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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Exemplar A - Excellence

The issue of abortion is one which is controversial and liable to create deep divisions of opinion between groups and/or individuals in society. In the course of my research I discovered a whole spectrum of views on abortion, ranging from the extreme views at both ends of the spectrum to the more moderate view in the centre. The groups with a moderate view, however, tended to utilise language which was not rich in features worthy of study. My study, therefore focussed on groups who could be defined as having "extremist" opinions. Their statements of intent and belief offered a context with the potential for a rich use of language which is intended to manipulate. 

How have opinions on abortion changed over time and how is this reflected in our use of language?

According to a 'Listener' survey done first in 1989 and then again in 1996, New Zealanders' opinions on abortion have liberalised over time. For example, in 1989, only 30% of those surveyed believed that abortion was acceptable for any reason other than the mother's health, while in 1996 this figure increased to almost 50%. I believe that NZ's increasingly liberal attitudes are reflected in our use of language. Consider, for example, this opinion from a newspaper article on the subject of abortion in 1988. A government consultant is quoted as saying: "There is no reason why a fit 18 or 20 year old woman cannot have a child." In 2003, however, it is likely that a government official would use language which is more circumspect and less likely to raise the ire of those who may consider the previous comment sexist and demeaning to women. An article in the 'Press' newspaper in 2000 demonstrates a more liberal and accepting view. In the article, a doctor is quoted as saying : "My position as a doctor is to say : if you feel you have made the right decision, let's help you to do it safely." While these two examples are isolated cases, I believe that they do help to demonstrate that general attitudes to abortion have changed, showing less focus on value judgements and greater sympathy for the situation of the individual. 

How do 'extremist' groups use language to convince others to change their beliefs about abortion?

My research demonstrates that 'extremist' groups on both sides of the issue are capable of using violent, simplistic and emotive language in order to condemn those who do not share their views. 

Those who maintain a 'pro-life' stance were more likely to justify their position with references to God and the bible. For example, a religious group, "The Assemblies of God" put forward the view that "....abortion is still immoral and sinful.....This is founded on the biblical truth that all human life is created in the image of God. From that truth issues the .....view that aborting the life of a child is evil." This quote uses highly emotively charged vocabulary to attempt to convince the audience of the 'sinfulness' of abortion. The reference to 'biblical truth" implies that their belief is not only morally right but it also has God's approval. This type of language doesn't allow for a discussion of the surrounding issues, tending to disallow any other opinion and it has the effect of demonising those who may choose to seek an abortion. Some "pro-life' groups also use graphically violent language to condemn abortion as demonstrated in the following example:" Abortionists and their staff....daily dismember children and consider themselves heroes to women everywhere." Here we see the semantic field of war and a hunting metaphor introduced and these are continued in "The killing and shredding of a baby in the womb by abortion...." Such vocabulary is designed to shock and intimidate its audience into adopting a similar view of abortion. A vastly contrasting language technique adopted by some 'pro-life' groups is the use of abstract nouns with positive connotations to give a spiritual quality to the fight against abortion. This is seen in: "the sacredness of human life", "we must show compassion". It is difficult to reconcile such contrasting uses of language from groups who are on the same side!

 In contrast, the 'pro-choice' groups use language to make abortion seem less intimidating. Their position is that every woman has the right to choose to have an abortion, regardless of her social or financial situation, and this is reflected in the repeated use of abstract nouns: "Reproductive freedom – the fundamental right of every individual to decide freely.........is a reaffirmation of the principle of individual liberty ..." Euphemism is also used here: abortion becomes "reproductive freedom". The combined effect of these features is to glorify women's choice, thus making abortion seem a noble and acceptable course of action for any woman. Collocations of emotive words with positive connotations are also used by 'pro-choice' groups: " It (abortion) helps ensure that children will be wanted and loved, that families will be strong and secure..." (sic) By using these collocations the 'pro-choice' group is attempting to manipulate the audience to a view that abortion is a 'wholesome' and 'family-friendly' option. 

Hyperbole was evident in the writings of a 'pro-choice' group called "Refuse and Resist". This group referred to 'pro-lifers' as "Christian fascists" and "sanctimonious charlatans" The intent of this group is undoubtedly to discredit the 'enemy'. This group used strongly emotive and metaphorical language to inspire its audience to action: it calls on its readers to " thunder our outrage...and go on a new footing against misogyny." The imperative form of the verb is employed to create a strong sense of the need for urgent action: "Defend abortion providers by any means necessary!" Allusion to pre-war Germany occurs in : "..the whole scene (the pro-life movement) is hauntingly reminiscent of Germany in 1932, just before the Nazis came to power." The purpose of this type of language is undoubtedly to create fear in the audience. This type of attack may, in fact, be counter-productive, as such exaggerated and emotively charged language may be unlikely to manipulate a moderate audience into changing its stance on the issue. 

Clearly, many interest and lobby groups use language as a weapon. An awareness of the linguistic tricks which are used to manipulate undoubtedly empowers us and makes us less susceptible to such manipulation. Similarly, we must be accountable for our own words lest we become the manipulators!


  • American Medical Association (2002). The Debate, 19/9/02.
Retrieved Sept 10, 2003 from http://www.ama-assn.org
  • Garlikov, Richard (2003) "The Abortion Debate".
Retrieved Sept 12, 2003 from http://www.garlikov.com
  • Green, H.G. (7/8/96). Changing Times. NZ Listener. Page 38-39 

  • Loe, M.P. (5/7/88). Healthy Women. Christchurch Press. Page 10 

  • Refuse and Resist organisation (2003). National Appreciation Day, 26/8/03. 
Retrieved Sept 12, 2003, from http://www.refuseandresist.org
  • Religious Tolerance Organisation (2003). Advocating Tolerance, 3/5/03.
  • Victory outreach (2003). Saving Lives, (15/6/03). 
Retrieved Sept 6, 2003, from http://www.victoryoutreach.org

Published on: 08 Dec 2010