Dehumanization is a psychological process which involves making a person or group of people seem “less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration” using speech, images, and actions.
When some humans are excluded from being considered part of the human family, they become excluded from our empathy and it is easier to commit violence against them.
Dehumanization has been used to justify inhumane, unethical and immoral treatment of other humans throughout history all around the globe. The process is commonly used by people in positions of power, though no one is immune to dehumanizing others.
The process of dehumanization is readily apparent in abortion speech, to the point where abortionists, abortion providers, and abortion activists use scientifically and medically incorrect language in order to further dehumanize the victims of abortion and downplay the moral and ethical impact of abortion.
Before we look at some very common, widespread ways dehumanizing language is used in abortion speech, let’s quickly address the factual, accurate language regarding abortion. Since pro-choice speech is mainly targeted toward induced, elective abortions, for clarification purposes, we are going to limit our discussion to those types of abortions.
Elective abortions are not done to preserve the life of the mother, so they are elective in the sense the woman chooses to have an abortion for non-medical reasons. We are not including in this discussion spontaneous abortion, which is the medical term for what is more commonly known as a miscarriage. This is a natural death of the developing human before 20 weeks gestational age, usually due to chromosomal abnormalities of the developing human or due to physical and/or health issues with the mother.
An elective abortion is the intentional ending of the condition of pregnancy by using medicinal or surgical means to end the life of the human embryo or fetus the pregnant woman is carrying. The human embryo or fetus is removed, along with the placenta and the rest of the uterine lining and contents, from the woman’s body. Note that pregnancy is a condition, not an object, as the World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, and any medical professional, health organization, or medical dictionary will tell you. This will be important later.
This is the technically and medically accurate definition of pregnancy and elective abortion. Notice the lack of appeal to emotion by avoiding words like baby, child, victim, kill, murder, violent, or any permutation thereof in the definitions. So...why is this so difficult? Why can’t medical professionals, clinics, doctors, and activists at least use correct terminology instead of actively trying to get as far away from emotion and humanity as possible when speaking about abortion, even if that means they use blatantly incorrect or very misleading words?
Below we are going to go through a list of very common terms and phrases pro-choice people use to dehumanize the embryo or fetus involved in the act of abortion, and we will see why each of these terms is misleading at best and completely incorrect at worst.
Product(s) of Conception (POC)
This term refers to any tissue resulting from the union of an egg and sperm cell, but is most commonly used in the medical world to refer to retained products of conception after a pregnancy ending of any kind, because retained tissue is a cause of vaginal bleeding. While a technically correct term, it is often incorrectly used in abortion speech to encompass the zygote, embryo, or fetus in its definition. In fact, scientifically, a zygote, embryo, or fetus is not a tissue, but is, by any definition available, an organism. Sometimes even doctors or medical associations use the term POC incorrectly, like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), who refer to the process of medical abortion as “expulsion of the products of conception,” which is only partially true. Expulsion of a human organism also occurs.
However, some people are not aware of the exact medical definition of POC and take it to mean, quite literally, anything which exists as a result of conception, including the developing human. However, using the term this way makes no sense as a defense for abortion because every single born person could in that case be called a POC, but we don’t refer to grown human beings this way. Why?
Because there is no instrumental value in calling grown human beings “products of conception.” The only reason to refer to embryos and fetuses in this way is to avoid referring to them as human. If an embryo or fetus is a mere “product of conception” then to remove it is no more morally significant than removing the products of aging— wrinkles— or the products of eating— excess weight. Terms like these are deliberately misused by abortion proponents in order to obscure the reality of what an abortion actually does - namely, that it kills a human organism - and emotionally distance the abortion advocate from the victim of abortion, the fetus. This is the very definition of dehumanizing language.
Clump of Cells or Tissue
This is the approximate layman meaning of POC, discussed above, and is often used by abortion proponents on social media. Words like “clump,” “mass,” “bunch,” and “lump” are deliberately used to convey a sense of disorganization and inertness or that something is useless and worthless. “Tissue,” as covered above, is a scientifically incorrect term for a zygote, embryo, or fetus. Even a single-cell zygote is an organism. Among other characteristics they possess, organisms are structured and direct their own growth and development; organisms are the furthest thing from a pile of inert, disorganized tissue. Now, the term “cells” could be used to describe a developing human— just as it could be used to describe any born human. But we do not call humans we value “clumps of cells.” Why not?
Because this term is vaguely degrading and derogatory, conveying an idea of non-value. When applied to human embryos and fetuses, this term works to downplay the amazing, perfectly orchestrated, not yet fully understood biological actions going on in a developing, preborn human. All humans are whole, structured, living organisms, both before and after birth. This term hides what abortion actually does, which is not just getting rid of a clump of nonliving, useless, worthless tissue, but ending the life of a new, whole, distinct human. Abortion proponents work to dehumanize preborn humans by glossing over the very real death of a human during an abortion procedure and comparing that death to the removal of a mere clump of cells.
Uterine Debris, Tissue, or Contents
We have already discussed how “tissue” is a completely incorrect term to refer to a zygote, embryo, or fetus. However, sometimes other words are used to indicate the unique, human organism is a nonliving, disorganized mass growing in the uterus, such as “contents” and more disgustingly, “debris,” which is a blatantly dehumanizing term conveying not only lack of organized, structured, unique life, but also lack of worth. These terms completely fail to recognize the most important part of an abortion, which is the death of the preborn human. University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, labeled “Best Children’s Hospitals: Ranked in 10 Specialties, 2018-2019” by U.S. News, unironically uses utterly false medical terms for describing steps in a Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) abortion:
“Pass a hollow tube (cannula) into the uterus. The cannula is attached by tubing to a bottle and a pump that provides a gentle vacuum to remove tissue in the uterus. Some cramping is felt during the rest of the procedure. Pass a grasping instrument (forceps) into the uterus to grasp larger pieces of tissue. This is more likely in pregnancies of 16 weeks or more and is done before the uterine lining is scraped with a curette. Use a curved instrument (curette) to gently scrape the lining of the uterus and remove tissue in the uterus. Use suction. This may be done as a final step to make sure the uterine contents are completely removed...The uterine tissue removed during the D&E is examined to make sure that all of the tissue was removed and the procedure is complete...A D&E is done to completely remove all of the tissue in the uterus for an abortion in the second trimester of pregnancy.” [emphasis added]
A top-ranked children’s hospital should not be using medically inaccurate terms to talk about a surgical abortion procedure. If only “tissue” was removed in a surgical abortion, the human fetus would stay inside the woman. But that is not what happens. In a D&E, the human fetus, a unique, living human organism, is grasped and torn apart and then all the pieces are “examined” to make sure no fetal remains are left in the woman. This is the truth the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital thinks is too grisly to talk about honestly, so they use incorrect, misleading, and dehumanizing language to avoid ever having to admit a living human is purposely killed.
Empty, Clean, or Scrape the Uterus
The University of Chicago has a guide on how to access abortion, in which it describes a surgical abortion, stating, “During the abortion procedure, medical instruments and a hand-held suction device or a suction machine will gently empty the uterus.” Additionally, Planned Parenthood’s information on medical abortion states, “This medicine causes cramping and bleeding to empty the uterus.” Furthermore, the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Georgia repeatedly uses the phrase “evacuate the uterus” to describe the abortion procedures it offers. WebMD, the paradigm of easily accessible medical knowledge, takes an almost flippant tone by using phrases such as, “clear out its contents,” and “make sure everything is cleared out.” Using these types of phrases completely divorces the abortion procedure from what abortion actually does to a preborn human organism. The phrases skate over the surface of reality and allow people to avoid focusing on the ending of a human’s life in the process.
Terminate or End the Pregnancy (TOP)
This is a technically correct term to use, since it is referring to the ending of the condition of pregnancy for the mother. However, this term, just like “uterine contents” or “emptying the uterus,” purposely obfuscates what is going on during an abortion. Miscarriage, C-sections, and childbirth also terminate or end pregnancies, yet these processes are not referred to normally as pregnancy terminations. Why not? Because TOP is a term which easily hides the fact that abortion ends in the death of a new human being. While miscarriage also ends in death, it is an acknowledged and often a mourned death; birth and C-section usually result in a living baby, which is a cause for celebration. TOP dehumanizes the preborn human and also downplays the emotional side effects abortion can have on the woman.
Remove the Pregnancy (or Otherwise Referring to Pregnancy as an Object)
This term is used so often, it is ridiculous. It is also more easily identifiable as false. While some people may truly not realize the difference between cells, tissues, organs and organisms, most people intuitively understand the definition of pregnancy as described above— the condition the mother is in while a human is developing inside of her. Pregnancy is not an object. It is not something which can be removed, and it is not something the body can be emptied of. Yet this deliberate misuse of the word seems to be the go-to choice for abortion clinics to hide what an abortion does! Take these examples:
The ACOG says a first-trimester surgical abortion “removes the pregnancy.” Self, in “15 Ways to Mentally and Physically Prepare for Your Abortion Procedure” describes a medication abortion as, “You’ll experience cramping and bleeding as you pass the pregnancy and the uterine lining that would have supported it.” University of Chicago’s guide to abortion access also says medication abortion “causes the uterus to contract and expel the pregnancy through the vagina.”
The Department of Health and Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia says on their authorized website about surgical abortion, “The pregnancy (the fetus and the placenta) is withdrawn with gentle suction.” Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood also used this false terminology by asserting, “In-clinic abortion works by using suction to take a pregnancy out of your uterus.”
The Feminist Women’s Health Centers’ website for their Washington state sites actually defines abortion as the pregnancy being “removed from the uterus.”
Last but not least in this litany of deceit, a Master of Public Health, Alice Cartwright, told Bustle some women may have to “carry the pregnancy to term and parent that pregnancy when they may have preferred to have an abortion” when they cannot get to a clinic in enough time.
Why are these doctors, medical groups, experts, and abortion clinics, allowed to get away with such blatant lies, when they of all people should have the responsibility of being honest to the public and their patients?
It is clear the speech around abortion, from the average abortion advocate to medical professionals, is full of misleading, incorrect terms and phrases which are being used to dehumanize preborn humans so it is easier to commit violence against them. Because this is exactly what ending the life of innocent humans is— violent, and wrong.
If we allow abortion proponents to keep using the same old rhetoric, they will continue to hide behind their dehumanizing words and disregard the reality of abortion and the deaths of vulnerable, innocent humans.
We must recognize their attempts for what they are and combat the deceit with truth; we need to work to pull back the veil so people become more sensitized to abortion, for this is the only way to change people’s minds and save tiny human lives.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.