In the Battle Over Abortion Rights, Words Are Weapons


This story was originally published in 2019 following an incendiary rally in El Paso, Texas, held by Donald Trump, at which inaccurate remarks were made about the definition of abortion. Given Texas’s extreme new law banning abortions after six weeks that went into effect this week, we are republishing the story as its message feels particularly resonate.

The fight over abortion rights has always been intense. The issue is deeply personal and like lighter fluid to ideas that already spark controversy: women’s reproductive rights, contraception, science versus religion. But in this political moment, words are like matches—and women and doctors are the ones most likely to get burned.

Careful semantics about abortion are as old as the debate about women’s reproductive rights. Back when Roe v. Wade was decided, anti-abortion groups mobilized convincingly around pro-life. Since then the semantics have gotten more graphic, with words like murder and infanticide becoming the norm, while politicized and medically inaccurate terms like “late-term abortion” continue to infiltrate the debate. But lately the rhetoric around abortion has gotten particularly inflammatory. President Trump, at a rally in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month, falsely implied that babies could be “ripped from their mother’s womb, right up until the moment of birth.”

These words matter, experts say. “Absolutely sensational rhetoric like the kind that we see being thrown around on social media, and also by the president, definitely contributes toward an inaccurate portrayal of what abortion is, who the people are who provide abortions, and who the people are that get abortions,” says Jennifer Conti, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn in California, fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, and host of podcast The V Word.

Words or Weapons?

Spreading misinformation is, unquestionably, a major issue. But the more pressing problem, according to those on the front lines of the debate: Rhetoric like this lays the groundwork for violence against patients and abortion providers.

“I’ve seen over and over and over again: As the rhetoric escalates, so does the violence,” says interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest. She’s been on the front lines of the fight for abortion rights for 35 years, long enough to see several rounds of “horrific rhetoric and activity”—and long enough to see friends killed in violence related to the movement.

It’s happening again now. “We’ve seen a huge spike in violence and disruption at our clinics since the 2016 election,” Ragsdale says, citing a 2017 report by the National Abortion Federation. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.” Case in point: Death threats and threats of harm reported by abortion clinics across the country nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017, and incidences of trespassing nearly tripled, according to the report. The first attempted bombing of an abortion clinic in years was reported in Illinois in 2017 and in February, an attempted case of arson was reported at a planned Parenthood Clinic in Missouri.

The numbers of protesters (which can take a serious toll on providers and patients) are swelling too. “It’s intimidation,” says Diane Horvath, M.D., medical director of Whole Women’s Health Clinic in Baltimore. Her clinic often sees anti-choice advocates lurking outside. “It’s very menacing to have people peek into your windows and to have staff worry about who they are going to see when we go outside,” she says. “That’s the whole point: to create this climate of fear.”

The Price for Patients

It’s not just providers who face threats from inflammatory rhetoric—those seeking medical care also get burned.


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