How the Anti-Abortion Movement Weaponizes Language

Anti-abortion advocates prey on the public’s lack of familiarity with medical terminology and stoke emotional responses in order to demonize abortion care and those who seek and provide it.

Pro and anti-abortion protesters face off in front of the Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18, 2024, one day before the annual anti-abortion March for Life rally. (Aaron Schwartz / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the reproductive health world, language has always been a tool that has furthered anti-abortion policies, with activists and extremists weaponizing rhetoric to advance their goals. But since the overturn of Roe—and as we enter a presidential campaign year—the misappropriation of language has taken a dangerous turn. 

Biased rhetoric about abortion is nothing new. Take as proof the mere branding of a movement that defines itself as “pro-life”—suggesting that those who advocate for life-affirming access to reproductive healthcare are against life.

Such language about abortion has invaded the common vernacular without many people realizing it. Anti-abortion advocates prey on the public’s lack of familiarity with medical terminology and stoke emotional responses in order to demonize abortion care and those who seek and provide it.

Consider the term “late-term abortion.” This clinically meaningless term was created by opponents of abortion who wanted to capitalize on people’s emotions, and is now used commonly by those who do not know its ideological origins. 

Historic misappropriations of language are transparent and insidious. But things have gotten worse.

In his 2022 ruling trying to strip FDA approval of mifepristone, a key part of the recommended medication abortion regimen, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk went beyond bias to full-on ideology, referring to physicians who provide abortion as “abortionists” (ignoring their medical training and defining them by one singular procedure they provide) and saying that the purpose of mifepristone is “to kill [an] unborn human.” Under this Trump-appointed activist judge, this language is now in the judicial record.

Current Republican presidential candidates are escalating the hate rhetoric. Donald Trump has accused states of allowing doctors to kill infants after birth. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has perpetuated the lie, using the term infanticide and adding in the phrase “abortion up until the point of birth”—which itself misappropriates how later abortion care is provided. Abortion ends a pregnancy, and cannot be performed after a pregnancy is ended. No states allow infanticide, but these candidates are not concerned with the actual truth of their political talking point. 

Three in five Americans believe that the overturn of Roe has been bad for the country, and an even larger share support Congress passing a law guaranteeing the right to an abortion.

Republican candidates understand that public opinion is against them when it comes to access to essential reproductive healthcare, which is why they engage in these efforts to distort the facts and inflame the discussion.  Abortion later in pregnancy is a critically important component of reproductive healthcare that can save and protect the lives of pregnant people. Those who use these phrases are weaponizing the tremendous loss experienced by families who face a pregnancy diagnosis that leads them to choose compassionate, crucial perinatal palliative care. The cruelty is astounding.

Misuse of language around abortion even touches on voters’ rights. In Ohio, voters passed a ballot initiative to restore some level of access to abortion, despite the manipulations of the state’s ballot board. That board replaced the initiative language with a biased and manipulative “summary,” using “unborn child” rather than “fetus” in an obvious and desperate—and thankfully unsuccessful—attempt to inflame the emotions of voters.

It is a testament to how pervasive this ideological language is when it comes to abortion that despite these lies, some people do not flinch. We have become accustomed to verbal brutality and the audacious lies used to intensify people’s emotions about abortion care.

But they cause tremendous harm, and the media outlets covering this language without a check are amplifying the damage.

Those in need of abortion care are forced to navigate the stigma and lies forced on them by the preponderance of misinformation and bias when making their healthcare decisions. In some states, clinicians who provide abortion care are even forced by law to warn patients about made-up dangerous side effects of abortion—all of which have been soundly disproven by science.

Crisis pregnancy centers exist—some of them solely as websites—to disseminate lies and myths to sway people away from abortion care regardless of what is right for them, their families, their lives and their values.

Those who provide abortion care walk through verbally abusive gangs of protesters daily. They wade through the venomous waters of the digital universe, and many fear for the safety of their families—with good reason, given the history of murderous attacks on their community. Despite their dedication to providing life-saving care, they live with threats on their lives.

People may have complicated feelings about abortion, but weaponizing language about reproductive healthcare is intended to inflame emotions, rather than allowing people to see the humanity of those in need of abortion care, and of those who provide it.

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Kate Connors is senior director of public affairs for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.