Terms of Abortion
The Los Angeles Times just banished two of the most charged words in the American language. Dropped from the paper's stylebook--along with "welsh," "birth defect," "inner city," "gyp," "cabron," "deaf mute," and other totems of insensitivity or imprecision--are the opposite poles of the abortion debate: "prolife" and "prochoice."
Assistant managing editor Terry Schwadron, who leads the task force making the revisions, said the Times isn't a party to the debate and doesn't want to be mistaken for one. "There's been a wrestling within the media over the terms used in the abortion discussion," he told us. "Almost anything you use is criticized by one group or another. Clearly people who say 'prolife' think they're not being judgmental. But just as clearly there's a reaction to the use of a term like 'prolife' that makes it seem as if it connotes a judgment."
People who call themselves prochoice think people who call themselves prolife co-opted language in the same way hard hats back in the 60s co-opted the American flag. "I always say that I am prolife," says Sylvia Ewing, education coordinator for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Illinois (NARAL). "Most people are for life. What's the opposite of prolife? Prodeath? But that has nothing to do with a woman's right to choose. It was a disingenuous and clever bit of marketing for abortion foes to take ownership of that term."
Conversely, those foes object to the marketing of an essence-of-America word like "choice." We spoke with John Kurkowski, executive director of the Des Plaines Pro Life Resource Center. "I'm sure you've seen some of the ads on television that say 'Life--what a beautiful choice!'" he said. "I imagine those people are for choice but not abortion."
If the Times believes it has shrewdly retreated to more neutral language, it hasn't. When feelings run high, no language stays neutral long. The Times no longer identifies each camp by a term that pleases it but offends the other. Now it offends each camp directly. For "prochoice" it uses "proabortion." For "prolife," "antiabortion" or "abortion foe."
Who, after all, is truly proabortion? Where are these enthusiasts? We've never known a woman to have an abortion with no regret. In his acceptance speech Bill Clinton said he was prochoice, not proabortion, a distinction we consider legitimate, perhaps because we'd apply it to ourself. Rose Walsh, a member of the Professional Women's Network, describes herself as a prolife feminist with prochoice friends. Could you all agree, we asked her, that in a perfect world there'd be no abortions? "I think so," she said. Identifying the two sides as "anti-" and "pro-" makes their opposition so diametrical it denies any common ground. Walsh likes to think there can be. So do we.
What about "proabortion"? we asked Sylvia Ewing. "Uhhh, I think that is problematic," she said. "Because you can be prochoice and not necessarily would you choose an abortion for yourself."
Kurkowski is also dubious. "What does 'pro' mean? It means 'for.' We're for life. If you want to go ahead and call us 'abortion foes' you're mislabeling us. It's incorrect. It's not that we're antiabortion. We're for every aspect of life. There's enough negativism out there. We try to focus on the positive."
Richard O'Connor, executive director of Illinois Right to Life Committee, was even more emphatic. "I think 'foe' is a negative term. I wouldn't call it neutral. To me it has a negative connotation instantly." If I'm going to be tagged an abortion foe, O'Connor mused, then shouldn't the other side be labeled "fetus foes"?
What about dropping "prochoice" for "proabortion"?
"From my point of view that's better," O'Connor said. "Because the only choice they're talking about is abortion. There is no other choice. I think that more accurately describes their position. But 'abortion foe'? It doesn't sit well with me."
"I think the prolife movement per se encompasses a wider perspective than just being against abortion," Rose Walsh told us. And she believes "abortion for most people is not really a choice. No woman wants an abortion, but what kind of choice does she have? A lot of good people out there have been convinced there's no other way."
Editorials R Us
House of Cud. Intellectual boilerplate while you wait.
Tribune here, and it's an emergency. Fifteen minutes to deadline and there's no lead editorial for the Saturday editions.
Original thinking costs double.
Off-the-rack thumb-sucker will do. A topical matter we can view with concern and forget about.
Then health-care reform is out.
Health care, child abuse, Whitewater. We've got serious thinkers here to write about that kind of stuff, although not of course for the Saturday paper, which nobody reads.
Timor can always be lamented.
For the money you people charge we expect better than that!
Or you could declare a position on the wanton clubbing of figure skaters.
There's no time to poll the editorial board, but I have a hunch we decry it. What could you work up with that slant?
A simple ring of indignation is never incorrect. Perhaps "Regrettable blow to the Olympic ideal"?
I don't know.
Or something a little more bold. "Vicious blow to the Olympic ideal"!
Don't flourishes like "vicious" cost extra?
A free press isn't free, I'm afraid.
OK, you've got us over a barrel. We'll pay top dollar for the headline, but keep it down with the text.
Absolutely. May I suggest "sorrowful commentary"--
"on the dark side of athletic competition--"
"when pressure to win and the baser instincts of ambition, greed and jealousy suffocate the ideals of fair play and sportsmanship." Every cliche a classic and you can't go wrong with any of it.
Work that up to 400 words and ship it over.
For very little more we could introduce a subtheme--
Subthemes do distinguish important regional newspapers from local rags.
Well don't spend much time looking for one.
What I'm thinking we could do is dress down every other news medium that beat you to the story. A crisp reference to "the behavior of some reporters who fed on this story like jackals at a carcass." Again, it's language we keep permanently set in type.
That'll teach 'em. Plug it in.
To round out the page, what about a quickie on Michael Jordan trying out with the Sox?
Not much anyone can say about that except "good luck. "So let me suggest a sneer at all the media naysayers who think it's a silly idea. A continuing motif of "the rest of you are scum and we're not " will unify the page.
Motifs cost a hand and a foot, don't they?
You get what you pay for.
Carol and Kgosie in Splitsville
So it's over between Carol and Kgosie. The press didn't make much of the breakup, but then during the '92 campaign the press never knew what to do with the romance itself, even though it was a key to everything going wrong. Not until Moseley-Braun was elected did the Sun-Times pin down the story of sexual harassment charges some of Carol Moseley-Braun workers had tried to bring against Kgosie Matthews, her campaign manager and sweetie pie. And much more time had to go by before those with eyes to see and tongues to wag really loosened up.
Last November a wicked profile of Moseley-Braun ran in the New Republic. Moseley-Braun's campaign press secretary, Dave Eichenbaum, told reporter Ruth Shalit the harassment charges were legitimate and Moseley-Braun blew them off. "Her intention was to clear her boyfriend, not to get to the truth."
Like many an ardent swain, Matthews possessed an uncertain past. "Matthews's resume described his previous political experience as an advance man and chief of staff for Jesse Jackson in 1988," Shalit reported. "'We were all surprised when we heard he'd given himself that title,' says Dalmarie Cobb, Jackson's communications director. 'He was the valet. He took care of Jackson's clothes.'"
Matthews fired off a letter of protest to Shalit's editor. "My resume accurately reflected that I was a longstanding and trusted adviser to Jackson," proof of which "your readers now see from Jackson's letter to you." Alas, there was nothing to see. No letter from Jesse Jackson appeared, and last week we called Shalit to ask about it. She said the New Republic is still waiting for it to arrive.
At any rate, if Moseley-Braun wants to write a memoir about her rise to power she now has a dandy title: "Up the Hill and Down the Valet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.