A question of terminology

The Today programme’s top news item this morning was the non-story that antenatal diagnoses of Down’s Syndrome are on the rise, partly because women are having babies later in life and partly because screening methods have improved over the last twenty years.

None of this seems very surprising, and I wasn’t sure why it was given top billing, unless the editors at Today are part of that humorous crowd who think that women are putting off parenthood because we’re selfish and (even worse) feminists, rather than because we think it’s important to have (a) careers which we can go back to now that one income cannot support a family and (b) relationships which are likely to last, our parents’ generation having been the first to see divorce as an acceptable alternative to unhappiness, and we as a result having seen more than our fair share of acromonious break-ups – and experienced at first-hand the effect they have on children. Or perhaps the Daily Mail would rather we get pregnant at the earliest opportunity and stay at home claiming benefits while we bring up our children single-handedly.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Down’s Syndrome. It’s a sensitive subject because people’s responses to the idea of bringing up a child with Down’s vary wildly, and because it’s hard to know what one’s own response is likely to be until it happens. It’s probable, though, that there were people listening this morning who are wondering whether to have the test, or, having had it and received a Down’s diagnosis, are thinking about whether to continue with their pregnancy. That being the case, you would expect the programme to treat the subject with care.

In the segment I heard, John Humphrys interviewed Joan Morris, one of the researchers who had provided the latest statistics, and Jane Fisher of Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC), and I was struck by his repeated use of the word “abortion”, when both women used the less emotive alternative, “termination”. The two words have the same literal meaning, but “abortion” has developed a second metaphorical meaning of something ugly or awful, and in my mind it’s ready to be discontinued in its sense of ending a pregnancy. But a bit of googling reveals that that opinion is by no means universal, and I realise that just because a word has taken on a certain weight for me, it doesn’t mean it holds the same associations for other people.

There’s no guidance in the BBC’s style guide on the use of the word “abortion”; nor is there in the Guardian’s (my preferred source of arbitration, because it seems to have been written by real people who have spent time thinking about it). So I wonder: is my response to the word an unusual one, or is it genuinely dropping out of use? Is there a turning point at which we can say “this word is  no longer considered appropriate”? And how can that measurement be taken? It’s all interesting stuff, and I think I’ll take a bit of time to find out more about words which have fallen out of currency, and whether it’s possible to reconstruct the process by which it happens.

But back to this morning’s show, into which Humphreys still managed to inject a bit of his customary heavy-handedness. Joan Morris had explained that although the percentage of parents who choose to terminate a Down’s pregnancy has remained stable, the number of terminations has increased in line with the higher number of diagnoses.  Jane Fisher added that this was not new information, since we already know that more pregnancies are resulting in Down’s diagnoses, and that a certain proportion of those end in terminations. At this point Humphrys jumped in with “does that imply that you think too many women are having abortions?”, which apart from bearing no relationship to what either woman had said, was an extraordinarily crass attempt at creating controversy where there wasn’t any.

I always feel a little as though I’m watching Chris Morris starting a war between Australia and Hong Kong when I listen to John Humphrys on Today. It irritates me when I can’t hear what guests are saying because he’s drowning them out by arguing every point, however insignificant. But irritating your listeners is one thing. Attempting to scare up a controversy over a subject that is already difficult, and about which many listeners will have strong personal feelings, is pointless and unforgivable. I wish they’d retire him from the radio and leave him to present Mastermind, where I think he does an admirable job (unlike Paxman, whose feigned astonishment whenever a University Challenge team fails to answer a question he thinks they should know grows more wearisome every week).