The new laws that prohibit abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy have been called “heartbeat” legislation by supporters, a reference to the flickering pulse that can be seen on ultrasound images of a developing embryo.
But when the American Civil Liberties Union announced a legal challenge last week to one such law in Ohio, there was no mention of the word “heartbeat” in the news release, which referred to the law instead as “a ban on almost all abortions.” In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the governor’s race last year, called the measure in her state a “forced pregnancy bill.” A sign at a protest against the law in Atlanta this week turned the idea into a slogan: “NO FORCED BIRTHS.”
The battle over abortion has long been shaped by language. After abortion opponents coined the “pro-life” phrase in the 1960s to emphasize what they saw as the humanity of the fetus, supporters of abortion cast themselves as “pro-choice” to stress a woman’s right to make decisions about her body. In the mid-1990s, the term “partial-birth abortion,” originated by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, helped rally public opinion against a late-term abortion procedure. Abortion rights activists countered with “Trust Women.”
But the stakes attached to the language of abortion are especially high, activists on both sides say, at a time when the Supreme Court is seen as likely to chip away at the right to an abortion established in 1973 by Roe v. Wade.
It was no accident, for instance, that Ohio’s leading anti-abortion group, Ohio Right to Life, invoked the term “heartbeat” eight times in 300 words in a news release welcoming the A.C.L.U.’s legal challenge, said the group’s president, Mike Gonidakis. The idea that life begins at conception, an axiom for many anti-abortion activists, Mr. Gonidakis said, does not have the same capacity to mobilize “the average person on the street” as the symbolism of a heart.
“When we say, ‘Protect babies with a beating heart,’ we’ve found a way to overcome that tsunami of messaging from Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Gonidakis said of the prominent abortion rights group. “The power of words and repeating those words over and over again helps steer the debate and move the needle in your favor.”
As abortion opponents push the term “fetal heartbeat,” abortion rights activists are trying to galvanize support by focusing on the impact the recently passed bans can have on people’s lives. On a culture-war battleground where many Americans have already chosen a side, experts say, effective messaging can be the catalyst that mobilizes people on either one — in addition to reaching the undecided.
“‘Heartbeat’ bills are obviously supposed to pull at your heartstrings, and the left is coming back with terms like ‘punishing women’ and ‘forced pregnancy,’” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian at Florida State University and the author of “After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate.”
“The rhetoric seems to be getting more and more extreme on both sides,” she added.
Abortion rights advocates say their own polling and analysis has shown that their messaging has been overly focused on concepts like the right to choose and protecting women’s privacy, which were the foundation of 1970s and 1980s-era activism aimed at right-leaning voters opposed to government intervention in people’s lives. Even the term “abortion,” they say, was stigmatized in the late 1990s with the “safe, legal and rare” tagline, used by President Bill Clinton to describe the Democrats’ policy outlook on abortion. Describing abortion as needing to be rare implied incorrectly, in the eyes of advocates, that there was something inherently wrong with having an abortion.
Now, individual stories of abortion are increasingly being aired under hashtags like #ShoutYourAbortion and #YouKnowMe, and the goal among many activist groups is to use more straightforward language that shifts the focus from the fetus to the person who is pregnant.
“We don’t use the term ‘anti-choice’ anymore,” said Destiny Lopez, a co-director of All Above All, a reproductive rights advocacy group. “That’s a euphemism that is outdated. We say anti-abortion, and what is the impact of being anti-abortion? It’s forcing someone to remain pregnant.”
Abortion opponents have long stressed what they believe is the humanity of a fetus, protesting at rallies and in front of abortion clinics with signs that read “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.” In some states, people are required to view ultrasound images before getting an abortion.
“Fetal heartbeat” is a term often used by obstetricians with patients as a shorthand — but one many doctors never expected would become so politicized.
One criticism of the “heartbeat” language, abortion rights supporters say, is that it obscures the science of how an embryo develops. What is detected on an ultrasound taken early in pregnancy, obstetricians say, is an electrical pulse in a group of cells the size of a pencil tip. To function as a heart would require further development of its structure, as well as a neurological system, among other things.
“This is nothing like what we would think of as a four-chambered heart,” said Sarah Horvath, a family planning fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who performs abortions. “The scientific words are getting conflated with a term that has emotional significance.”
Even when a law is described as banning abortions at six or eight weeks, some abortion rights advocates worry there is the potential for confusion. Doctors measure the start of pregnancy from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period, which is usually two weeks before conception. As a result, some of the new laws would ban abortion as early as two weeks after a missed period, before many women realize they are pregnant.
But arguing on scientific or technical grounds has not proved especially effective for abortion rights supporters in the past.
Medical explanations of the term “partial birth abortion” in the late 1990s — a time when the number of Americans who said that abortion should be legal under all circumstances had dropped, to about one in four from one in three — did not prevent a ban of the procedure under federal law in 2003. The phrase refers to a later-term abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction.
Anti-abortion activists have also successfully pushed for bans on a procedure used in the vast majority of second-trimester abortions by labeling it “dismemberment abortion.” Doctors call the procedure a dilation and evacuation. The bans are in effect in two states, West Virginia and Mississippi.
“Medical procedures are not familiar to a lay audience, people don’t like to think about them, and they are hard to explain on a bumper sticker,” said Carole Joffe, a sociologist who studies abortion politics at the University of California, San Francisco. “That has put the pro-choice movement at a disadvantage.”
Slogans about keeping abortions “safe and legal” are fine, said Andrea Miller, an abortion rights supporter and president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, but fail to evoke the emotion that abortion rights opponents have managed to unleash. “When you zoom out from the legalese and you ground it in real people’s lives, you see greater support and mobilization.”
Mr. Gonidakis, of Ohio Right to Life, said he had taken note of some of the new terminology being floated by abortion rights proponents, like the #StopTheBans hashtag and references to “forced birth.”
“I’m not saying it’s not powerful,” he said. “I’m just saying, saving a baby with a beating heart is more powerful.”