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How To Write (And Not Write) About Abortion

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MyBodyMyChoice logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #MyBodyMyChoice, a campaign by Global Health Strategies and Youth Ki Awaaz to create awareness around access to safe abortion and women's right to reproductive justice. Join the conversation by publishing a story here.

To mark the Global Day for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion (28 September), Love Matters brings to you a handy guide to words and phrases that should be avoided when reporting about abortion, along with alternatives for these words.

Abortion or medical termination of pregnancy is a sensitive issue because of the conflicting opinions people hold about it. Unfortunately and frequently, media-descriptions can add to the problem by sending out unscientific and incorrect meanings thereby, making it seem like an evil and undesirable practice.

A change in the nature of reporting would help millions of women gain control over their bodies and help them take their own decisions, without the shame and stigma currently attached to it.

Pregnant Woman Not Pregnant Mother

Any woman who is pregnant need not necessarily already be a mother to children. To be a mother, the relation has to be with respect to another person, that is, a child. Her relation to the foetus developing in her womb becomes that of a mother-child only after delivery – when a young human is produced. So, ‘pregnant mother’ has no meaning, per se.

Foetus, Not Unborn Baby/Child

A foetus is not a child until it has independent personhood outside the pregnant woman’s womb; so, it cannot be called a child. The term ‘unborn child’ is meaningless. Quite often, we hear and read a highly inappropriate term of calling the aborted pregnancy an unborn baby.

The foetus cannot be called a baby until it is outside of the womb as existing by itself as a young human being, i.e., as a baby. The correct terms to use are pregnancy or foetus.

Terminate A Pregnancy Not Drop The Baby

To terminate a pregnancy is another way to describe abortion. But using the term ‘drop the baby’ is incorrect and inappropriate and creates a wrong mental image for those who read and hear it.

Sex-selective Abortion Not Foeticide

Sometimes, the pregnant woman or her relatives get tests done to determine the sex of the to-be-born child (a practice that is illegal in India), based on how the foetus is developing. These tests are usually done to end the pregnancy if the sex is not male, due to son-preference in many cultures of the Indian sub-continent. This practice is called sex-selective abortion, as the reason for terminating the pregnancy is the sex of the child that will be born if the pregnancy is carried to full term.

However, sometimes, this kind of abortion is called foeticide. The term foeticide is completely wrong. ‘Cide’ in the word foeticide is a Latin word that means ‘the act of killing’. This is incorrect usage because to kill, the being has to be alive and existing by itself. ‘Life’ or ‘to be living’, is possible only after birth. And, in this sense, ‘being alive’ does not apply to a foetus.

Preventing Unintended Pregnancies Not Preventing Abortion

What can be prevented is unintended pregnancy – through giving knowledge about contraception-devices and their proper usage to sexual partners, improving access to contraception devices, and so on.

However, it is not possible to prevent abortion if an unintended pregnancy has occurred. Preventing abortion can only mean denial of abortion service to the woman who wants this medical service. Hence, preventing unintended pregnancy is the correct term to be used.

More Than One Abortion Not Repeat Abortion

Though inadvisable to have more than one abortion (since it affects the woman’s health), a woman might have more than one unintended pregnancy – due to unavailability of contraceptives, failure of contraceptives, inadequate knowledge about contraception-choices, lack of say in reproductive-health decisions, and so on – and might have to seek abortion more than once during her life.

This should be referred to as the situation of seeking ‘more than one abortion’, as against calling it ‘repeat abortion’. While seeming logically wrong, the word ‘repeat’ used with abortion gives it a negative connotation that seems to blame the pregnant woman for being irresponsible and repeating the abortion procedure.

Woman’s Right To Life And Decision

When rights and ethics are discussed in the context of abortion, they have to be the rights of the pregnant woman, her health and well-being. She is the only person whose human-rights exist and are to be regarded. The foetus does not have personhood, i.e., is not a person until it is fully-developed and independently functional human being outside the body of the pregnant woman.

Pro-choice Or Pro-life/Neither

These are the most important and widely misused terms about the ideological attitudes towards abortion: the ones who think the option for abortion should be available and the ones who think abortion should not be allowed under any circumstance. The former should be called pro-choice (or safe-abortion advocates, or abortion-rights advocates), and the latter should be called anti-choice (or anti-abortion advocates).

However, often, people who oppose abortion are called pro-life. This wrongly implies that those who support the option to have an abortion — the safe-abortion advocates or the abortion-rights advocates – are anti-life. But, this is not true. These persons wholly support the rights of life, well-being, and choice of the pregnant woman, meaning they support her right to choose what she wants to do with the unwanted pregnancy, i.e., they are pro-choice and pro her life and well-being.  Either way, it is best to drop these descriptions where unwarranted so as to leave the decision to the woman.


Using Images That Evoke Stigma

Abortion is not always a sad choice and so mustn’t be the imagery. Often editors use stock images of foetus, babies or women with depressed or sad faces when writing on abortion. This kind of imagery immediately reaffirms the shame, stigma and guilt associated with abortion. A picture is worth a thousand words and such an image would undo any amount of progressive attitude that a text article may demonstrate.

Thus, it is extremely important to use pictures that accurately demonstrate the mood, emotion and essence of a story. A woman with a bold confident posturing (for a reproductive choice she has consciously made) could really help unsettle the deep-rooted negativity associated with abortion in our society.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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