The language of information: obscuring choice

It pays to be aware that language can obscure choice.

I have written and lectured about language for more than twenty years. This site contains many of those articles (just type the word ‘language’ into the search box if you’d like to read more). One of the key reasons for my passion is the way that language can be used as a tool to exercise power, often in subtle ways that aren’t easily spotted unless you’re looking.

Over the years, some of the issues that have struck me as problematic during my research into different topics for my books and courses and looked at the information available in medical publications include:

1) Language or terminology that obscures the existence of a choice

2) Language or terminology that scares


3) The inappropriate use of the absolute.

I think the third speaks for itself, and we now have more discussion on the use of the notion of risk in relation to birth, including interesting quotes, research on how we can reduce this and reframing in the form of sharable pictures, so I will confine today’s rant to addressing the first of these.

I often tell course participants the story of how my single achievement after a number of days of research, writing and committee work (the latter of which I find an enormous challenge, as it involves sitting still in a chair, not speaking too much AND following convention all at the same time) was to secure the changing, throughout a rather key and influential document relating to a particular area of practice, of the word ‘give’ to the word ‘offer’. On one level, and particularly for someone who sees that we have SO far to go in regards to the information that is offered to women, this didn’t feel like much to show for my efforts. On the other hand, and as those who hear my story often point out, this is quite a huge achievement because that single word changes so much.

I frequently encounter women who don’t realise that some decisions are even theirs to make, and it is no wonder when one considers just how often information is presented in the form of ‘you will be given this’ rather than ‘you will be offered this’. Or, ‘you need this’ rather than ‘you may wish to have this‘. In some cases (and anti-D is a good example from my own research portfolio), the vast majority of women are likely to want to have the intervention, and saying or writing offer instead of give is unlikely to change their decision. But the very act of highlighting that it is the woman’s decision to make is an important acknowledgement of the fact that women are independent agents who have the right to make decisions about their bodies. Which is an idea that we should be strenuously promoting rather than trying, even unwittingly, to conceal.

If you’re interested in finding out more, you might like to check out ‘What’s Right For Me? Making decisions in pregnancy and childbirth. I wrote it in order to help women better understand the decisions that they might want to make during their pregnancy and childbirth journey.


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