NPR style guide tells journalists: 'Babies are not babies until they are born'

Royal baby article on NPR website, published Oct. 15, 2018, captured May 23, 2019.
Royal baby article on NPR website, published Oct. 15, 2018, captured May 23, 2019. | Screengrab/NPR

A supervising editor at National Public Radio has advised NPR staff that it is incorrect to use the word "baby" to refer to a child in the womb and warned against using terms like “partial-birth abortion” and “the unborn.”

Mark Memmott, the supervising senior editor for standards and practices at the privately and publicly funded media organization, recently posted a “guidance reminder” relating to abortion “procedures, terminology and rights.”

The guidance comes in the wake of a number of states passing what pro-life activists call “heartbeat” bills that restrict abortion once a heartbeat can be detected.

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While a Missouri bill that passed last week bans abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, a similar Georgia bill bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Other states have passed less restrictive legislation that bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while Alabama passed a bill last week banning nearly all abortions except in cases where a mother’s life is in danger.

“Proponents refer to it as a ‘fetal heartbeat’ law. That is their term. It needs to be attributed to them if used and put in quotation marks if printed,” Memmott wrote. “We should not simply say the laws are about when a ‘fetal heartbeat’ is detected. As we've reported, heartbeat activity can be detected ‘about six weeks into a pregnancy.’ That's at least a few weeks before an embryo is a fetus.”

Memmott reminded NPR staff about what the organization’s longstanding guidance on abortion states.

“The term ‘unborn’ implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not a fetus,” Memmott said. “Babies are not babies until they are born. They're fetuses.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a fetus is "a developing human from usually two months after conception to birth."

Memmott argued that calling a fetus a “baby” or “the unborn” is a “strategy used by antiabortion groups to shift language/legality/public opinion.”

“Use ‘unborn’ only when referring to the title of the bill,” Memmott advised. “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.’”

Memmott also reminded NPR journalists not to use the term “partial-birth abortion,” which refers to a procedure used to extract a baby from the mother’s womb during a late-term abortion.

Instead, Memmott states that NPR journalists should use the terms “intact dilation and extraction.”

“On the latter, it is necessary to point out that the term partial-birth is used by those opposed to the procedure; simply using the phrase so-called partial birth abortion is not sufficient without explaining who's calling it that,” Memmott stressed.  “Partial-birth is not a medical term and has no exact parallel in medical terminology; intact dilation and extraction is the closest description.”

Memmott also advised NPR staff not to call partial-birth abortions “rare” because “it is not known how often they are performed.”

Memmott also warned against using the term “late-term abortion.” Instead, NPR should refer to late-term abortions as “a certain procedure performed after the first trimester of pregnancy.”

“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,” the guidance reads.

“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.”

The guidance also informs NPR staff not to use the term “abortion clinics.”

“We say instead, ‘medical or health clinics that perform abortions,’” the guidance reads. “The point is to not to use abortion before the word clinic. The clinics perform other procedures and not just abortions.”

While many Americans call the opposing sides of the abortion debate “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” NPR has its own terminology for those groups.

Memmott stressed that a proponent of abortion should be referred to as "abortion rights supporter” or “advocate,” while a pro-lifer should be referred to as an "abortion rights opponent."

“It is acceptable to use the phrase ‘anti-abortion rights,’ but do not use the term ‘pro-abortion rights,’” the guidance added.

Examples of NPR reporters failing to follow this guidance can be found on the NPR website. 

"Meghan Markle And Prince Harry Are Expecting A Baby," an October 15, 2018 NPR headline reads. In the article, the Royal Fetus was, perhaps accidentally, called a baby in a sentence that read, "Now that the pregnancy is confirmed, they moved on to the next guessing game: what the baby will be named." 

In an April 30, 2019 article about certain procedures performed after the first trimester of pregnancy, a photo caption refers to a fetus that was aborted as an "unborn baby." 

And in a June 30, 2017 article about fetuses exposed to opioids, an image description reads, "Babies exposed to opioids in utero ...," and during the interview the NPR reporter referred to fetuses as "babies." 

The NPR guidance drew a number of responses from conservatives on social media.

“We're all familiar with NPR's ideological bias. NPR denies it but scarcely goes out of its way to conceal it,” Princeton University law professor Robert P. George tweeted. “Still it's stunning to see it officially set out. This is what lack of viewpoint diversity does to an organization that purports to be unbiased.”

Although NPR and abortion advocates may oppose the use of the word “baby” to describe an unborn fetus, a number of prominent health organizations describe unborn embryos and fetuses as babies.

“Your first prenatal visit is the most thorough. A complete medical history is taken, a physical exam is done, and certain tests and procedures are performed to assess the health of both you and your unborn baby,” a Johns Hopkins Medicine information page on the first trimester of pregnancy reads.  

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also uses the word baby to refer to the unborn.

“Whether this is your first pregnancy or third, health care is extremely important. Your doctor will check to make sure you and the baby are healthy at each visit. If there are any problems, early action will help you and the baby,” an information page from the Office on Women’s Health states.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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