By Michelle Bowen
As a writer, I think a lot about words and their impact. Reading news articles and listening to media coverage of certain events makes me think of how important the words we use are. If we use words inaccurately, we not only shade the story we are telling but we begin to change the meaning of the words overtime. The meaning of words is more than just its definition but includes the connotations associated with them. For this reason, the charged topic of Abortion is accompanied by a fair amount of wordplay and manipulation, stretching the definitions of words and playing on the connotations.
One of the obvious ways it shows up in this topic is the fact that both sides are referred to as a pro; Pro-life and Pro-choice. There are also numerous euphemisms used such as family planning, pregnancy termination, reproductive rights, etc. This got me thinking about whether the definition of abortion has changed over time as society has changed how we discuss the topic. I began by going to my library, which I inherited from my grandmother, and pulled out her dictionary, The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language from 1987. This dictionary defined abortion as “the spontaneous or induced expulsion from the womb of a nonviable human fetus | a monstrous person or thing| the failure of a project or attempt.”
For comparison I went to Google and searched for a modern definition. The first result was from Oxford which defined abortion as: “1. The deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks of pregnancy.” I thought that was interesting as it added a time frame, 28 weeks. That’s 7 months. I also noticed that it removed the notion of a fetus, instead keeping it strictly in terms of a pregnancy. As far as connotation, not mentioning the independent body within the womb, the fetus, it is one step further removed from humanity.
Noting that this second definition was from Oxford, I decided to look up the modern Webster’s definition which led me to Marriam-Webster.com which gave the definition as:
1: the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the
death of the embryo or fetus: such as
a: spontaneous expulsion of a human fetus during the first 12 weeks of gestation—compare miscarriage.
b: induced expulsion of a human fetus
In addition to the definition listed above, Merriam-Webster.com also listed the original second and third definitions relating to a monstrosity and a failed project respectively.
I found the modern Merriam-Webster definition interesting as it includes the 12-week window for a miscarriage and includes the term fetus unlike the Oxford definition. This rather subtle change in definition, the inclusion of a new time frame is interesting. While it is unclear how time frame came to be included in the definition, as I do not believe the term changes if the death occurs outside of the 28- or 12-week windows, it is of note that the inclusion of the time frames adds an element of clinical coolness to the term. It seems to be picking up more connotative meaning.
When thinking of the time frames, I recall one of the major talking points around abortion, especially with the late term abortion bills being passed this year, is centered around when a fetus should be considered to be living. Is it 12-weeks? 28-weeks? At birth? Viability? Furthering of scientific advancements have changed at what point a viable infant can be born. Being born at 22-weeks is no longer a death sentence for a child. If we can say the child or fetus is not on par with other people, it is easier to suggest they have no right to life, even easier to avoid the point altogether and suggest the child is not alive at all.
Another element of the abortion discussion has involved framing it as a “reproductive right”. If the fetus is not human, not alive, then the mother’s right to decide takes president. Now saying it is a reproductive right is an interesting choice of terms as abortion is, by definition, not reproducing. The term right is also interesting. Going back to my 1987 New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary, a right is defined as “that which is morally right, …|that to which one is morally or legally entitled.” The corresponding definition from today’s Merriam-Webster.com is “something to which one has a just claim: such as … a : the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled.” Finally, the Oxford definition brought back by Google states: “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” The theme in the term ‘right’ seems to be along the lines of something moral, just, and legal.
Now we come to a bit of the wordplay which happens on both sides, specifically with the connotations of words. As I studied various terms related to abortion, I discovered that to use the term fetus is technically accurate when referring to the unborn baby. As someone who is pro-life, I was under the belief that fetus and baby were interchangeable terms and fetus was used simply because it lacks the connotations that baby carries. This is true, however, if you look at the definitions, fetus is clearly a term to refer to a child who still lives within the mother’s womb while baby and infant are expressly used to describe the child once it is born. Now is there an actual biological difference between a fetus at 40-weeks and a new born infant? Not really. The umbilical cord attachment is severed and it enters the world outside the mother, but it does not become something else, it remains a human child. They are terms which are used to differentiate between two different states of a child. The terms associated with an unborn child are seen as colder terms because you cannot see the child beyond ultra sound images. Seeing the child does a lot to awaken the soul to the reality of the child.
This wordplay is part of why the euphemisms are so important. If you refer to abortion as a reproductive right, it gives the impression that the act is just and moral, by extension, you become immoral and unjust by opposing the practice. The same goes with making it a women’s rights issue. A right is something just and moral, therefor, you become the bad guy for opposing it.
If there is no real difference between the child while it exists and grows in the womb and when it does so outside the womb, as far as intrinsic value, then the connotations associated with a baby become more accurate than the technically accurate terms of development. This is why it is important to understand why the words are used as they are. The intentional ending of a life is framed as a right in order to give the impression that the right of comfort for the mother is more significant, or over shadows, the right to life of the baby. Because it’s a fetus, right?