Columnists > Judgment Calls

Linguistic contortions

Liberals say "abortion provider" but not "anesthetics provider"

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

The lady from the newspaper was polite but firm. No, she said over the phone, she would not sell WORLD a photo that we wanted to buy for a story about abortion, because her paper didn't want to "take sides" on the issue.

WORLD occasionally publishes photos that we buy from newspapers, and we rarely run into such opposition. It's a routine practice: The newspaper sells the photo to us, and we run a credit at the bottom of the page on which the photo appears.

But this time a newspaper balked, and we had to find photos elsewhere. The photo was the newspaper's property, and the paper had every right to deny our request. But what's interesting is one of the grounds on which the paper's staffers made the decision: In describing the story to them, we had used the word "abortionist" to refer to a doctor who performs abortions full-time.

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WORLD, it seems, had committed a major media faux pas. It isn't controversial to call a doctor who deals with the nervous system a "neurologist," or a doctor who specializes in hearts a "cardiologist." But it is now beyond the pale to use the similarly neutral term "abortionist" to refer to a doctor who performs abortions. "Abortion doctor" and, especially, "abortion provider" have become the media's acceptable descriptions of abortionists.

A Nexis search of four major metropolitan dailies (the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post) proves the point. In labeling abortionists, reporters go through linguistic contortions that they don't feel the need to perform when labeling other types of doctors.

During a recent one-month period, the four newspapers had 39 references to "dermatologist," with no references to "skin doctor" or "skin care provider." They had 34 references to "anesthesiologist," with no references to "anesthetics doctor" or "anesthetics provider." But the word "abortionist" appeared only 8 times (and many of those were references to "anti-abortionists," the press's favorite term for pro-lifers), while "abortion doctor" appeared 21 times and "abortion provider" showed up 36 times.

It doesn't seem to matter that "abortionist" is the actual English word for someone who performs abortions. Most dictionaries have an entry for "abortionist," or at least a reference to the word under the entry for "abortion." (An abortionist is "a producer of abortions," according to my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.) No dictionary that I could find had an entry or reference for "abortion provider" or "abortion doctor."

So why do liberals and reporters insist on avoiding the proper word for this occupation? If an abortion is really no more morally wrong than the removal of a pimple, why is the label "abortionist" more offensive to liberals than the label "dermatologist"? Why must reporters call an abortionist an "abortion provider" but not call an anesthesiologist an "anesthetics provider"? If abortion is truly a fundamental right for women, then wouldn't a doctor be proud to be an "abortionist"?

Apparently not. Abortionist Ron Fitzsimmons famously said a few years back that he didn't want people to make him feel like a "dirty little abortionist" for performing the partial-birth abortion procedure. Liberal reporters and activists have been happy to comply, going even further in torturing the language than liberal politicians who speak of "a woman's right to choose" while studiously avoiding the word "abortion." (See WORLD, "Ducking the 'A' word," July 3/10, 1999.) Reporters have actually invented a new term-abortion provider-to avoid using direct language.

Liberals speak of "choosing" instead of "abortion," and "providers" instead of "abortionists," because accurate language about the procedure makes people uncomfortable. The term "abortionist" is precise but raw, bringing to mind exactly what it is that these doctors do for a living. Cuddly terminology serves to deflect attention away from the true violence of the abortion procedure.

And it may even be that liberals aren't just acting as propagandists when they bend the language on abortion. They may also be trying to fool themselves. Maybe deep down in their hearts, where the law of God is written, liberals know that abortion is evil, and they don't like the word "abortionist" because they don't want to be reminded of that fact.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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