In the past few months, we have heard and read much about “fetal heartbeat” laws being passed in several states. The nickname for these bills is a complete lie, and members of the media have become complicit in using the Republican’s labeling of the measures. Although media outlets have been careful to put the term in quotation marks, the average reader is going to infer that there really is a heartbeat at six weeks. This is very dangerous misinformation that helps support anti-abortion arguments. People imagine a fully formed baby with a beating heart. NPR’s own guidance on how to discuss abortion suggests using quotation marks, but that is not enough. It is vital that the media gets the facts and biology correct, particularly when developing their headlines.
At six weeks, there is no such thing as a fetus. The correct medical term is embryo. And more importantly, the “heartbeat” is not a heartbeat at all. At six weeks, there is a collection of cells that will eventually become the heart that can send electrical signals to one another. The signal that is picked up by ultrasound is the flutter of these electrical signals. The heart will not be formed until the end of the first trimester. The embryo Is about ¼” in size at this point. When discussing such sensitive topics, it is important that we get the facts and biology correct. If we are going to discuss these bills in the media, can we at least take back the name and call it what it is. I suggest “embryo flutter” bills.
While we are on the topic of bills that are misnamed, North Carolina recently came very close to passing the “Born Alive Bill” as the Republicans named it. The bill supposedly gave additional protections for babies that are born alive during the course of an abortion. While this is an extremely rare occurrence, there are already protections to care for all babies who are born alive no matter the circumstances of the birth. By using the Republican’s name for the bill, the media helped the Republicans make people believe that doctors abort perfectly healthy fetuses at 39 weeks. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had with people, including progressive men, who are incredibly confused and misinformed about the laws surrounding when a woman can and cannot have an abortion. Using the term “born alive” only adds fuel to that confusion which is exactly what the Republicans want.
Another example of media use of shorthand that does harm was labeling North Carolina’s HB2 a “bathroom bill”. While the bill did deal with the horrible issue of legislating which bathroom transgender individuals must use (which was bad enough!), it also forbade municipalities from enacting non-discrimination laws for the LBGT population. This part of the law had far reaching implications across the state. Many people did not understand this when they heard the term “bathroom bill” and did not understand the gravity of the law.
After the 2016 elections, there was much discussion by President Trump and his cabinet surrounding voter fraud. However, studies showed that there was little to no “voter fraud” rather there was rampant “election fraud” performed by politicians. Perhaps that most egregious case was in North Carolina during the 2018 election in the 9th district Congressional race where there was a Republican operative harvesting absentee ballots. Many publications, initially used the term “voter fraud” when writing about the situation, but switched to “election fraud” once it was pointed out to them. ThinkProgress wrote an excellent piece explaining the difference between the terms. By initially using the incorrect term, especially in headlines, the publications were assisting the Republicans in their assertion that voter fraud is a problem, which it isn’t.
When the media uses shorthand like “fetal heartbeat,” “bathroom bill,” “voter fraud” and “born alive” for important and complicated issues, they dilute the complexity of the issues involved and continue to spread incorrect information. We call on all publications to think carefully about the shorthand terminology they use to describe complex issues and consider whether they are playing into the hands of politicians.
Anna Lynch is a writer, educator, and champion for all things women.