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BBC: six weeks not heartbeat

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abortion rights, US news, heartbeat, embryo, electric current, letter, BBC, “Now more than ever, we must stand up to dangerous misinformation.”

The BBC has said it will not stop labelling attempts to ban abortion after six weeks as “heartbeat bills” – despite conceding that the phrase is biased and medically inaccurate.

A coalition of four leading reproductive healthcare organisations – the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (FIGO), International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Marie Stopes International (MSI) and Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) – wrote to the BBC, demanding it stop using the phrase in its coverage of attempts in some US states to introduce bans on abortions after six-weeks.

Not only is the term ‘heartbeat bill’ inflammatory, it is also factually incorrect, a point picked up by the Guardian, which earlier this month wrote about its decision to review its style guide to remove reference to the misleading and manipulative term.

In the letter, the four organisations pointed out that:

This description is biased, coined by opponents of safe and legal abortion in an attempt to frame the debate in their own emotional and empathetic terms;

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has stated clearly that the phrase is medically inaccurate: there is no detectable heartbeat at six weeks;

Other news organisations, such as The Guardian, have already announced they would stop using the phrase and replace it with the factual “six-week abortion ban”; and

Adding the words “so-called” or placing the phrase in parenthesises does not address the bias.

“What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops,” Dr Ted Anderson, president of the ACOG, which represents 58,000 physicians across the USA, told the Guardian.

“Thus, ACOG does not use the term ‘heartbeat’ to describe these legislative bans on abortion because it is misleading language, out of step with the anatomical and clinical realities of that stage of pregnancy,” Anderson continued – and called on politicians to base policy on “science and evidence”.

In her reply to their letter, Fran Unsworth, BBC Director of News and Current Affairs, 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 she went on to say the term was “now in common usage” and the BBC would not stop using it.

In turn, Simon Cooke, Chief Executive Officer, Marie Stopes International, said: “We are frustrated and disappointed by the BBC’s decision to continue to amplify a phrase which is not only medically inaccurate and overtly emotive, but which can put women’s health and lives at very real risk by increasing stigma.

“To fall back on ‘common usage’ as a defence legitimises and normalises anti-abortion rhetoric and further extends the chilling effect of restrictive anti-choice policies and views, especially when used by a globally respected and trusted media organisation such as the BBC.

“It’s sad to see antiabortionists so easily able to manipulate the mainstream media for their own ends.”

Dr Leana Wen, President and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said: “As a physician, I know just how critical it is for people to have the most accurate information about their health care.

“At this moment when our rights and freedoms are under unprecedented assault, now more than ever, we must stand up to dangerous misinformation.

“As scientists and public health leaders, we have a responsibility to stand up and reject misleading rhetoric and we call on the BBC to adopt medically accurate and unbiased language.”

Dr Alvaro Bermejo, Director General, International Planned Parenthood Federation, said: “The BBC can’t concede “heartbeat bill” is a biased and medically inaccurate description and then say it’s going to use it anyway.

Saying it is “in common usage” is no excuse, especially when the BBC – which boasted only last week that it has a global weekly audience of 426 million people – shares the blame for spreading it.

“Language around legal abortion has been weaponised by those who want to deny women access to it and journalists – especially those who work for a news organisation which claims to be impartial and trusted – must wake-up and see they are being played.

“This phrase was chosen very carefully by people who want to end access to legal abortion and who are exploiting the mainstream media to insert biased language into the common vernacular.

“It’s designed to hide the devastating impact on women of their plans and skew coverage.

“The right thing to do is to stop using it.

“We call on the BBC to think again.”

To contact the BBC and support this complaint, click here.

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