The Associated Press changed its abortion guidelines to reflect more accurate framing, and right-wing media are expressing outrage over the medically backed changes. In reality, there’s even more room for improvement on abortion reporting, including terms that the AP should address in the near future.
In late 2022, the AP updated its stylebook, a resource of journalistic best practices for grammar and language, to guide journalists away from misleading framing on abortion and toward more accurate language. Here are a few examples of language the AP expressly advised against using:
- “Medication abortion reversal”: This phrase, along with “abortion pill reversal,” is used by anti-abortion media to convince pregnant people to undergo an “unproven and unethical” procedure that falsely claims to undo the effects of ingesting abortion medication meant to end a pregnancy. The AP suggests that writers use the term in quotes and note that the procedure has “no scientific evidence” proving its safety or efficacy.
- “Pregnancy resource centers”: Better known as crisis pregnancy centers, these fake clinics (often touted or defended by conservative media) pose as health care providers giving pregnant people unbiased advice but in reality work to discourage patients from proceeding with abortion care. In its updated guidelines, the AP suggests terms including “anti-abortion centers” rather than “pregnancy resource centers” or “pregnancy counseling centers” and urges reporters to explain that “their aim is to dissuade people from getting an abortion.”
- “Heartbeat bill”: The term “heartbeat bill” or “heartbeat legislation” is a misnomer used by right-wing media and conservative politicians to mislead the public into advocating for six-week abortion bans under the inaccurate pretense that a “fetal heartbeat” can always be detected at that stage. The AP described such legislative terminology as “overly broad and misleading” and suggests that writers use “cardiac activity” in lieu of “heartbeat.”
In light of the AP’s style changes, some in right-wing media were enraged that their misleading framing is under attack. A Fox News article from December 2022 includes quotes from proven misinformers, including Kristi Hamrick of Students for Life of America, who disparaged the AP for supposedly “putting pro-abortion politics over facts.” The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, also accused the AP of “promoting pro-abortion propaganda” and spreading guidance “contrary to medical science.” Earlier this month, a report from the Daily Signal titled “AP Bans ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers,’ Directs Journalists to Use Negative Term Instead” renewed right-wing scrutiny against the news agency, inspiring further coverage from conservative outlets and anti-abortion blogs.
For decades, conservative media have worked in tandem with anti-abortion activists to disseminate problematic framing on abortion to undermine the credibility of the procedure, fueling stigma and misguided restrictions. Often based on pseudoscience and contrary to general medical consensus, anti-abortion terminology has even permeated mainstream media, making the AP’s updated guidance especially useful for reporters in the wake of Roe v. Wade.
But while the updated style guide is a step in the right direction, further guidance on accurate abortion reporting should address these additional terms and imagery that conservative media have expertly woven into everyday discourse:
- “Abortion on demand”: Right-wing media have used the phrase “abortion on demand” to wrongly paint pro-choice advocates as extreme and undermine the notion that abortion is a right. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explains that this term is “dismissive of the medical needs of pregnant people.”
- “Elective abortion”: Used often in contrast to “medical abortion,” this unnecessary term is employed by anti-abortion activists to “diminish the value of the abortion care,” according to ACOG, by adding an unnecessary moral assessment. As the American Medical Association noted, “The term elective abortion is moral judgment dressed up as medical judgment.”
- “Chemical abortion”: Right-wing media use this term — an alternative to “medication abortion” — to disingenuously frame the common act of taking abortion pills as intimidating and potentially dangerous. ACOG described the term as “biased” and “designed to make medication abortion sound scarier than the safe, effective medical intervention it is.”
- “Dismemberment abortion”: This phrase is used by the right to describe the abortion procedure dilation and extraction, or D&E, which is commonly used for abortions in the second trimester. NARAL called it an “intentionally inflammatory term” for a “safe” procedure.
- “Partial-birth abortion”: This myth pushed by right-wing media is meant to describe abortion that occurs in the final months — or, supposedly, “moments” of pregnancy. According to NPR, the term was coined by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life in the 1990s. Further, Rolling Stone wrote that, “‘Partial birth abortion’ isn't actually a thing – it's a term made up by activists to make abortion seem gruesome. It's used to focus attention on later abortions, which make many supporters of legal abortion queasy, and to vilify women who have them.”
- Graphic imagery: Anti-choice activists often use deceptive graphic imagery of “aborted fetuses” to vilify the procedure. In some instances, these activists picket public places with graphic photos, which are often “wildly misleading.” Talking Points Memo has also explained that images used by anti-abortion extremists misrepresent an embryo’s state of development. Reports have also flagged that early pregnancy tissue looks much different than the right’s depictions.