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NPR Reporter Style Guide: ‘Babies Are Not Babies Until They Are Born’


NPR recently re-upped its guidance to staff about how to discuss abortion given several states’ recent decisions to decriminalize infanticide or, conversely, more strictly limit abortions. To its credit, the news organization published this guidance publicly. To its shame, it uses a pretense of scientific objectivity to cover a deeply slanted take on this controversial topic.

That includes this mind-bending instruction from Joe Neel, a NPR editor and a correspondent on NPR’s Science Desk:

The term ‘unborn’ implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born. They’re fetuses. Incorrectly calling a fetus a ‘baby’ or ‘the unborn’ is part of the strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion. Use ‘unborn’ only when referring to the title of the bill (and after President Bush signs it, the Unborn Victims of Violence Law). Or qualify the use of ‘unborn’ by saying ‘what anti-abortion groups call the ‘unborn’ victims of violence.” The most neutral language to refer to the death of a fetus during a crime is ‘fetal homicide.’

This is mind-numbingly stupid. It also reveals a bias against pro-life groups, because it implies that if a pro-life group says the truth, it can’t be the truth just because the pro-life group said it.

The plain truth is, fetuses are babies. Pro-lifers saying so doesn’t make it false, even if NPR’s speech police don’t like to hear it or feel it’s a particularly effective pro-life argument.

And it’s effective because it’s true, and because everyone knows it is true. I saw my first son for the first time when he was about seven weeks post-conception, and I heard his heart thump-thump-thump big and strong. It was then that I knew I had to stop pretending he was not really a person yet, because there he was, the size of a blueberry, with arms and legs and a robust heartbeat I could see spiking across the monitor. That monitor isn’t unscientific, nor non-medical, unless you want to deny science and medicine themselves.

In fact, it’s unscientific to say the heartbeat doesn’t belong to a baby, or a human. What does it belong to, a chicken? A pig? A fruitcake? Denying reality quickly gets you into insane territory. Obviously, that heartbeat comes from a human heart. And where do we find human hearts? Inside human freaking persons, that’s where, and nowhere else. Very young human freaking persons are called babies. That’s also science, in case any NPR reporters are wondering.

Every single mother who has ever seen her baby on that ultrasound screen at whatever stage, and her husband and all her family and friends, knows that a fetus is a baby. And so do the doctors attending that mother and child.

Pretending otherwise to make women who kill their unborn children, and the politicians and corporations who use them for money and a wedge issue, feel better is also deeply offensive to women who have lost children to miscarriage and stillbirth. They didn’t lose a “fetus.” They lost a baby.

They have held those babies in their hands and arms. They know what they lost, and it is not anything other than a human child. Don’t anyone dare lie about their suffering and loss. It only means something if what they lost was a person, rather than an impersonal “fetus,” a “potential person,” or whatever word torturing just came out of Euphemisms, Edition 7.0 to cover the failures of the last generation of lies.

Only a wall of skin and a thin lining of uterus stands between a child and the sunlight before he is born. Being hidden and small doesn’t make babies any less babies. Being unwanted doesn’t make babies any less babies either, just like being unwanted wouldn’t make disabled or elderly people or anyone else less human. While obviously doctors will call an unborn person a fetus, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other accurate words to use for precisely the same thing — like “babies,” “unborn child,” and “human.”

The rest of the guidelines are similarly riven with obfuscation. They also tell writers not to use the phrase “late-term abortion,” because:

Though we initially believed this term carried less ideological baggage when compared with partial-birth, it still conveys the sense that the fetus is viable when the abortion is performed. It gives the impression that the abortion takes place in the 8th or 9th month. In fact, the procedure called intact dilation and extraction is performed most often in the 5th or 6th month — the second trimester — and the second trimester is not considered ‘late’ pregnancy. Thus ‘late term’ is not appropriate.

So, NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott says “late-term abortion” “conveys the sense that the fetus is viable when the abortion is performed” about a procedure done “most often in the 5th or 6th month.” Memo to Mr. Memmott: Babies are viable in the 5th and 6th months of pregnancy (which occurs in about weeks 22-28). Many mothers I know, especially those who have experienced miscarriages, wait anxiously until they reach 24-26 weeks of gestation because that’s the point at which doctors have a good chance of saving their baby if he arrives prematurely.

NPR science correspondent Neel ought to be aware of things like this, but maybe he’s not really up on women’s health, so I’ll stick in a bit here from a huge study reported on back in 2015:

According to a new study of more than 34,600 pre-term babies born between 1993 and 2012, published Tuesday in JAMA, overall survival rates for preemies between 22 and 28 weeks of gestation increased to 79 percent in 2012, up from 70 percent in 1993. The smallest babies had the biggest improvement in survival rates, showing a more than 5 percent improvement.

This was four years ago, meaning survival rates for babies this young have only improved. Regardless, let’s go with these numbers for illustration. We see that at least four out of five babies born in the fifth and sixth months of their mothers’ pregnancies survive. Based on this, I would call babies at that stage viable, wouldn’t you?

So what this means, then is that lots of mothers are legally ending the lives of babies who would grow normally if they were simply delivered and transferred to a NICU instead. Maybe that reality is too much for NPR’s staff to handle.

Yet since newspersons deal in daily atrocity and gore from the likes of wars, famines, and hurricanes, it’s hard to understand why they all drive out to gawk at the law-breaking foreigners Americans feed, give medical care to, clothe, protect, and transport, but want to stay as far away as possible from other vulnerable people our society allows to have their heads mortally pierced with scissors or a scalpel inside their own mother’s wombs.