The BBC will continue using the phrase “heartbeat bill” to describe US laws that would introduce bans on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy despite criticism from medical experts.
An international group of experts said the phrase was “medically inaccurate” and coined by anti-abortionists “in a clear attempt to frame the debate on their own emotional and empathetic terms”.
Four reproductive health organisations, the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes International and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pointed out that other news outlets had pledged to drop the phrase and replace it with “six-week abortion ban”.
Guardian US editor-in-chief John Mulholland said earlier this month the news title was encouraging editors and reporters to change their terminology, except in quotes, to “avoid medically inaccurate, misleading language when covering women’s reproductive rights”.
“These are arbitrary bans that don’t reflect fetal development – and the language around them is often motivated by politics, not science,” he added.
The groups took up the issue in a letter sent to BBC editorial policy and standards director David Jordan.
The letter, seen by Press Gazette, said: “There has been considerable media coverage of legislation passed in some US states aimed at introducing a ban on access to safe and legal abortion after six weeks.
“Much of that coverage has referred to such a ban as a ‘heartbeat bill’. This phrase has been, and continues to be, used by the BBC.
“This description is partial. Anti-abortionists coined the phrase in a clear attempt to frame the debate on their own emotional and empathetic terms.
“It is also medically inaccurate. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has made this clear; there is no detectable heartbeat at six weeks.”
The group went on to argue that the BBC had a duty to “avoid being complicit, however unknowingly, in the aggressive campaign by anti-abortion extremists worldwide attempting to rob women of their rights and care”.
The experts said prefacing “heartbeat bill” with the words “so-called” or putting it in parentheses would not address bias, adding that putting a block on the phrase altogether would be the only way to redress balance.
In a letter of response seen by Press Gazette, BBC News and Current Affairs director Fran Unsworth said that although the BBC will continue to use the phrase in quotation marks, the aim “will always be to try to explain the precise nature of the bill, rather than rely on shorthand coined by others”.
She said: “I quite understand the point you make about the use of the phrase ‘heartbeat bill’ and we would not aim to adopt it as our own description of the legislation.
“But I’m afraid that I disagree with you when you suggest that we should cease using the expression entirely.
“I do not think our reporting can avoid the fact that the phrase is now in common usage.”
Simon Cooke, chief executive of the London-headquarted Marie Stopes International, said the groups were “frustrated and disappointed” by the BBC’s decision.
He added that citing common usage as a defence “legitimises and normalises anti-abortion rhetoric and further extends the chilling effect of restrictive anti-choice policies and views”.
Picture: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage