Abortion refers to a number of procedures and methods for ending a pregnancy. The term was once used more commonly in the verbal form (“to abort”), but today phrases including “have an abortion” or “end a pregnancy” are more widely used.
Access to abortion, and reproductive freedom more broadly, affects people differently based on factors including race, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and geographic location. Someone may seek an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy, while other times it may be sought owing to a medical issue. In 2017, a total of 862,320 abortions in the US were recorded by the sexual and reproductive health research and policy organization Guttmacher Institute. The institute also reports, when analyzing slightly higher 2014 rates, that about 1 in 4 US women will have an abortion by the age of 45.
According to The Turnaway Study, a landmark study of 1,000 women who received or were denied abortions, people who are denied an abortion and are forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies are more likely to experience higher rates of poverty, illness related to the pregnancy, and increased levels of PTSD, anxiety, and depression in the months and years following the pregnancy.
The right to an abortion has come before the Supreme Court on numerous occasions. Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. In 1992, the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld the right to an abortion established by Roe and redefined the standard for legality of laws around abortion from strict scrutiny to undue burden, meaning that “a law is invalid if its ‘purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.’”
In 2021, the Supreme Court took up the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which concerns a Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortions after 15 weeks. In June 2022, the Court voted 6-3 to uphold the Mississippi law, effectively overturning the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe and returning regulation of abortion to individual states. (The decision closely mirrored a leaked draft opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito and published by Politico in May.) At least 22 states have some type of law banning abortion, including pre-Roe bans that were unenforceable before the Dobbs decision and so-called trigger laws designed to take effect almost immediately if Roe were overturned. In early July, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at supporting public education and shoring up access to abortion as well as legal protections for abortion seekers and providers.
Using gender-neutral language to discuss abortion in a general sense ensures coverage encompasses the widest range of people who could be affected by the issue. “Patients,” “people seeking an abortion,” “abortion seekers,” “pregnant people,” “people who can become pregnant,” and “people who give birth” are all employed as gender-neutral alternatives to woman-specific ones, as appropriate. However, language around abortion — like most issues — can differ depending on the context. It may not always be useful to use gender-neutral terms generally when, for instance, discussing specific feminist movements and the arguments both for and against access to abortion in the context of women’s health and rights more broadly. Many statistics and studies use gendered language, which can be quoted or prefaced with more context if needed.
Abortion provider or someone who performs abortions are more accurate terms than “abortion doctor,” given that doctors are not the only medical professionals qualified to perform an abortion. Plus, generally speaking, doctors who perform abortions do not only perform abortions. An abortion can also be a “self-managed abortion” or a medication abortion that requires no provider, only a prescriber. The term “abortionist” is also used to describe someone who performs abortions but often carries negative connotations and can be used to signal disapproval of the procedure.
Medication abortion, or medical abortion, refers to ending a pregnancy via taking medication. Typically in the United States, this involves taking two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, colloquially known as abortion pills, and can be done within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy per the Food and Drug Administration. As of 2021, medication abortion was the most common method of abortion in the United States, accounting for over half of all abortions; it has proven very safe and effective.
In April 2023, a federal judge in Texas handed down a ruling suspending the FDA’s approval of mifepristone, which has been in place since 2000; the same day, a judge in Washington issued a conflicting ruling that barred the FDA from further restricting use of mifepristone. The Supreme Court issued a stay on the Texas ruling, meaning for the time being, mifepristone remains legal in the states that do not restrict medication abortion access. Using misoprostol only has been shown to be an effective way of ending a pregnancy, though it may come with more side effects than the two-drug method.
When discussing medication abortion, it’s helpful for clarity to specify which drug(s) are being discussed and what requirements or restrictions for access may be in place in a particular locale.
The term “pro-life” was coined by anti-abortion activists in the 1970s after the Roe v. Wade decision to emphasize a positive image for the movement. Proponents of abortion rights began to use the term “pro-choice” as a direct counter to the slogan. While “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are commonly used and may be useful to include in direct quotes, terms including “pro-abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” or “anti-abortion rights” are often clearer. “Groups/people who oppose abortion” generally represents that position accurately. Using the term “pro-abortion” can misrepresent the support of abortion rights, access, and choice. It also may add clarity to note that some anti-abortion groups and policies support exceptions in cases where the pregnant person’s life is in danger, and in cases of rape or incest, while others do not.
“late-term abortion”/“partial-birth abortion”
There is no medical or legal definition of the term “late-term abortion,” though it is generally understood to occur late in the second trimester, after 21-24 weeks of pregnancy. “Late-term abortion” may be misleading, implying that the pregnancy has reached full term (defined by the start of the 39th week). Abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy are also extremely rare: in 2015, about 1 percent of abortions in the US occurred after 21 weeks.
A “partial-birth abortion” similarly is not a medical or legal term but a political one. It is often used to refer to intact dilation and extraction (IDX), a specific medical procedure that was typically performed in the second trimester to end a pregnancy without labor. The procedure was performed very rarely (estimated between 0.2 and 1 percent of abortions) in the US before becoming illegal: President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003 and, after a series of court cases, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart.
Neither term is recognized medical terminology. If using in a direct quote, for instance, give explanation: “The anti-abortion group staged a protest against what it referred to as ‘late-term abortion,’ which typically refers to an abortion after the 21st to 24th week of pregnancy.” Using “abortion after [insert number of weeks]” instead, or naming the specific procedure, such as intact dilation and extraction (IDX), is more useful for clarity.
“therapeutic” vs. “elective” abortion
Some health organizations, insurance companies, and other entities draw a distinction between “therapeutic abortion” — meaning abortion in the case of major chromosomal abnormalities or congenital disorders, if the life of the pregnant person is at severe risk, or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, among other reasons — and “elective abortion,” which is abortion that does not occur for one of these reasons. Critics say there is no valid medical reason for this categorization and that it can have significant consequences for a pregnant person’s health outcomes, including access to abortion and whether an insurance company will cover the procedure. If it is necessary and relevant to coverage to give a reason for someone seeking an abortion, specifying the reason (with the individual’s permission) is more straightforward than subjective terms like “therapeutic” or “elective.”
“Heartbeat bills,” also known as “fetal heartbeat bills,” refer to abortion laws that ban abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected (as early as 6 weeks into the pregnancy and as late as 8-12 weeks). “Heartbeat” is not a medically accurate description of the cardiac activity detectable so early in a pregnancy. Naming and describing the specific legislation is more precise.
In general, these bills outlaw abortions so early in the term that many people do not know they are pregnant yet. These bills often include penalties, such as prison sentences, for both the abortion provider and the patient, and while some bills include exceptions for rape and incest and/or to save the patient’s life, some do not. As of May 2021, at least 13 states had signed so-called heartbeat bills into law, though they have often met pushback in courts.
embryo, fetus, unborn baby/child
Fetus is the term most commonly used and accepted to refer to the stage of human development between about 8 weeks and birth, and embryo is used before 8 weeks. “Unborn child” and “unborn baby” can be used to match an individual’s phrasing, though in general medically accurate terms are more straightforward.
An abortion clinic is a health facility that provides reproductive care including abortions. The term “abortion provider” can also be used to refer to the facility. These facilities often provide other reproductive health services, like cancer screenings and STI tests. Referring to the specific clinic and its health services is helpful for clarity.
- Tracking the States Where Abortion Is Now Banned (New York Times)
- There’s No Such Thing as ‘Late-Term Abortion’ — Here Are the Facts (Parents.com)
- Abortion Statistics (Kaiser Family Foundation)
- Reviewing NPR’s Language for Covering Abortion (NPR)
When discussing abortion, aiming for precise language — using terms like pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion, rather than pro-choice/pro-life, for instance, and explaining the specific procedure or legislation in question — brings clarity to coverage. Many common phrases associated with the topic (for instance, “partial-birth abortion”) are not medical terminology and may be the favored terms of advocates on one side of the issue. If necessary and relevant to your coverage to include these such terms, explaining them and how they may be used in emotional or political arguments adds vital context to audiences. Using gender-neutral language to discuss abortion in a general sense ensures coverage encompasses the widest range of people who could be affected by the issue. “Pregnant people,” “people seeking an abortion,” “abortion seekers,” and “people who give birth” are all employed as gender-neutral alternatives to woman-specific ones, though they may not be useful or applicable when discussing abortion in the context of women’s health and rights more broadly.
Updated April 25, 2023, to include additional information on medication abortion and the current court cases around abortion pills.