If you're like most people, you talk about the abortion debate using a couple of simple, concise terms whose meaning we can all pretty much agree on (no matter how bitterly we disagree about the underlying politics): pro-choice versus pro-life.
At NPR, however, that doesn't fly anymore. As of this week, journalists at the radio network are under orders to refrain from using those two phrases. Instead, they've been instructed to say "in favor of abortion rights" and "opposed to abortion rights." "This updated policy is aimed at ensuring the words we speak and write are as clear, consistent and neutral as possible," explained managing editor David Sweeney in a memo alerting staffers to the change. While the two verboten terms can still make it into copy if they're part of an organization's name or a direct quote, the preferred locutions are to be used in all other instances.
The motive behind this move is solid enough. "Pro-choice" and "pro-life" both began, essentially, as propaganda -- expressions conceived to curry maximum sympathy for the positions they represent. How can anyone be against choice? Or against life? Why, you'd have to be downright evil!
But, over time, through sheer repetition, both phrases have lost their connotative crackle. When I call someone pro-choice, I'm not praising his dedication to the exercise of free will any more than I'm describing someone as generous and open-minded when I call him a liberal. They're words. They mean what they mean because we all agree that's what they mean.
When news organizations abandon this common-sense approach to language, they tend to get themselves mired in endless debates and tied up in rhetorical knots. That's what happened when the BBC warned its journalists against use of the word "terrorist," and when The New York Times argued with itself over whether to call certain kinds of interrogations "torture." At the extreme, thinking too much about the politics behind the words can turn you into laughingstock. Remember when Fox News started calling suicide bombers "homicide bombers"?
The funny thing is NPR used to see things this way. Back in 2005, the broadcaster considered whether to drop "pro-life" and "pro-choice" and decided to keep them. "The terms pro-choice and pro-life are in such widespread use these days that they're just as neutral as their alternatives," declared the memo explaining the decision. "Just as important, the phrases allow us to write more colloquially...rather than using wordier, less conversational descriptions." Of course, that memo also noted that the Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, NBC, CBS and CNN all insisted upon "supporter/opponent of abortion rights," leaving NPR more or less on an island unto itself.
But it was the right island to be on. After all, it's not as if "abortion rights" itself is a neutral phrase. Calling them "rights" implies that it is a right, and frames the debate in terms of the prerogatives of the mother. What about the right of the embryo/fetus/adorable unborn child of God not to be aborted? Or so I'd ask if I were an opponent of ab--...that is, if I were pro-life.