Abortion Topical Guide

A style guide for abortion-related coverage, based on the AP Stylebook and common usage in AP stories.


Use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don't use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.

gestational age

The abortion bans taking effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade vary greatly in how they define when a pregnancy can be ended.

Some laws restrict abortion at particular weeks of pregnancy. This means determining how far along someone is in pregnancy. The method most commonly used by doctors and their patients dates the pregnancy from the first day of the last menstrual period. This is known as the gestational age.

Pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg implants itself into the uterus, but the timing of either fertilization or implantation for any individual pregnancy can't be determined, which is why doctors and patients generally use the gestational age. (Fertilization is generally considered to happen about two weeks into the menstrual cycle.)

Embryo is the correct term for human development through 10 weeks of pregnancy as calculated by the gestational age dating from the first day of the last menstrual period. This covers the time through about eight weeks after fertilization.

Fetus is the correct term after 10 weeks of pregnancy (10-week gestational age), or about eight weeks after fertilization, until birth.

To date, more than 40 states limit some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a science-based research group that supports abortion rights. These statutes generally require a doctor to determine the gestational age in order to determine if they can perform an abortion.

"fetal heartbeat bill," "six-week abortion ban," "fetal cardiac activity," cardiac activity

Avoid using the terms "fetal heartbeat bill," "heartbeat bill" and "six-week abortion ban" on their own without explanation as shorthand for measures that would ban most abortions once cardiac activity is detected, around the sixth week of pregnancy.

The terms are overly broad and misleading given the disagreement over details, such as what constitutes a heartbeat at varying gestational ages. In addition, none of the measures focuses on six weeks.

Advanced technology can detect a flickering as early as six weeks, when the embryo isn't yet a fetus and it has only begun forming a rudimentary heart. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says it is not accurate to call that a heartbeat. Use the term cardiac activity instead.

Do not use the term fetal cardiac activity in the context of abortions before 10 weeks gestational age.

If quoting someone using the terms "fetal heartbeat bill," "heartbeat bill" and "six-week abortion ban," enclose the terms in quotation marks and provide explanation.

Instead, on first references, use phrasing such as a measure that bans abortions except in the earliest weeks of pregnancy; or measures often referred to as "heartbeat bills" or "six-week abortion bans" (including terms used by each side of the issue). On later references, simply the anti-abortion measure, the bill, etc.

The phrase abortion ban is acceptable for headlines when necessary, but give full details high in the story.

fetal pain

Some laws restrict abortion at a certain point in pregnancy based on claims about when a fetus can feel pain. Some have other provisions addressing the question of fetal pain. A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24 weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

embryo, fetus, unborn baby, unborn child

While the terms are essentially interchangeable in many common uses, each has become politicized by the abortion debate even in uses not involving abortion. Anti-abortion advocates say fetus devalues a human life; abortion-rights supporters argue unborn child or baby equate termination of a pregnancy with murder by emphasizing the fetus's humanity.

Write clearly and sensitively, using any of the terms when appropriate:

Fetus, which refers to the stage in human development after the 10th week of pregnancy to birth, is preferred in many cases, including almost all scientific and medical uses: The virus can be disastrous to a fetus. The lawsuit alleges harm to a fetus that prosecutors claim was viable. The research was conducted on fetal tissue.

Embryo is the correct term for human development through 10 weeks of pregnancy as calculated by the gestational age dating from the first day of the last menstrual period.

The context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases where fetus could seem clinical or cold: Weiss said her love for her unborn baby was the strongest feeling she had ever felt. The expectant mother lost her baby in the seventh month of pregnancy.

emergency contraceptives

Used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or if a method of birth control fails. Sometimes known as morning-after pills. The pills prevent ovulation, which is when an egg is released from an ovary. They do not end a pregnancy.

Do not confuse these with what are known as medication abortion or abortion pills, which end a pregnancy.

Two types of emergency contraceptive medications are available: levonorgestrel, known by brand names including Plan B; and ulipristal acetate, known under the brand ella. Levonorgestrel can be purchased over the counter by anyone 17 or older, but younger people need a prescription. Ella requires a prescription.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Plan B for use up to 72 hours, or three days, after unprotected sex. Ella is approved for up to 120 hours, or five days. Emergency contraception doesn't always work. The pills' effectiveness improves the sooner they are taken after unprotected sex.

medication abortion, abortion pills

These terms describe a method for ending pregnancy that usually involves taking two prescription medicines — mifepristone and misoprostol — days apart, at home or in a clinic. In the U.S., they are approved for use through the 10th week of pregnancy.

As of 2020, the pills accounted for 54% of all U.S. abortions, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, a science-based research group that supports abortion rights.

Studies and real-use evidence show that when taken together, the pills are safe and up to 99% effective. Serious complications are very rare. The medications are not recommended for certain patients, including those with suspected ectopic pregnancies or with implanted IUD birth control devices.

The FDA approved mifepristone to terminate pregnancy in 2000, when used with misoprostol. At the time, it imposed several limits on how the drug could be prescribed and dispensed.

The agency has dropped the biggest restriction: a requirement that patients pick up the medication in person. The FDA said a scientific review of the drug's use showed that women could safely receive the pills through the mail after an online consultation, without any increase in side effects or complications.

Still, millions of women will have trouble accessing the pills due to a patchwork of state laws targeting abortion broadly and the pills specifically. About half of U.S. states are expected to ban or greatly restrict abortion.

Legal experts foresee years of court battles over access to the pills, as abortion-rights proponents bring test cases to challenge state restrictions.

The chief argument against pill restrictions is likely to be the longstanding principle that federal laws, including FDA decisions, preempt state laws. Still, states with blanket abortion bans are likely to interpret them as barring abortion pills. Many of the laws don't distinguish between abortion procedures and medication abortion.

Even if blanket bans are successfully challenged, more than 30 states have laws specifically restricting access to abortion pills.

This has created problems for some women who experience miscarriage. Sometimes when an embryo or fetus has died or failed to form, the tissues remain in the uterus, and the same drugs are prescribed to cause the body to expel the tissue. Since states have started restricting access to the drugs, women have reported difficulty getting prescriptions filled to manage pregnancy loss.

Some states have legislation requiring doctors to provide information about "medication abortion reversal." There is no scientific evidence that giving a different hormone, progesterone, is safe or effective at interrupting a medication abortion, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. If using the term, include that information and enclose the term in quotation marks.

abortion procedures; abortions performed

Use judgment about when to use these terms. Abortion procedures typically refer to nonmedication abortions. Medication abortions (abortion pills) as of 2020 accounted for more than half of U.S. abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

The verb provide is a good alternative to the verb perform.

late-term abortion

Do not use the term late-term abortion. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines late term as 41 weeks through 41 weeks and 6 days of gestation, and abortion does not happen in this period.

Instead, use the term abortion later in pregnancy if a general term is needed, but be aware that there are varying definitions of the time period involved. Be specific when possible: abortions after XX weeks when XX is known in the context of the specific story.

Most U.S. abortions take place in the first trimester. By some definitions, any abortions after that — at 13 weeks or later in pregnancy — are considered later abortions. Others use the term for abortions that occur at about 20 weeks or later, or near the time when a fetus is considered viable.

pregnant women, pregnant people (already published, but this is a revision)

Pregnant women or pregnant girls, or women seeking abortions/girls seeking abortions, is acceptable phrasing. Phrasing like pregnant people or people seeking abortions is also acceptable to include minors or people who have those experiences but do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people. Use judgment and decide what is most appropriate in a given story. Do not use overly clinical language like people with uteruses or birthing people.

state laws

The landscape of abortion access continues to shift significantly in some states, sometimes very quickly, since Roe v. Wade was overturned. The changes have required patients in affected states to regroup, sometimes repeatedly.

Abortion-related measures will be on ballots in at least five states on Nov. 8. In California, Michigan and Vermont, voters will be asked to protect the right to abortion. In Kentucky, the question is whether to amend the state constitution to declare that it does not include the right to abortion. And Montana voters will decide on a measure to require medical care for infants born alive after an attempted abortion.

Planned Parenthood

The leading abortion provider in the U.S., and one of the nation's leading reproductive health care providers.

Planned Parenthood provides various services at hundreds of health centers nationwide, including abortions, birth control, testing for sexually transmitted disease, and treatment and screenings for cervical and other cancers.

Not all services, including abortions, are offered at all clinics. So describe a Planned Parenthood site as an abortion clinic, or as having an abortion clinic, only if that is known to be the case.

In general, describe any health center as an abortion clinic only if that's to a great extent what they do, not just counseling or referrals. There are women's health clinics, Planned Parenthoods and others, that provide abortions and there are women's health clinics that don't provide abortions. Be specific.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund is the organization's advocacy and political arm.

anti-abortion counseling centers, "crisis pregnancy centers" that oppose abortions; anti-abortion centers

These terms can be used for centers set up to divert or discourage women from having abortions, by using counseling, material support and/or housing in an effort to persuade women to bring their pregnancies to term.

If using the term anti-abortion center, explain later that these often are known as "crisis pregnancy centers" (with quotation marks) and that their aim is to dissuade people from getting an abortion.

When writing about a specific center, ask what services it provides and what its mission is, and spell that out in the story.

Avoid potentially misleading terms such as pregnancy resource centers or pregnancy counseling centers; these terms don't convey that the centers' general aim is to prevent abortions.


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