorted to attacking Herndon’s objectivity.
All of this anti-abortion groundwork gives us a good sense of how their media campaign could play out over the next few months:
Anti-abortion activists will continue to frame ‘ban’ as an inaccurate term. They’ll ask reporters not to use the word as they’re being interviewed—and journalists will acquiesce in the interest of keeping their sources talking. This, by itself, is not unusual: writers will often mirror back interviewees’ language as a reporting tactic, and in order to be respectful.
Regardless of the language used during an interview, journalists who are good at their jobs will still use the word ‘ban’ in their resulting article. (Because it’s accurate!) Journalists who are less experienced, credible, or adept, however, will be swayed to keep ‘ban’ out of their pieces.
Take The Hill article I cited above. After a SBA Pro-Life America representative claimed that ‘ban’ wasn’t accurate, the reporter later described a 15-week national ban as “restrictions on the procedure at 15 weeks, with exceptions at the federal level.” That sounds a whole lot different—and less extreme—than ‘ban’. Which, of course, is the point.
Later, we’ll start to see a more concerted effort: Anti-abortion groups and Republican lawmakers will call on media outlets to stop using the word ‘ban’ entirely, claiming that it’s inaccurate and biased. For smaller papers, we’ll see local activists and politicians writing letters-to-the-editor, or doing behind-the-scenes lobbying for the language change.
On a national scale, conservative organizations will call out major publications in press releases and in interviews; they’ll also encourage their followers to target them. These groups and politicians will repeat, again and again, that ‘ban’ isn’t “accurate”—and, most critically, that it’s pro-choice language.
The distressing truth is that there’s a good chance the anti-abortion movement will be successful—at least to some degree. One of the mainstream media’s biggest weaknesses is their obsession with ‘both sides’ journalism, and accusations of bias are likely to scare some publications into changing their language. Others will be happy to comply. When anti-abortion activists decided that ‘crisis pregnancy center’ had too much negative baggage attached to it, for example, they were able to convince publications like the Wall Street Journal to use ‘pregnancy-help centers’, instead.
The media already paints a dangerously inaccurate picture of abortion: Most coverage gives the impression that America is evenly split on the issue despite the country’s overwhelming support for abortion rights; studies have found that news articles often contain stigmatizing language about abortion; and publications will cite medical facts as pro-choice beliefs rather than established science, while allowing anti-abortion rhetoric to flourish. (Consider the messaging around ‘heartbeat’ bills—very few media outlets will explain that cardiac activity isn’t possible so early in pregnancy.)
That’s why pro-choice activists, lawmakers and anyone who cares about accuracy in abortion reporting needs to be paying attention to this strategy now.
We should be preemptively mindful of the language that local and major publications are using—tracking it to ensure that reporters are calling anti-abortion legislation what it really is. Any publication that stops or slows their use of the word ‘ban’ needs to be immediately called out. And as outlets cave to anti-abortion demands, we need to make sure that readers become aware of what’s really happening.
Because expecting the media to tell the truth about abortion is the absolute bare minimum. And the truth is that what conservatives want for Americans is so bad, they can’t even say the word.