Friday, February 24, 2012

The Language Of The Abortion Debate

Abortion--and reproductive rights in general--have been pushed to the national spotlight over the past year in a way we have not seen in decades.  State legislatures all over the country, and even the national Congress, have been proposing legislation and having debates that would limit the reproductive freedom of women.  One of the most interesting things about this, to me, is the language that has been used to describe and define the people--usually the vocal people--on either side of the debate.  None of it seems quite right.

There are a variety of monikers for those on both sides of this issue: pro-choice vs. pro-life, pro-choice vs. anti-choice,  pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion...the list goes on.  Some of the most heated debates I have seen in the past year have not necessarily been about the issue of abortion.  Oftentimes the people arguing are filled with rage that the other person defined them in a certain way, and implied something about their position, by calling them something they felt to be inaccurate.  The truth is that they are all inaccurate in some way.

First, let's take the entire legal aspect out of the equation and stick to the philosophical for a second.  I am even surprising myself by saying this, but I can understand why someone would think that life begins at conception.  Perhaps it is because I grew up with a family that thought this way, but there is no denying that a reasonable person could hold that belief.  There is absolutely no way to be 100%, scientifically certain that life does not begin at conception.  It becomes entirely about the personal belief of whomever you're talking to.  I have spent years considering, and researching, and discussing, and I have formed my own opinion--that life begins at birth.  This makes sense to me.  It is difficult for me to believe that two cells that are entirely invisible to the naked eye could be considered a life simply because they would be entirely incapable of surviving on their own.  But I would not laugh in the face of someone who believes otherwise--as long as they left me alone about it.

Now, to add another layer to it, we can split those who believe that life begins at conception or some phase of gestation into two groups: the first that believes that that is exactly the way it is and that abortion should be illegal, and the second which realizes that they have a personal belief that should not affect how others live their lives.  How common is it to hear someone say "I would never have an abortion but I'm not going to stop anyone else from doing it"?  These are reasonable people who could easily be considered to be "anti-abortion" but who are not on the same side of this issue as people who stand outside abortion clinics telling women that God hates them, or even people who write letters to their congressperson telling them to pass a Personhood amendment.

  Debunking the term "pro-abortion" is even easier: no one is pro-abortion.  No one.  No one wants to go into OB/GYN offices throwing flyers for clinics in the air and yelling "ABORT!  IT'S SO MUCH FUN!"  No one goes on a weekend vacation to an abortion clinic.  No one relishes the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy, whether they actually do it or not. 

"Pro-life" is also problematic for a number of reasons.  A month or so ago, I was watching a "debate" on Fox News featuring the then-five GOP presidential candidates.  A man in the audience stood up to ask Jon Huntsman (who was still in the race at the time) a question.  It basically boiled down to "How can you call yourself pro-life when you believe abortions should be okay in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother?"  I nearly threw a shoe at the TV.  How this man could not see the irony in the fact that he would not allowing Jon Huntsman "pro-life" street cred because he wouldn't let a pregnant woman die I will never know.  This is an extreme case, obviously, but it also implies something more sinister.  The opposite of pro-life is pro-death, obviously, and people who believe abortion should be legal are not that.  It's unfair to call yourself pro-life because no one can disagree with that term-it's like saying you're pro-kittens.  Even if your position is entirely noble, pro-life is a bit too saintly a badge for anyone to wear.

This leaves us with "pro-choice" and "anti-choice", which I think are probably the most fitting.  They are two sides of the same coin, not bringing confusing second ideas into the equation the way "pro-choice" and "pro-life" do.  Not to mention that you can still be anti-abortion and pro-choice; I know plenty of people who are.  Being pro-choice just means that you acknowledge that, legally, your opinion is not the supreme one and whether you think abortion is murder or not is irrelevant in the grand scheme.  It's about allowing other people to have the ability to form those beliefs for themselves.  It's about having the freedom to have no children or 21 children if that's what you want.  Making choice the center of the debate is crucial, because that's what it's really about. 

It might seem nitpicky but language matters.  Again, if an uninformed person hears "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life" they are going to think, "Hmmm, life is better than choice."  It frames the whole debate and grounds it in certain fixed terminology, and the importance of that cannot be emphasized enough.

Tomorrow I'm going to get away from this really heavy stuff and have a couple posts that are on the lighter side along with some links to awesome things you should read.  In the meantime, here is a kickass Ani DiFranco song about the important of choice. 


  1. I feel like the line of "when does life begin" is such a scary thing to contemplate that most people default to the safest possibility, conception, rather than considering the issue. I can't reasonably endorse aborting an 8-month fetus. If it were up to me, late term abortions would involve induced labor and seeing if the fetus could survive outside the womb (because that's, to me, when it becomes a sentient creature); however, I would never want to force labor on a woman if she could avoid that.

    I've considered the pro-abortion label. To me, pro-abortion would suggest that abortion is the best option for an unwanted pregnancy and should be recommended as a medical procedure. That doesn't celebrate abortion, but says "I am pro-abortion like I am pro-chemotherapy." But that's never going to catch on in the label wars.

    1. -.- I don't know why it put me as "unknown." It was Julia.

  2. I think that the prospect of women having the power to decide 'when life begins' is really scary to people who don't trust women.

  3. Hey, Femi-Yinz, if you really want to cross-post from other sites, here's something from mine--