Sky News drops term “heartbeat bill” after healthcare coalition call

abortion rights protest

Sky News says it will stop using the term “heartbeat bill” to describe attempts in the US to introduce six-week abortion bans, after conceding the phrase is biased.

A coalition of five leading reproductive healthcare organizations – the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians (FIGO), International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Marie Stopes International (MSI), Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the Royal College of Obstericians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) wrote to Sky News about its use of the phrase.

It pointed out that both RCOG and the American College of Obstericians and Gynecologists had stated clearly the phrase was medically inaccurate, and that the language was partial, coined by opponents of access to safe and legal abortion to frame the debate on their own terms.

The alliance also pointed out that other media, such as The Guardian, had already announced it would drop the description. 

Sky News consulted its US team before telling the coalition that it would stop using the term.

In his reply Sky’s Head of Home News, Peter Lowe, said:

“We agree that the term “heartbeat bill” is not an impartial expression, but designed to support a particular point of view…our plan would be to adopt “Six week abortion ban”, or similar phrase.”

IPPF Director-General Dr Alvaro Bermejo said:

“We’re very grateful that a news organization with the reach and reputation of Sky News has thought so hard about its use of language and decided to stop using this medically inaccurate and biased phrase.

 

Words matter, and all journalists need to pause, think and avoid simply parroting terms designed to skew opinion, especially when they are – as in this case – medically wrong as well as partial. 

 

It’s up to major news providers, who make much of the trust placed in them by audiences and their commitment to impartiality, to see through these attempts by opponents of access to safe and legal abortion to play them.”

Sky News’ move follows a decision by BBC News not to rule out using the phrase, because it was already “in common usage.”  

Dr Bermejo said:

“Sky News’ decision shows that news does not have to simply follow where it is led. We would ask BBC News to think again about its reluctance to rule out using partial language.”

The group also contacted ITV News and received an assurance from Rachel Corp, its Acting Editor, that if it used “heartbeat bill” at all, it would make clear it was a biased phrase. She said:

“We would always aim to make clear the phrase is being used by those campaigning against abortion and would attribute it to them.”

Channel 4 News, which does not appear to have used the term, said it had told all its journalists to be aware of the issues it raised.

Ben de Pear, Editor of Channel 4 News said:

“I note the point you have raised over the use of this term…We have notified editorial staff of the nature of this debate and the particular issues raised by this legislation.”

The coalition thanked Sky News, ITV News and Channel 4 News for thinking carefully about the impact of their language. It also confirmed it would contact the BBC’s Director General, Lord Hall, to ask for a meeting about the issue, as BBC News appeared to be out of step with other broadcasters.

NOTES: Sky News is available in 127 countries and 102 million homes, according to Sky News International. It is the current RTS News Channel of the Year.