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Thursday, April 14, 2005

'Desperate Housewives' Causes Another Breakup is a nice long article at AlterNet about why Ms. Magazine editor-in-chief Elaine Lafferty is leaving that magazine after two years--two years that were quite successful by many measures.

In the "Letter from the Editor" column, Ms. editor in chief Elaine Lafferty, 47, reveals that she's leaving the magazine after a two-year tenure. "In the last two years, I believe Ms. has been lively, provocative, thoughtful, and a fierce feminist example of advocacy journalism at its best," Ms. Lafferty writes in the letter. "I wish the magazine's owners all the best as they move forward with the kind of publication they envision."

The mildly worded letter only hints at the turmoil that lies beneath the surface. According to sources at the magazine with knowledge of the decision, Ms. Lafferty was asked to tender her resignation after months of tension between herself, and the magazine's owner and publisher, the nonprofit Arlington, Va.-based Feminist Majority Foundation.
What caused this underlying tension and turmoil?

According to the article, one flashpoint was an article in the Summer 2004 edition by a woman whose baby died in utero at 19 weeks gestation and who therefore needed a doctor to remove the deceased baby. Why was this article controversial? Apparently it was controversial because it used the word "baby" instead of the word "fetus":

At first glance, the ASME-nominated abortion essay by Martha Mendoza--a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for investigative reporting--seems like classic feminist material, but according to Ms. Lafferty, it was the source of another struggle between herself and the publishers. In Between a Woman and Her Doctor," Ms. Mendoza recounts the agony she went through to obtain a late-term abortion after she found out, 19 weeks along, that the baby growing inside her had died.

However, according to Ms. Lafferty, Ms. Spillar objected to the language describing the "baby" and its body parts. From Ms. Lafferty's perspective, the piece transcended politics, but concerns about the political use of language in the abortion-rights controversy are a major preoccupation for feminists at the moment; for some feminists, using the word "baby" (instead of "fetus") in a story about abortion violates a cardinal rule.
If specific words are this important to some feminists, this suggests a discomfort with the underlying reality.

Apart from whether Ms. Mendoza lost a baby or a fetus, and apart from whether Ms. Mendoza can call her baby a baby and still be a true-blue reproductive-rights-supporting feminist, I suspect that the Ms. Magazine board had a deeper problem with this article than the "baby" versus "fetus" squabble.

If I were on the Ms. Magazine board, I would have thought something along the following lines:

We're trying to win the war of public perception about abortion and to de-legitimize and undermine people who want to make abortions harder to obtain, and the best we can do is an article about a woman who had an abortion because her baby was already dead? Just shoot me now.

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