Words are important. Words have power. Words determine how we treat and react to different things. Words can be weaponized. Words can establish legal precedent. Every field has its own glossary of terms, and this work is no different.

When I went through my training for abortion doula work, one of the terms we were taught was “Products of Conception” (poc). This envelops the contents of the uterus specific to the fertilization of the egg and the ensuing pregnancy. This is a simple, all-inclusive way of referring to many different terms that encompass different stages of pregnancy–fertilized egg, zygote, fetus, etc. Also, while it may sound cold and clinical, it doesn’t exclude any personal beliefs about the pregnancy, but it also doesn’t put any classifications on the pregnancy. I can be a person who subscribes entirely to the “clump of cells” view of pregnancy, or I can be a person who subscribes to the “life at the moment of conception” view, or I can be one of the vast majority of people who falls somewhere in between. I can fall to any camp and use the term, even if it feels “sterile” to many.

“Baby,” on the other hand…well…that’s a loaded term in the world of abortion rights/anti-abortion advocacy. Scientifically, a baby has been born. A baby has physically made its way into the world. A baby is a person with all the rights and protections legally surrounding. Emotionally, a baby can mean far more. People who have been trying for a pregnancy might be referring to their pregnancy-yet-to-come as their baby, even if no egg has been fertilized. Many people who have been raised anti-abortion refer to all poc as “babies,” regardless of what science and the personal belief of the pregnant person say. As a doula (and this stands across types of doulas), we are trained to reflect language–what the person in the situation says is what we say. If this pregnancy is emotionally and in your mind your baby that you’ve dreamed of, wished for, believed was full of individual life at the moment the sperm fertilized the egg, then it is not my place to tell you otherwise. Some people and some cultures even talk about a personal connection with their baby-to-be years before conception. That is the connection you have and what it means to you, and I can’t tell you your connection isn’t real…and if I did, well, that would make me a terrible system of support for you and I wouldn’t be deserving of the position. Similarly, if you subscribe to the view that a pregnancy is a potential life, but right now just a formation of cells that could eventually form into a live baby if nurtured and cared for and generally left to its own devices, who am I to try to tell you otherwise?–and you’re objectively not wrong! My beliefs, however, are just that–my beliefs, and they don’t matter in your specific moment of pregnancy or abortion or miscarriage or stillbirth or anything.

I am, however, very concerned about how others weaponize the words surrounding the assorted existing beliefs and views, and my personal beliefs do figure into that. I believe in personal autonomy. I don’t believe that your (or my!) experience should be subjected to somebody else’s views of life-before-birth and their personal religious or spiritual mandates, and they should not be subject to mine. Religions vary greatly on their views of when life starts, or when the soul inhabits the body, or on abortion and termination of pregnancies, and often leaders within any given specific religious group disagree even with each other. We need to look to science to legislate–religious views are too subjective and too personal to build legal precedent on. When we use these very personal words as legal weapons we negate the wide range of experience and belief that exists among people who are, or have been, or who might become pregnant. When a phrase like “unborn baby” is used in the language of a bill, we are blurring the line between scientific reason and fact and individual thought and belief. We risk personal autonomy and both religious freedom and freedom from religious beliefs that are not our own when we allow that blurring of lines. The anti-abortion groups know this, and that is why they push for “personhood language” in their TRAP (Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers) bills–they are looking to establish precedent involving language so they can blur that line, and even erase it entirely, further down the road.

A situation recently arose in Ohio (and many other states) in relation to COVID-19 that directly shows how laws and directives and how they are worded and what they explicitly do and don’t include affect actions surrounding them and how the directives are or aren’t carried out. The Attorney General attempted to put a halt specifically on abortion procedures by issuing a general, non-specific, ban on procedures that are considered “non-essential” and not “time sensitive” in what they expressed as an effort to conserve difficult-to-obtain PPE for medical workers in case of an emergency overflow due to the virus. The AG neglected to realize that abortion is, indeed, an essential procedure (particularly to those with specific health issues) and always a time-sensitive procedure–particularly in Ohio where the law does not allow abortion after 20 weeks. Clearly, the abortion clinics never stopped providing, and when the state tried to push the matter with the clinics the furthest they were able to get was limiting early first trimester surgical procedures–which really only served to increase either medical (pill) abortion procedures up to ten weeks gestation or the more complex second trimester surgical procedures after 14-ish weeks gestation. Today the governor of Ohio backpedaled on the “elective surgery” ban when he realized that “some of the procedures, surgeries, that we had no intention of stopping had been postponed, and frankly that has concerned me a great deal. So we are starting back now, and we are starting one step at a time.”

Once more for the people in the back: Language Matters. What’s included and excluded in legislation matters. Prior precedent matters. How we talk about things matters. If we’re not referring to things as they are then we are opening ourselves to the distinct possibility of much larger problems further down the road. And, as always, your pregnancy experience is your own, and it is not for anybody to tell you what you are or are not experiencing regardless of your given or chosen outcome. 💜

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