What Is And Isn’t Abortion: A Primer

Repeat after me: The recent standoff over the budget came down to funding for contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening. Make special note of what word was not in that list: abortion. That’s because abortion wasn’t on the table in the fights—there was pre-existing consensus that the government will not subsidize abortion care.

Of course, if you read the mainstream news, you would not know this. For instance, this front page article from the New York Times falsely characterized the fight over “abortion funding,” even though the funding in question was over health care that is not abortion.  The actual funding fight over contraception, cancer screening, and STD testing and treatment was not mentioned, though it was alluded to parenthetically. This article is failed journalism.  Yes, I realize the anti-choicers say “abortion” a lot, but our job as journalists is not to report lies as if they were truths, but to report the truth, no matter how much kicking and screaming the liars are doing.  We certainly do not write something as searingly unprofessional as this:

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, stressed repeatedly on Friday that his party was committed to defending abortion rights, and he characterized the fight as one over women’s health.

Unless you believe a woman with untreated cancer or chlamydia is “healthy”, his statement is just a matter of fact, not a “he said/she said” sort of thing.

Still, I realize that years of anti-choice lies have started to confuse the issue, so I’ve put together a primer on what is and isn’t abortion for journalists.  This fight will be happening over and over in the future, I’m sure, so it’s very important to know if something is or is not abortion, and to report accurately whether a fight is over abortion, or over other kinds of reproductive health care.

Here is a list of things that Republicans were trying to cut funding for, and whether or not they are abortion:

Are birth control pills abortion?  No.  Birth control pills work by suppressing ovulation by imitating a woman’s hormonal status right after she ovulates. If there is no egg to fertilize, there is no pregnancy, and therefore birth control pills cannot be abortion.

Are condoms abortion? No.  Condoms also prevent pregnancy by keeping the semen from entering a woman’s body where it could impregnate her.   If a woman does not become pregnant, there is no pregnancy to terminate, and so this is not an abortion.

Are Pap smears abortion?  No.  Quite a bit of the funding in question goes towards subsidizing a woman’s standard gynecological exam.  The main portion of this exam is usually a Pap smear, where cells are taken from a woman’s cervix to be looked at for the possibility of cervical cancer.  The cells in question are cervical cells.  No embryonic or fetal tissue is removed, nor are any pregnancies terminated during a Pap smear. In fact, the cervix isn’t even dilated.  They just touch it with a cotton swab.  Therefore, Pap smears are not abortion.

Are the morning after pills abortion?  No. There is a LOT of confusion over this, because the anti-choice movement, in its efforts to get more women pregnant who don’t want to be, have been claiming morning after pills were abortion long before they got into insinuating condoms and Pap smears were abortion.

Is STD testing abortion?  No. STD testing is a broad category of services—but none of them are abortion!—where doctors look for common STDs in a patient. Some forms of STD testing don’t even involve touching a woman’s reproductive organs.  Also, men can get STD testing under the funding in dispute.  It’s a real stretch to say cisgendered men are getting abortions when they get swabbed or have blood drawn are somehow terminating a pregnancy.

Is STD treatment abortion? No.  Again, many patients who get this don’t even have uteruses!  Some STDs are cured with antibiotics.  Giving a patient a round of antibiotics isn’t abortion, or else every man, woman, and child in this country has terminated a pregnancy. Some STDs cannot be cured, but the symptoms or progression of the disease in managed with medication. This is still not abortion, unless you consider herpes sores to be pregnancies that Valtrex is aborting.

Here are some services that are NOT  funded by the money in question, and whether or not they are abortion:

Is abortion abortion?  Yes. However, it is the one service that was not in dispute in the recent budget battle. Both sides came to table agreeing not to fund abortion, and it wasn’t even considered.  What is important is to understand that only abortion is abortion.  When we use the word “abortion”, we should be referring strictly to the termination of a pregnancy and not any other thing that is not abortion.  So, when we say “abortion funding”, and the funding in question is funding for contraception, STD testing, and cancer screening, we are in the wrong. 

If this is confusing, let me put it this way.  If you tell your spouse he/she cannot spend any of your family money on entertainment, and you discover a check to the landlord for rent out of the family account, you cannot call this “entertainment funding.”  Yes, even if someone watches TV in the house.  A journalist reporting on the dispute between spouses would be doing a poor job if she used the phrase “entertainment funding” to describe the rent check.  Yes, even if the spouse telling this lie was pushy and threw loud tantrums over how his/her lie wasn’t taken on face value. 

Since the anti-choicers are getting so much leverage out of conflating STD testing and treatment, contraception, and cancer screening with abortion, we can expect that the pressure to use “abortion” when describing STD testing and treatment, contraception, and cancer screening will only intensify.    This is no excuse to give in.  We must, as journalists, use the proper words to identify things.  If a medical service is not a pregnancy termination, it is simply wrong to label it “abortion”.  No matter how much pressure we face to do otherwise from the right.

For journalists still confused about what to do when politicians and activists label contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening as abortion, here is an article that shows how it’s done. Hint: if these things are not abortion, do not call them abortion. 

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  • waterjoe

    True, some legislators are against contraception, but the real issue in the debate is whether organizations that perform abortions – no matter how small the number – should get funding for contraception and other services.  Remove abortion from the equation, there would be little support, even among Republicans, for defunding Planned Parenthood.

  • crowepps

    Are you seriously suggesting that the government can constitutionally choose to ‘defund’ individual legal organizations doing a good job of providing a necessary public health service because a tiny portion of their OTHER services, also entirely legal, is disliked by a fringe group of religious extremists?  Really?


    With the idea that the threat of their doing so will force the organization to abandon provision of the lawful service and bring it into line with the religious beliefs of the fringe group?


    Aside from the obvious problem of the government favoring one particular set of religious beliefs in preference to another, isn’t that pretty much the definition of extortion?

  • saltyc

    Seriously warped prorities here.

    They really are that monomaniacal about ending safe,legal abortion that they’ll with full awareness of the consequences, defund life-saving and life-maintaining treatment?

    And where’s the guarantee that they’ll keep funding if they did stop providing abortions? I don’t see NPR performing abortions. Most of the “pro-lifers” I see protesting Planned Parenthood are also against contraception, and sex in general. So no, it’s really not about abortion. It’s abut sex and control.

  • ldan

    Not to mention, the government funds numerous religiously-connected charities, based on the idea that they can fund those charitable activities when the money is not being funded to the organizations other, more-overtly religious activities. Shall we apply this test to those funds?


    I’d kind of like to see that. Except that a. the Republicans in office don’t actually care about those funds except as a sop to the edge of their constituency, making them unreliable hostages, b. the Democrats actually do care (or know their constituents do) about the people who would be harmed by such political gamesmanship.

  • forced-birth-rape

    ~ You cant get pregnant joe!~

    ~ Republicans are all about killing fetuses for oil, but then the mother dies with the fetus.~

    ~ I do not like my tax dollars going to the US military’s world wide, self-righteous, power trip, but they do. ~

    ~ Men are allowed to drop bombs on babies to prove their manhood, but women, little girls, raped women, and raped little girls are not suppose to be allowed to get abortions to spare themselves extreme unwanted vaginal agony. ~

    ~ Men have been raping, pimping, and selling women and little-girls for centuries, basically forcing, arranging women’s and little girls lives, bodies and genitals into doing something against their will, and pro-life, christian, catholic, republican men want in on the fun. ~

  • amanda-marcotte

    This is factually incorrect. The same Republicans demanded a defunding of the UNFPA, even though they don’t provide abortion, full stop. It’s not that they have separate funding. They just don’t provide the service.

    So, this is about contraception, always has been. Abortion is just the cover story.

  • saltyc

    This is off-topic, but I am curious about transexual men and abortion. I’m sure it must happen, but there’s very little information.

    Wikipedia has a brief article saying that transexual men who interrupt hormone treatment can get pregnant, which I am dubious about. How can you be sure that you won’t get pregnant even if you’re on male hormones? I read  (don’t know if it’s real but it did seem very plausible)  a question on Yahoo! from a trans man who was pregnant and wanted an abortion but was going through a lot of the moral qualms that a woman would.

    I though it was interesting because he had the same kind of struggle as a woman would, which would seem to contradict the feminist adage that if men had abortions it would be a sacrament. Of course trans is an oppressed group and you’d need a critical mass of privileged men to need abortion to really test the adage.

    But I think it’s a neglected issue, where would he go for counseling or information that didn’t threaten his identity? It seems to me that there have been other trans men going back through history who have had abortions, especially since a pregnancy would interfere with their presenting as male in society as well as with their self-identification. More recently there have been men like Matt Rice who gladly gave birth, but what about other trans men, who have had to deal with contraception and abortion, and not just gay trans men either. Because their transgression would make them a target for rape as well. My posting on what if Jesus had an abortion made me wonder about this and also about trans-inclusion in reproductive righst as well.

    On that, I’ve seen some say that to be more trans-inclusive we should not say that women have uteruses, but on the other hand, saying that reproductive issues are for those with uteruses is divisive in itself, because trans women might want to be included as women, not be singled out but be in solidarity with their sisters who do have uteruses.

    I though Amanda Marcotte might be interested in these questions.

  • amanda-marcotte

    To say that this conflicts with the “if men could have abortions, it would be a sacrament” joke. People who are anti-choice aren’t going to consider trans men to be real men, and I think we all get that. But if it makes you feel better, you can say, “if cisgendered men could get pregnant, etc.”

  • saltyc

    My main question was, since trans men have been around for a long time,  is there really no information on trans men and abortion? There must be a record of it happening somewhere, and I think it sheds some light on what we should think and say about reproductive rights, because on the one hand the discourse (not your discourse specifically) can be very gender-defined yet it also transcends gender.

  • plume-assassine

    These are all very interesting questions.

    An acquaintance of mine who identifies as a gay trans man is very pro-choice. Even though he’s on T, he knows that there is still a possibility of pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbearing simply don’t fit into his sexual and gender identity at all, so abortion has to be an option (I know that this doesn’t apply to all gay trans men, but it applies to his personal identity). Anti-choicers that he’s spoken to seem to be blown away by this and aren’t sure how to approach the “issue” of abortion in his situation. I think they realize that by attacking his right to abortion, they would also be attacking his gender and sexual identity, and risk sounding transphobic and homophobic. It is really interesting to see their reactions, as it makes them re-think an absolutist position.

  • saltyc

    Because I am curious but don’t want to speak for gay trans men. But I imagine they’d especially be at risk for pregnancy esp. if health-care providers aren’t prepared for them or they get the mis-information repeated in Wikipedia that if theyr’re on hormones they can’t get pregnant, and also not being in the female mindset it might not come up as an issue, and also because it’s not supposed to affect gay couples.

    I think it’s great that anti’s were flabergasted.

    You can feel different ways about the ethics of abortion, but the criminalization of it comes from the criminalization of female sexuality, no question. So would thinking more about men who have abortions (actually have them, not that their partners had them, which yes they’re affected but not as much) help to demolish that? I don’t know, maybe. There are those who say that because trans men, two-spirit people and others can also get pregnant and have abortions that we shouldn’t say abortion is a woman’s issue:


    But the fact that abortion is marginalized by sexism is a sticking point for me to keep saying it’s a woman’s issue, though maybe that’s the very reason to stop.

    Well either way, we should reach out more somehow.

  • leebo

    If they want to talk about “abortion mills,” I want IVF brought into the discussion.


    Between the “disposing of embryos” and all the “selective reduction” that has to go on for clinics to get high enough success rates to stay in business, you’d think all the anti-abortioners would be completely up in arms over it.


    And IVF clinics *intentionally* “create life” knowing they will have to destroy about 70% of the “babies” for each round of treatment. No accidental pregnancies there. It’s all on purpose.


    Why is this not in the debate?? Hmmm…


    GET IVF IN THE ABORTION DISCUSSION!! CALL OUT THEIR HYPOCRISY!! (Sorry. I just can’t help myself sometimes. I need to yell.)

  • prochoiceferret

    Anti-choicers … risk sounding transphobic and homophobic.


    I kind of thought they considered that a bonus!

  • leebo

    (Maybe IVF can be added to the list of “what IS abortion”…)

  • arekushieru

    I think that’s a question of the difference between sex and gender.  Since uteruses are female organs, the subject of abortion (the most contested issue of the reproductive rights question) affects primarily persons with uteruses, whether cissexual/gender, transsexual/gender or intersexed/gendered.  However, to delve deeper into the philosophical side of the question, if men had uteruses, they would probably be called female.  Female and male are simply the vernacular we’ve come up with to distinguish one sex from the other, after all.  Now, if males had an organ separate from the uterus that could be used to incubate and grow a fetus (such as the prostate), that would provide us with the answer we’re looking for, certainly!


    Thomas Beattie is someone whom I mention often.  He was a heterosexual trans man, but I don’t think he ever considered abortion.  Another man I like to bring up is the infamous Mr. Lee, the face of the faux male pregnancy research group.  Even if this were a real case, there is no male organ being used as a corollary to the uterus, which probably is what makes it more dangerous than even female pregnancy.

  • arekushieru

    Well, I think they might but some, if not many, do realize just how out there that would make them look…. :P

  • arekushieru

    Well, many ProLifers I’ve encountered do protest IVF treatments for that reason, but, yes, they aren’t nearly as vocal about it, as they are about abortion.  Although, I think if they approached it from either direction it would make them look very much the hypocrites they are.

  • ldan

    They aren’t out there protesting at the IVF clinics for 40 days are they? So yeah, it very much points out their hypocrisy.


    They’re ok with including it as part of the package that will be attacked with egg-as-person laws, but don’t really want to spend time shouting at women who are trying to get pregnant. So it pretty much highlights that the real problem isn’t little blastocyst ‘lives’ so much as women not wanting to be pregnant like they’re supposed to be.

  • forced-birth-rape

    “pregnant like they’re supposed to be.”

    ~ Pregnancy and birth is females punishment for being born female, how dare they try to evade it. The republican christians are not even going to let raped little girls evade their punishment. ~

    ~ They want every woman and little girl pregnant every year of her life from age nine to fifty, if she gets raped, happy, happy day for the republican christians. They will be more then thrilled to capitalize off of raped pregnant little girls. ~

  • arekushieru

    Well, what about those women in foreign countries who were pregnant but were killed by bombs due to the invasion of Western forces?  They don’t protest that….  I mean, wouldn’t they protest that if, as you say, they wanted women to be pregnant like they’re supposed to be? I think they are simply pro-punishment by whatever means they have available to them, if they can’t direct how a woman’s body is used, otherwise.   

  • billfalls

    It seems like the discussion has lost track of Amanda’s wonderful tongue-in-cheek (I think) primer on the obvious.

    For me the take-away message is: if you see a press account that says incorrectly that the Planned Parenthood funding fight is about abortion funding, speak up! Post in the media outlet’s blog. Write a letter to the editor. Make them correct their sloppy reporting, even if they’re the NYT!

  • ack

    This post holds so much truth in so many ways. There are many faith-based homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and food kitchens that receive government funding. The difference is that Dems wouldn’t want to cut funding to programs that the community needs based on the fact that a portion of their UNFUNDED services are religious. 


    I’ve also been to food kitchens where the group prays before eating. I think that’s wrong; people in need shouldn’t be coerced into participating in religious practices in order to eat. But even if I wanted to know if the organization received government funds, I wouldn’t fight to defund them if that’s all they were doing.

  • ldan

    Eh, they can’t see those women…and anyway, they’re the wrong color or religion or, at minimum, nationality for these folks to think of them as human enough to be proper incubators. Their image of the people dying as we go fight for oil or Chistian dominion or whatever doesn’t even include women and children. It’s all terrorists getting bombed, dontchaknow? I’m pretty sure everyone else is just out of sight, out of mind. If they had to think about the humanity of any of them, it might cause a blip in the cognitive dissonance they’re usually working under.


    If they were *just* pro-punishing-women, they’d be picketing the IVF clinics. Shouting shame at infertile women about killing embryoes would be right up that alley. I’ve never heard a coherent argument from an anti as to why IVF clinics aren’t part of their 40 Days of Harrassment. (not that I *want* them to add IVF clinics to their roster…but it’s such a glaring hypocrisy, it’s hard not to use it)



  • crowepps

    Some faith-based services fudge the line about what is and isn’t funded pretty badly.  Have heard several complaints about churches who are supposed to be distributing emergency food and shelter neutrally who insist on “meeting with you right after services on Sunday”, which is banned by the grant funding paperwork, and also of an organization which distributes things only to those in their own church.  Even believing what they are doing is not appropriate, however, I think every hungry mouth fed is an accomplishment and I’m not going to push to get their funding yanked.  What I will do instead is suggest that they follow the rules.

  • arekushieru

    Except that brings up even more cognitive dissonance.  If they’re out there protesting IVF they’re also protesting women spreading the image of females as incubators, something they are normally in support of!

  • elburto

    Sorry bucko, but you’re wrong. You see, you may have fallen for the “Protectin them gosh darned in’cent baybees” routine, but it’s got nothing to do with that. Riddle me this – if it’s about stopping abortion, why do TheoCon’s back abstinence only sex ‘education’? Why did your last Republic*nt govt deny funds to developing countries that teach about condom use to prevent pregnancy and HIV? Both strategies proven to INCREASE unwanted pregnancy and increase abortion.

    It’s got fuck all to do with abortion, and everything to do with showing women who’s boss. It’s about oppressing and enslaving women, the poor, people of colour and other minority groups. It’s about returning America to a time when all women answered to men, when nobody had reproductive choice, when the poor, the minorities were seen but not heard. It’s the Theofascist wet dream of Republican men to put everyone but them at the bottom of the pile. That’s what this is about.

  • kimjong

    Actually, no, it isn’t. The dictionary is your friend.

  • kimjong

    Hey geniuses,


    Believe it or not, you can choose to have your partner wear a $2 condom and save the taxpayers $200 – $2000.


    Anti-choice? No, we just expect you to not make the stupid choice the first time. And if you decide not to make the right choice the first time, do it on your own dime.


    Cases of rape or where the mother’s life is actually in jeapardy are a different story entirely.

  • ack

    First of all, you’re assuming everyone has equal access to condoms and education on how to properly use them. They don’t. Planned Parenthood provides a safe, confidential location for women and girls to discuss and obtain contraception. Going to the local drugstore may not be confidential (ever lived in a small town?) and/or may be cost-prohibitive (ever tried to get anywhere in a place with crappy public transportation?).


    Second, every dollar the government spends on family planning saves $4 in later services. Why? Because people without access to affordable contraception (and I mean affordable TO THEM, not to you, or me, or someone who makes $250k per year) experience unplanned pregnancies. The women obtaining services at places like Planned Parenthood are usually low income and many of them qualify for Medicaid. Childbirth is a VERY expensive process. And to paraphrase crowepps, sex isn’t just for rich people. Even when people have total access to contraception (rare), things happen. 


    Third, you’re assuming that all women have equal control over when they have sex and whether contraception is used. They don’t. Recent research has shown that 1/4 of abused teenage girls reported that their abusers were actively trying to get them pregnant. Women and girls who experience verbal abuse are less likely to consistently use condoms than their non-abused peers, and if physical abuse is present, even less so. They’re more likely to experience STIs and unplanned pregnancy. Check out Dr. Elizabeth Miller’s work for more information.



  • therealistmom

    Because apparently SHE has to “have your partner wear a $2 condom”, instead of the MAN being responsible for his part of the birth control.

    And She has to “not make a stupid choice” to begin with, never mind the man sort of had to be there too.

    And in happy perfect world, men ALWAYS wear condoms when the women ask them to, and they ALWAYS work, there is never such a thing as contraceptive failure.

    [No, we just expect you to not make the stupid choice the first time. And if you decide not to make the right choice the first time, do it on your own dime.]

    How about the man’s dime? Or is he “trapped” by “stupid bitches who went and got knocked up”?

    And, gee, someone had sex -gasp-. Since when is a child suitable punishment for anything? It’s a CHILD for fuck’s sake! 

    It’s all about punishing those dirty, dirty sluts to you asshats.

  • ack

    I figured I was getting to the TL;DR point, but men and boys need access to condoms, testing, and vasectomies every bit as much as women need access to physical or hormonal contraception, testing, and tubal ligations. 

  • katwa

    Cases of rape or where the mother’s life is actually in jeapardy are a different story entirely.

    Why? Is it less a “child” if the mother was raped?

  • ldan

    There are so many directions to take this. Other folks have already addressed the fact that contraception isn’t perfect, isn’t always accessible, and that not everyone is well-educated on sexuality and contraception. So I’ll just hold up a mirror to your argument and see where it goes when we’re not talking about sex.


    I expect people not to be stupid and smoke, so Medicare shouldn’t be paying for the poor choices of seniors with emphysema or lung cancer.


    I expect people to not make stupid decisions and take jobs that expose them to long term toxins, so Medicare shouldn’t pay for their health care either.


    And heck, I’ll even dip back into sex for a minute and wonder why it’s ok for the government to pay for the medical costs of childbirth for those ‘stupid’ women who get pregnant? Shouldn’t they be birthing in the street instead if they’re that poor?


    I expect people not to be stupid and go hiking into the mountains without looking at the weather forecast, so my tax dollars shouldn’t be paying for the rescue crews who go out to rescue them from their dumbness.


    I expect people not to do stupid things like frying a frozen turkey in their garage and think the fire department should make sure that they only respond to calls where the fire was not due to people being stupid.


    Oh wait, you mean we pay taxes for a civil society and social safety net to help us get over and through the accidents and the occasional lapses of judgement that every single one of us will have at some point in our lives? Huh.




    Nice to see you’re part of the crowd who actually believe that pregnancy can, in fact, put a woman’s life in danger, though. I suppose that counts for something.

  • arekushieru

    Actually, yeah, it IS my friend.  And, guess what, it agrees with crowepps! Oh! Oh. I see, you were talking about yourself….