Ongoing debate about a January 22 2019 change to abortion law in New York piqued interest in the topic across social media, reviving an old rumor that a long-circulating GIF sbows the American Sign Language translation of the word “abortion.”
In the brief, soundless clip, a woman gestures as if rocking a baby, then closes her hand, and gestures as if discarding something. Commenters on many iterations appeared unversed in ASL, but were able to see the connection between the gestures and the concept of an abortion. However, most of the people commenting professed a lack of familiarity with the conventions and applications of ASL.
On the above-linked Facebook post, one commenter expressed both agreement with anti-abortion sentiments as well as familiarity with ASL. That commenter maintained that the clip was not accurate, taking exception to a claim they said is quite misleading:
It’s 2 signs, the 1st is “baby” and the 2nd is “remove” This 2nd sign is used in context to removing anything. Even if you were to say I removed the baby from the abusive home and placed it it in a loving family. You would use the same remove sign in context. I am not supporting abortion here but I am a little offended that you would use sign language without context and allow such a misinterpretation by those that have no knowledge. This is just as bad as liberal media.
That commenter stated that the clip showed two distinct signs, one for “baby” and one for “remove.” They asserted that the sign essentially translated to “remove … baby,” a sign that would fit a number of scenarios unrelated to abortion (such as placement of a child outside an abusive home). Another mentioned an earlier source for the video, a Handspeak.com page. Alongside the GIF, the page had a written entry with broader context for the sign and commentary on the occasional virality of the clip:
Termination of pregnancy.
The other video (gloss: BABY+REMOVED) has been gone viral at times. To explain an etymological origin of this signed word, the latter part of the ASL compound simply is
Why is this ASL verb/noun “REMOVE/REMOVAL” being scrutinized by hearing English speakers where the colder English word “abortion” (a verb derived from “to abort”) is not talked about?
Handspeak.com used the term “gloss” to add context, usage it explained on a different page on its site:
Glossing is the practice of writing a morpheme-by-morpheme ‘translation’ using English words. Glosses indicate what the individual parts of the native word mean. Glosses do not provide a true translation, which would instead use appropriate English ways of saying “The same thing.”
For example, German Es geht mir gut may be glossed as “It goes to-me good” (the hyphenated gloss “to-me” indicates that it refers to a single word in the original). A true English translation of this expression would be something like, “I’m doing fine.”
As is common in the process of translating one use of language to another, the term “gloss” refers to a sort of imprecise equivalence and the site uses an example of an English-to-German or German-to-English translation that is somewhat inexact. Although the gist of the phrase is evident, the nuance does not follow across translations.
And as the site explained, the sign shown in the viral GIF was a compound phrase: “baby + removed.” A separate and undated post on Yale.edu’s ASL Signbank provided a gloss for “remove,” along with equivalents: “abortion, discard, remove, take away, take out, throw away.” It was possible “pregnant” was another compound phrase option, and Handspeak.com showed a different gesture for that word.
One element of the discourse on that single iteration was that commenters with knowledge of ASL agreed with an anti-abortion standpoint fully, but disagreed with the lexical implications of the GIF as presented. In contrast, commenters with no stated knowledge of ASL were far likelier to take no issue with the editorializing aspect of the post. It seems that the claim may have been technically correct in that it represented one way to sign “abortion,” but not necessarily a grammatically accurate representation of ASL as it is used by people in regular conversation.
Although we successfully located many blog posts and other shares of the specific GIF, additional context around the word “abortion” in ASL was far harder to come by. But again, the controversy over the New York State abortion law provided concurrent examples of a sign language interpreter signing “abortion” in January and February 2019 ASL news reports.
January 2019 Vimeo posts by Sign1News demonstrated numerous uses of the word “abortion” in ongoing coverage of the New York law. The second portion of the compound sign (“remove”) was visible throughout a report (“NY passes law protecting access to abortion”):
An August 2017 video titled “Deaf People Teach Us Bad Words” contained a number of profane phrases, as well as commentary (1:30) on the importance of nuance and tone in ASL. As the clip above demonstrates, not everyone signs “abortion” in the same fashion; sign language, like any other language, is subject to individual interpretation, accents, and dialects.
As commenters and Handspeak.com noted in their respective remarks, the purported ASL translation of “abortion” went intermittently viral whenever it was rediscovered. But even commenters who maintained that they had anti-abortion viewpoints asserted that the sign was presented out of context. In some usages, the “removed” sign was used without the rocking associated with “baby.” Overall, the claim about the ASL for “abortion” appeared to lack context.