The Sexist

Why Some Fetuses Are “Reduced” Instead of “Aborted”

In today's New York Times, Stephanie Saul detailed one of the most difficult decisions facing women who are desperate to become pregnant: whether or not to have an abortion. Women who undergo intrauterine insemination in order to conceive, Saul writes, are at a high risk of producing "quadruplets, quintuplets and sextuplets—the most dangerous pregnancies for both mother and children." Women carrying "multiples" are often encouraged by their doctors to undergo "selective reduction"—the purposeful "elimination" of some fetuses in order to increase the likelihood that the remaining fetuses—and the mother—will survive.

"Reducing." "Eliminating." Saul doesn't use the word "abortion" until page three, when she notes that "many opponents criticize selective reduction as a form of abortion." It is abortion. So why don't we call it that?

Saul's story aims to accurately describe real pregnancy experiences, and the highly politicized debate surrounding abortion has a funny way of conveniently ignoring these stories. The hopeful parents Saul interviews largely fall outside the mainstream abortion debate: they are men and women who desperately desire children, and must decide whether to abort multiple fetuses or run the risk of losing their chance of ever having a healthy baby. The typical characterizations that pro-lifers associate with the word "abortion"— "baby killers," "Godless whores," "irresponsible sluts"—don't exactly fit when they're applied to people who go to great lengths to create life.

Saul's heavy use of euphemism throughout the piece deliberately shields these women's choices from the misplaced moral superiority of the abortion debate. Calling the procedure "reducing" or "eliminating" instead of "aborting" helps to respect the full experience of women who fight for one healthy child, but end up with seven fetuses that are unlikely to survive. The use of the "reduction" euphemism in the medical community may also help some women make informed medical decisions affecting their lives and the lives of their children. Some patients may be so opposed to abortion—or simply so put-off by the cultural perceptions of the word "abortion"—that they may endanger themselves or the lives of their potential children if they are forced to choose one.

But the medical community's reluctance to discuss the possibility of "selective reduction" honestly and frankly with women can also harm those women who don't realize that fertilization techniques may require abortion. One woman in the story, who chose to "reduce" her pregnancy from five fetuses to three, told the Times:

“I think there’s a huge problem in the reproductive technology industry . . . I was told the chances that I would have triplets were less than 1 percent. There was no talk of being faced with a decision like that until the day that we had the ultrasound. Then you have two weeks to decide. And you don’t get counseling from anybody.”

The euphemistic word choice can also hurt women who have abortions under other circumstances. The hesitancy to apply the term "abortion" to women who actually want babies does a disservice to all women who choose to end a pregnancy. Women choose abortion for a variety of reasons. Some women who are not carrying "multiples" choose abortion despite a desperate desire to have a child. Some women choose abortion in order to protect their children from lives that are sure to be short and painful. Some women choose abortion in order to save their own lives from dangerous pregnancies. Some women choose abortion because their bodies are unfit to carry a child. Some women choose abortion in order to protect the best interests of the children they already have. Some women choose abortion in order to protect the best interests of the children they want to have in the future. Some women choose abortion because they don't want to have children. And some women choose abortion for reasons that are none of your business. When reporters choose to remove a select group of women from the discussion of "abortion," they imply that all other decisions to abort are somehow less valid.

Saul's story shows that the decision to abort is often complicated, difficult, and personal. It also shows that politicizing the decision to have an abortion can prove extremely dangerous to both women and children. In Saul's story, women who choose to "reduce" their fetuses escape the "abortion" label because their choice to abort is explicitly aimed at encouraging life. Their choice completely upends the false dichotomy in the political debate between "abortion" and "life." That's all the more reason to call the procedure "abortion."

  • http://heartoffalsehood.wordpress.com L

    It's interesting to contrast this with another link from my Twitter feed to a Dan Savage piece about fertilization and reduction/abortion: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/10/12/at-first-it-was-hard-to-feel-sorry-for-them

  • http://www.pandagon.net Amanda Marcotte

    They don't call it abortion because it's not. I agree with your other points about how fertility doctors need to be more blunt with women who use fertility treatments about this possibility, and there is a general fear of discussing this. But the term "selective reduction" is more exact than "abortion". "Abortion" is about stopping a process, or like they say on "30 Rock": shut it down! It's ending a pregnancy. Doctors actually refer to miscarriages as "spontaneous abortion", so this isn't really a euphemism issue.

    If you get a selective reduction, you are still pregnant. The process isn't stopped halfway through. Thus, it's not an abortion.

    The anti-choicers are the ones who started to refer to abortion as something done to the fetus, erasing the woman and her pregnancy from the equation.

    That said, I 100% agree with you that the public needs to know that women who have abortions, or procedures similar, aren't anti-motherhood. Most are mothers.

  • http://bluewavecanada.blogspot.com Suzanne

    They don't call it abortion because the pro-choice definition of abortion is the "termination of pregnancy". Selective reduction doesn't end a pregnancy.

    The pro-life definition of abortion is the deliberate killing of a fetus.

    I find it very interesting that you appear to favour selective reduction, but use a pro-life definition of abortion.

    One term they could bluntly use to describe "selective reduction" is feticide.

  • J

    AM - your argument makes zero sense. Whether you are electing one, two or 3 out of 5 its still technically abortion. I am pro-choice and can't think of a term that would fit otherwise.

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  • http://www.pandagon.net Amanda Marcotte

    You have it backwards, J. Technically, abortion means "termination of a pregnancy". Doctors use it for two cases: spontaneous abortion (euphemistically called "miscarriage" by most people) and induced abortion, which is what people call abortion. The loss of a fetus from a multiple pregnancy doesn't end the pregnancy, and is not an abortion.

    Let's not let anti-choice hysteria distract us from the medical facts here. Multiple pregnancies lose one embryo/fetus all the time, and we don't suggest that the woman's pregnancy is over. Twins are absorbed into each other's body, and the world doesn't end.

    Seriously, let's not let the anti-choice language that erases a woman's body or falsely implies that fetuses are discrete individuals like born people are take over this discussion. Framing has a way of exerting undue influence.

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