What Is and Isn't Abortion: A Primer

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RH Reality Check

What Is and Isn't Abortion: A Primer

Repeat after me: The recent standoff over the budget came down to funding for contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening. Make special note of what word was not in that list: abortion. That’s because abortion wasn’t on the table in the fights---there was pre-existing consensus that the government will not subsidize abortion care.

Of course, if you read the mainstream news, you would not know this. For instance, this front page article from the New York Times falsely characterized the fight over “abortion funding,” even though the funding in question was over health care that is not abortion.  The actual funding fight over contraception, cancer screening, and STD testing and treatment was not mentioned, though it was alluded to parenthetically. This article is failed journalism.  Yes, I realize the anti-choicers say “abortion” a lot, but our job as journalists is not to report lies as if they were truths, but to report the truth, no matter how much kicking and screaming the liars are doing.  We certainly do not write something as searingly unprofessional as this:

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, stressed repeatedly on Friday that his party was committed to defending abortion rights, and he characterized the fight as one over women’s health.

Unless you believe a woman with untreated cancer or chlamydia is “healthy”, his statement is just a matter of fact, not a “he said/she said” sort of thing.

Still, I realize that years of anti-choice lies have started to confuse the issue, so I’ve put together a primer on what is and isn’t abortion for journalists.  This fight will be happening over and over in the future, I’m sure, so it’s very important to know if something is or is not abortion, and to report accurately whether a fight is over abortion, or over other kinds of reproductive health care.

Here is a list of things that Republicans were trying to cut funding for, and whether or not they are abortion:

Are birth control pills abortion?  No.  Birth control pills work by suppressing ovulation by imitating a woman’s hormonal status right after she ovulates. If there is no egg to fertilize, there is no pregnancy, and therefore birth control pills cannot be abortion.

Are condoms abortion? No.  Condoms also prevent pregnancy by keeping the semen from entering a woman’s body where it could impregnate her.   If a woman does not become pregnant, there is no pregnancy to terminate, and so this is not an abortion.

Are Pap smears abortion?  No.  Quite a bit of the funding in question goes towards subsidizing a woman’s standard gynecological exam.  The main portion of this exam is usually a Pap smear, where cells are taken from a woman’s cervix to be looked at for the possibility of cervical cancer.  The cells in question are cervical cells.  No embryonic or fetal tissue is removed, nor are any pregnancies terminated during a Pap smear. In fact, the cervix isn’t even dilated.  They just touch it with a cotton swab.  Therefore, Pap smears are not abortion.

Are the morning after pills abortion?  No. There is a LOT of confusion over this, because the anti-choice movement, in its efforts to get more women pregnant who don’t want to be, have been claiming morning after pills were abortion long before they got into insinuating condoms and Pap smears were abortion.

Is STD testing abortion?  No. STD testing is a broad category of services---but none of them are abortion!---where doctors look for common STDs in a patient. Some forms of STD testing don’t even involve touching a woman’s reproductive organs.  Also, men can get STD testing under the funding in dispute.  It’s a real stretch to say cisgendered men are getting abortions when they get swabbed or have blood drawn are somehow terminating a pregnancy.

Is STD treatment abortion? No.  Again, many patients who get this don’t even have uteruses!  Some STDs are cured with antibiotics.  Giving a patient a round of antibiotics isn’t abortion, or else every man, woman, and child in this country has terminated a pregnancy. Some STDs cannot be cured, but the symptoms or progression of the disease in managed with medication. This is still not abortion, unless you consider herpes sores to be pregnancies that Valtrex is aborting.

Here are some services that are NOT  funded by the money in question, and whether or not they are abortion:

Is abortion abortion?  Yes. However, it is the one service that was not in dispute in the recent budget battle. Both sides came to table agreeing not to fund abortion, and it wasn’t even considered.  What is important is to understand that only abortion is abortion.  When we use the word “abortion”, we should be referring strictly to the termination of a pregnancy and not any other thing that is not abortion.  So, when we say “abortion funding”, and the funding in question is funding for contraception, STD testing, and cancer screening, we are in the wrong. 

If this is confusing, let me put it this way.  If you tell your spouse he/she cannot spend any of your family money on entertainment, and you discover a check to the landlord for rent out of the family account, you cannot call this “entertainment funding.”  Yes, even if someone watches TV in the house.  A journalist reporting on the dispute between spouses would be doing a poor job if she used the phrase “entertainment funding” to describe the rent check.  Yes, even if the spouse telling this lie was pushy and threw loud tantrums over how his/her lie wasn’t taken on face value. 

Since the anti-choicers are getting so much leverage out of conflating STD testing and treatment, contraception, and cancer screening with abortion, we can expect that the pressure to use “abortion” when describing STD testing and treatment, contraception, and cancer screening will only intensify.    This is no excuse to give in.  We must, as journalists, use the proper words to identify things.  If a medical service is not a pregnancy termination, it is simply wrong to label it “abortion”.  No matter how much pressure we face to do otherwise from the right.

For journalists still confused about what to do when politicians and activists label contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening as abortion, here is an article that shows how it's done. Hint: if these things are not abortion, do not call them abortion. 

Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance writer who focuses on feminism and politics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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