November 09, 2003

An abortion by any other name...

There's a sharp terminological contrast in recent news articles about an abortion bill signed by President Bush. Proponents of the bill call the procedure "partial-birth abortion"; opponents tend to call it by its medical name, "intact dilation and extraction", or else refer to it by some other non-gruesome-sounding label.

This terminological disagreement is yet another battle in the linguistic war surrounding the abortion issue. An early delineation of the battleground was Brenda Danet's 1980 article `"Baby" or "fetus"? Language and the construction of reality in a manslaughter trial' (Semiotica 32:187-219); on trial was a doctor who had performed a late abortion. And the war is also reflected in the now-standard terms for the two sides of the abortion debate: pro-life (implying that the other side is pro-death) vs. pro-choice (avoiding the emotionally-charged and, this side would argue, misleading "pro-abortion" label -- and also implying that the other side is anti-freedom of choice). This isn't a matter of whose terms are correct and whose are incorrect. Rather, it's yet another example that supports the late Dwight Bolinger's argument about the power of language, articulated eloquently in his 1980 book Language -- The Loaded Weapon. Bolinger's title says it all (and, in case a dim reader might miss the point, the book's dust-jacket features a picture of a revolver).

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 9, 2003 06:40 PM