One thing I learned in journalism school is that you should use a person or group’s preferred terms when writing about them.
For the record, “Anti-abortion activists,” “Abortion foes,” and especially “Abortion rights opponents” are not preferred terms.
Imagine if abolitionists had been labeled “slaveholders’ rights opponents.” Imagine if civil rights marchers had been referred to as “segregationist rights opponents.”
This year marked the first time in most people’s memories that the annual March for Life, the nation’s largest gathering of pro-lifers (or “pilgrims”) in Washington D.C., was given wide-reaching and analytical coverage. A survey of some of the stories from major new outlets such as the New York Times and the Associated Press reveals an underlying suspicion of the pro-life movement, which was ratcheted up to 11 when the current administration chose to be so involved in this year’s March for Life (although whether they became involved for noble or self-serving reasons is still up for debate). This is evident not only in the terms used but in their descriptions of the pro-life platform. Because most major news outlets had little experience covering the March, and little understanding of the ideologies and issues behind the protest, many journalists found themselves out of their depth, and the bias of some outlets that normally pride themselves on their objectivity was on full display.
Much of the coverage focused on the relationship of the new administration to the pro-life movement, as Vice President Mike Pence was a speaker as was presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. (But as NPR pointed out to their credit, being pro-life does not, by default, mean you have to support Donald Trump.) Secondly, because of the ridiculously petty arguments flying around about the sizes of crowds (thanks to a certain person’s inauguration), everyone was eager to compare the crowds at the March for Life to the Women’s March on Washington, which took place the week before.
I am pro-life and I’ve attended the March before, in 2010. While you may be tempted to dismiss my views as biased, look at it this way: I have a perspective on the March and the pro-life movement that many journalists don’t have, because I’m actually a part of it. The March has taken place every year since 1974, and I had been well aware for a while of many participants’ outrage at the lack of coverage for and apathy toward the March— which draws crowds in the hundreds of thousands year after year— which had led to a kind of dismissive resignation. “The mainstream media will NEVER cover this!” they would lament. It seemed only the Catholic news channel EWTN would be willing to give the March the coverage it deserved; that changed this year, but the term “pro-life” was strikingly absent from the long-awaited coverage.
Even the student newspaper in my home city of Columbia, MO followed suit (admittedly for coverage of the smaller Midwest March for Life).
Why does all this matter? While not everyone may agree with what the March for Life pilgrims are doing, they must be given the chance to understand why they are doing it. It’s not because they oppose women’s rights, or because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. They fight against abortion because they believe in the inestimable worth of each human life; so yes, they are anti-abortion, but the negative term belies the positivity behind the movement, and the fervent love that motivates so many of the Marchers— not only for the unborn children, but for the mothers whom abortion irreparably wounds.
And while it’s certainly true that not everyone who believes abortion and assisted suicide are wrong prefers the term pro-life, no one wants to be labeled as a “rights opponent.” Imagine if abolitionists had been labeled “slaveholders’ rights opponents.” Imagine if civil rights marchers had been referred to as “segregationist rights opponents.” For all these people throughout history, the rights they were opposed to represented, in hindsight, abominable injustices that have been relegated to the dustbin of history. To people who believe in the pro-life cause, abortion represents one of society’s greatest injustices— a question of morality first, and legality second.
Without a strongly developed conscience on the morality of abortion, many on the pro-choice side of the fence are straying into legalism.It seems the die was cast when the Supreme Court made its Roe v Wade ruling 44 years ago; yes, abortion is legal (if it weren’t would there be much point in protesting in D.C.), but what does that tell us about whether it’s actually right or wrong?
In a way I don’t blame these outlets for the way they covered the March, because it’s clear they just haven’t had much experience dealing with these kinds of ideologies. It will be interesting to follow mainstream coverage of pro-life issues going forward; the most important thing to remember, fellow journalists, is to respect your subjects and their beliefs— whether you agree with them or not.
Jonah McKeown is a journalist based in Columbia, Missouri.