Language as a Tool of Persuasion: Critical Discourse Analysis of Pro-choice and Pro-life News Articles

Randy Alcorn was sent this research paper by Naila Bairamova Mitchell, a student at Portland State University in Portland, OR. We felt it was a balanced paper showing how language is used in persuasion in the abortion debate. It was also brave of Naila to choose abortion as the subject in a very liberal university and in a very liberal state.

Abstract

Language is a powerful tool that can be used to persuade and agitate. This article will be looking at the issue of abortion. Headlines from both pro-choice and pro-life news sources will be analyzed along with two contrasting articles. The article will be looking at how fetus, pregnancy, and abortion are described in both sources and how this description helps get their message across. The main goal is to demonstrate that lexical items used in both articles are not random; rather, they were selected by authors deliberately and carry big emotional weight.  

1. Introduction

The issue of abortion is very sensitive. However, we cannot avoid talking about it. When does life begin? Should women have a right to abort? Should a fetus be considered a human? These are just a few of the many questions that have been around for a long time. As a result, people formed two camps—pro-choice and pro-life. Each of these camps started moving their agenda forward. Each camp’s desire is to influence people in such a way that they will choose to join them. The purpose of this article is to describe one of the ways both pro-life and pro-choice news sources use language as a tool of persuasion. It is important to note that there were previous attempts to research and analyze the discourse of pro-life and pro-choice groups. Michelle Dillon (1993) presented an article that talks about the abortion discourse of both groups. There were also attempts to look at this issue from the prospective of different countries.  In their discourse analysis, Larsson, Eliasson, Klingberg, Atuyambe, & Fritzell (2015) looked at Ugandan abortion laws and then did a critical discourse analysis of two main Ugandan newspapers. However, there is still more to uncover within this massive societal problem, because as society moves forward, people’s opinions and laws change. With them changes the discourse. 

This article will be focused on three lexical categories: fetus, pregnancy, and abortion to see how these categories are used in pro-life and pro-choice news articles, and what emotional and psychological weight they carry. This approach was previously used by Teo (2000) in his discourse analysis of Australian news. The research questions the article targets are: “How are pregnancy and abortion described in two articles from contrasting news sources, and how do these descriptions help support their agendas?"

2. Methods

To collect the data multiple news sources, both pro-life and pro-choice, were used, specifically: Oregon Right to Life, Heroic Media, Choose Life, Huffington Post, Planned Parenthood, and Pro Choice Action Network.  For the purpose of the analysis, two contrasting articles have been chosen. The name of the first article is The Fetus Focus Fallacy, selected from the pro-choice website Pro-Choice Action Network. The second article is called Abortion, selected from a pro-life website Heroic Media. The main criteria for choosing the articles was for them to have a content focused on the chosen lexical categories. After studying the articles from both sources, two were selected for the comparison as they addressed the research question in the most explicit way, in that the content of both articles focused on fetus, the state of pregnancy, and abortion.

The following discourse analysis is built on the critical discourse analysis (CDA) method which was introduced by Fowler et al. (1991). The CDA approach focuses mainly on the news sources and proves how one issue can be represented in two different ways that portray people’s differing ideological standpoints. The beauty of the critical approach is that it demonstrates that language cannot exist in a “bubble” outside the real world with its sociopolitical relationships and complexity. According to Mapping Applied Linguistics textbook (Hall, Smith & Wicaksono, 2011, p. 88) CDA is thinking about text in the way that is sensitive to the relationship between discourse and people’s beliefs about themselves, other people, and things that surround them. That supports the definition given by the MAL that applied linguistics is an interdisciplinary study.

The analysis will be focused on the references to the three chosen categories – fetus, pregnancy, and abortion. The references will be included in three tables. The main goal of this article is to describe how the views of both camps are reflected in their choice of language. To give even a bigger picture, for some references I included words surrounding the instance, because they also give information about the attitude towards the reference and carry emotional weight. Therefore, they will help us understand the choice of the reference better.

3. Analysis and findings

3.1. Fetus

Table 1 includes the examples of the reference to fetus in both articles. Here we see a striking contrast between the references of the pro-choice and pro-life articles. By looking at the choice of lexical items the pro-choice author uses to refer to fetus we can see a pattern. Each instance seems to highlight the idea that the fetus is not yet a person or a human being. We can see that in examples like: never been considered a person or a human being, potential person, not a miniature baby, will soon become a baby, etc. All of these pinpoint the “potential’ personhood, which is not yet reached by the fetus. The references are also significantly less personal than, for instance, innocent child or baby’s life. On the other hand, the pro-life source clearly emphasizes the personhood and humanity of the fetus. In the references like preborn person, unborn human being, person, not merely what it might become we see that the fetus is viewed as a person worthy of protection. Another interesting contrast can be seen in the following references: unwelcome invader/ new mouth to feed versus a gift and a blessing. This, again, shows a different attitude of the groups. Some of the references, such as like a parasite, are emotionally “heavy.” Notice that in everyday life, this reference is unlikely to be used. These references carry a lot of emotional weight, and leave readers with a positive or negative aftertaste.

Table 1 Reference to fetus

Pro-choice

Pro-life

fetus

fetus - stage of human development

never been considered a person or a human being

whatever is human is human from the beginning

fertilized egg

fetus 

potential human being

person, not merely what it might become

embryonic form

baby's life

fetuses are not miniature babies

child

embryo

human embryo

fetuses are not persons

preborn person

potential person

God's unique image-bearing creation

definitely not a person

unborn human being

unwanted fetuses

blessing and a gift

not a separate individual

the same man, only younger

parasite - fetal mode of growth

weakest and most vulnerable children

like a parasite

human being worthy of protection

the fetus is not harmless

innocent child

not innocent

innocent people

new mouth to feed

victim

will soon become a baby

preborn child was a child

unwelcome invader

Every child in the womb is God's handiwork and part of God's plan 


 3.2 Pregnancy

Table 2 contains references to pregnancy.  Again, the contrast is almost tangible. The choice of verbs used by the pro-choice article is very interesting – resides, occupying, loaning out a body. These verbs are unusual for describing pregnancy, even an unwanted one. We also see another instance that compares pregnancy with a parasitic relationship.  This is an extreme word choice. On the other hand, the pro-life camp views pregnancy as a process of carrying a child, and throughout the article emphasizes God’s divine involvement in forming each fetus present in the womb. The unwanted pregnancy is viewed as a temporary inconvenience. This word choice is also unusual because, being pregnant cannot really be compared with being uncomfortable for a period of time. But all of these choices conform to the ideology of both groups.

Table 2 Reference to pregnancy

Pro-choice

Pro-life

 pregnancy

 pregnancy

 fetus resides in her body

 fetus present in her womb

 loaning her body for 9 months      

 carrying a child

 parasitic relationship

 being formed by God

 becoming a mother

 live temporarily with inconvenience    

 occupying the same body

 

 loaning out her body

 


3.3 Abortion

Let’s now look at the abortion references (table 3). By analyzing the choice of words, we can see and understand that the pro-life camp views abortion as negative and wrong. References like murder, offense, killing a child, creating a victim, dies in attempt all belong to the crime vocabulary. What are those references highlighting? They are there to say: abortion is a crime against the fetus. The pro-life position (as we can see from the previous tables) focuses on safety for the fetus and its humanity. On the other hand, the pro-choice camp views abortion as a medical health procedure and pregnancy as a medical condition. We can also see that primarily it takes into consideration mostly the pregnant women’s rights, safety, and wellbeing. It is shown in references like private medical decision, a way to control her reproductive rights. Just like in previous categories, some “dramatic” language is found in the references like defend herself via abortion and creating a second victim.

Table 3 Reference to abortion

Pro-choice

Pro-life

abortion

abortion

a way to control her reproductive rights

offense

"murdering" their fetuses

killing a child

one of the most unselfish acts that
a woman can perform

burden; creating a second victim

liberty and freedom

 

prevent a birth

 

private health decision

 


4. Discussion

The conducted analysis demonstrates how the choice of the lexical items is tied to the ideology of the group/ person. With an impersonal representation of a fetus, abortion as a simple medical procedure and pregnancy as a medical condition help pro-choice activists persuade readers that it should be legal to abort. On the other hand, emphasizing the humanity of a fetus, God’s personal involvement in pregnancy, presenting abortion as a crime, reflects the beliefs of the pro-life activists, and helps them influence the audience in a different way.  It is only beneficial to choose references that will impact the reader and leave him/her with certain emotions.

So, one concept is given two completely contradicting descriptions. It is a powerful example of how one can manipulate language in a way that fits his/her agenda. This is why the critical discourse analysis is so needed—it can help readers see through the bias and agenda into reality. This supports what Fowler (1991) said about bias, which is that all news is reported from a particular angle and therefore none of them can be truly unbiased.

 Another potential benefit of this article is that it can help increase understanding between these two groups. For instance, we might see why pro-life and pro-choice people believe what they believe. It is understandable, that if one believes that God Himself is intimately involved in each person’s creation and the fetus is a baby from the earliest stage, they will try to persuade others not to abort. At the same time, we can understand why the pro-choice camp leaves this matter up to a woman, because the pregnancy and abortion are both viewed as a simple medical condition and a procedure to fix it. Knowing this will help people communicate with each other better.

Finally, this is a small research and it does not cover a large amount of data. In order to fully understand the issue, it needs to be looked at from different angles. Further research can be conducted in the future.

Sources

Teo, P. (2000). Racism in the news: A critical discourse analysis of news reporting in two Australian newspapers. Discourse & Society, 11(1), 7-49.

Dillon, M. (1993). Argumentative Complexity of Abortion Discourse. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 57(3), 305-314. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/stable/2749092

Larsson, S., Eliasson, M. Klingberg, M.,Faxelid, E., Atuyambe, L. and Fritzell, S. (2015). Reproductive Health. The Discourses on Induced Abortion in Ugandan Daily Newspapers, 12(), 58.

Fowler, R. (1991) Language in the News: Discourse and ideology in the press. London: Routledge.

Hall, C.J., Smith, P.H., and Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping Applied Linguistics. New York: Routledge.