Justice Samuel Alito hates abortions so much, he used a noun to prove it — an explosive one.
At least three times in the draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Alito employs the loaded term abortionist — a word rarely uttered by those who advocate for choice. But by using a word as strong as abortionist, Alito conveys not just his legal objection to the procedure, but his personal disdain for those who perform it.
The -ist suffix explains why his takedown of Roe v. Wade hits so hard.
To be fair, the term is objectively correct. Merriam-Webster defines abortionist simply as “one who induces abortions.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions only begin to get at the judgment that the word carries: “A person who carries out or induces abortions, esp. illegally or in secret.” A second OED definition, “A person who advocates or supports abortion as a woman’s right,” is listed as “chiefly depreciative.”
In practice, abortionist is used almost exclusively as a pejorative.
Jerry Falwell famously blamed 9/11 on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” among others. Politico noted that, in a 2020 abortion-related case, Chief Justice John Roberts used the neutral abortion providers, while Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent mentioned abortionists 25 times.
Or check news sources. On FoxNews.com, 1% of all abortion-related articles use the word abortionist. Compare that with CNN, where abortionist appears in just 0.1% of abortion-related articles, or MSNBC, where it’s in fewer than 0.05% of articles about abortion. The AP Stylebook advises journalists to avoid abortionist.
Why is abortionist such a violent term? Because it doesn’t need a modifier to do its job.
Abortion providers, abortion doctors, and abortion medical professionals all do the same thing as abortionists, but rarely will one self-identify as an abortionist. (A notable exception: The internet is littered with testimonies of people who call themselves “former abortionists.”) But because abortion in each of those first three examples is an adjective, those terms feel softer than abortionist, more clinical.
Modifiers are lovely, but they weaken writing. “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” opined Strunk and White in their Elements of Style. “It is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.”
That’s exactly why Alito opted for abortionist.
The little suffix -ist is powerful. Someone’s actions or words might be “racially charged” or “racially coded,” but to (accurately) call them racist sets off alarms. Any old hump with a keyboard can bang out a novel, but a novelist is defined by the novels they write.
A person who performs abortions centers the doctor’s humanity. Abortionist defines the totality of a person.
The opinion that Politico published was just a draft. Once the Supreme Court releases its final decision, we’ll see if Alito chooses to make his language more evenhanded, or if he continues to choose violence.
Of course, as a man in a robe in Washington, D.C., he has a choice.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and appositive nouns to firstname.lastname@example.org.