Politicized language contributes to confusion over Louisiana abortion ban, experts say

By: - July 31, 2022 6:00 am
Abortion rights protestors outside Supreme Court

Due to the politicized nature of the abortion debate, Americans cannot agree on abortion, or even what "abortion" means, experts say. (Jane Norman/States Newsroom)

At the core of the legal battle to block Louisiana’s abortion ban is the insistence of some physicians that the state’s laws are too confusing. Court documents doctors have filed show the lack of certainty starts with the inability to agree on a definition for abortion. 

It’s a disconnect that extends to the public in general, according to one expert. He attributes this to the highly politicized nature of the abortion debate

“The normal meanings of words are not deeply dependent upon one’s politics,” George Lakoff, a retired professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. “Chair is chair, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat.” 

If you were to ask doctors, they would probably describe an abortion as a medical procedure that terminates a pregnancy. In some cases, it’s a surgical procedure. Sometimes, it’s medication. In either case, the definition is the same no matter what the reason – whether for personal reasons or a medical emergency. 

To a doctor, you could no more redefine the word abortion than you could cancer. 

But doctors do not write the laws. 

John Balhoff, an attorney representing Attorney General Jeff Landry, one of the defendants in the lawsuit to block the state’s abortion ban, filed documents in the case that offer some insight into how Landry interprets the law and, by extension, the term abortion. 

Under the law, Balhoff argues, the termination of a life-threatening pregnancy is not an abortion. Nor is the removal of an ectopic pregnancy, one in which a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the uterus’ main cavity.  

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The many politicized uses of the word abortion have muddled its meaning, Lakoff said. 

“There isn’t truth about it because truth depends on usage,” Lakoff said, adding that it would be impossible to get everyone on the same page on what abortion means. 

Nathan Kalmoe, a mass communication professor at LSU, said that “it’s not a new thing that we disagree on the facts, as well as on what policies are right and wrong.” 

“People are not particularly interested in what experts say on issues – in this case, medical professionals – and are more interested in following the political leaders,” Kalmoe said. 

Kalmoe said anti- and pro-abortion rights advocates have been strategic about the language and framing that they have used over the past 50 years. 

“Each side wants to try to frame their message in the way that maximizes the level of support in most cases,” Kalmoe said. “You see this in the general terminology around abortion activism of contrasting ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ as the labels that the movements are choosing for their side.” 

That 50 years of framing not only contributes to abortion policy, but also the way people process information they are presented. 

Lakoff describes this phenomenon in his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” 

“Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have – the long-term concepts that structure how we think – is instantiated in the synapses of our brains,” Lakoff wrote. “We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain.” 

What that means is that if people are conditioned to think that abortions are bad, but that it’s good to terminate a pregnancy that will kill you, you may think a termination in that case is not an abortion. 

When applying this to the Louisiana lawsuit playing out between abortion providers and state officials, experts say it makes sense that doctors are confused. 

Ken Levy, a criminal law professor at LSU, said that in addition to the different ways abortion is interpreted in the general population, Louisiana’s criminal statutes have conflicting definitions. 

Levy countered Balhoff’s argument that “the term abortion is commonly understood.” 

“We don’t even know what an abortion is anymore,” Levy said. “Normally when a law is passed, especially a criminal law, they have to make sure that it’s not only self consistent, that there’s no internal inconsistencies, but it’s consistent with the rest of the law. Here, they didn’t worry about any of that.” 

Without a consistent legal definition, some doctors question if normal standards of care, such as miscarriage management or emergency medical treatment, could be considered abortions. 

“They don’t know what they can and can’t do because of this mess of laws,” Levy said.

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Piper Hutchinson
Piper Hutchinson

Piper Hutchinson is a reporting intern for Louisiana Illuminator. She has reported extensively on the Legislature and state government for the LSU Manship News Service and The Reveille, where she was named editor in chief for summer 2022.

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