“Pro-Choice” Not Good Enough Anymore


When I was younger, the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” confused me greatly: how could both groups be “pro” something? Usually there’s a “pro” and an “anti” (eg. pro-gun/anti-gun; pro-war/anti-war).

Both groups in the abortion rights debate have chosen to define themselves as being in favor of some thing, rather than against some other thing. This is part of the strategy of the groups to win public approval for their cause.

What it means to call someone pro-abortion

Also interesting is the terminology the groups use to refer to each other.

I once referred to an acquaintance as “pro-abortion,” and she was livid, explaining that she supported “a woman’s right to choice” and wasn’t pushing abortion.

I think it’s a distinction without a difference, but she vehemently disagreed.

A pro-choice person thinks she is supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion or not to. Whether they really support the option not to is open for discussion, in my mind. (My co-worker John Jansen wrote addressed this topic at the end of yesterday’s post.)

What it means to call someone anti-choice

Interestingly, the abortion-rights crowd have stuck the moniker “anti-choice” on those of us who are opposed to abortion. Why do you suppose that is?

“Anti” invokes negative images, for one thing: “the Antis” just sounds evil.

I also think that they like the way “anti-choice” sounds. It makes us sound like we’re crazy people opposed to all rational decisions—which might very well be the deeper meaning they’re trying to plant in people’s minds.

Interestingly, the media chooses the “neutral” term “anti-abortion” to describe pro-lifers. While it doesn’t have the same amount of baggage “anti-choice” does, it’s still “anti” something.

Moreover, they will use the term “pro-choice” (the term that group uses to describe themselves), but they are explicitly prohibited by editorial guidelines from using “pro-life” (the term we use to describe ourselves). Neutral, right?

Have pro-lifers won “the framing war”?

A couple of articles have come out recently from abortion-rights supporters pondering whether the “pro-choice” camp needs to be rebranded. Nancy Cohen wrote an article in last week’s Los Angeles Times titled, Nuance Matters in Abortion Debate. Here’s one interesting excerpt:

Although abortion rights supporters can take heart that they retain the advantage on practical matters of law and policy, the antiabortion movement seems to be winning the framing war with its “pro-life” label. … Who, after all, could be against life? Between life and choice, life should win every time.

I think it’s interesting to note that the only time the term pro-life is used, it appears in quotation marks. The other time Cohen refers to our group, she calls us “antiabortion”—yet she still says we’re winning the rhetorical battle.

I think it says a lot for pro-life’s grassroots power that, despite the media’s refusal to use our preferred terminology, we’re still “winning the framing war.”

I also love her explicit admission that life trumps choice every time!

“Pro-Choice” Inadequate For Abortion Supporters

Cohen continues, explaining her desire to switch from “pro-choice” to “pro-freedom”:

“Pro-choice” … essentially cedes the moral high ground to the antiabortion movement. It doesn’t do enough to communicate the very American ideals at the foundation of the abortion rights movement—the belief that, in a free and democratic nation, the decision to have a child should rest with the individual woman and those with whom she freely consults.

The decision rests with the individual woman? Yeah, right.

For a deeper look at why the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” were selected in the first place, I would recommend Dr. Celeste Condit’s book, Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change.

Condit observes that there has been a push for focusing on “freedom” rather than “choice” among some feminists for some years now because “choice” “fail[s] to recognize that most women do not have the economic freedom to make real choices” (Condit, 1990, p. 68).

This, interestingly, is why the pro-life movement created a network of thousands of Pregnancy Resource Centers devoted to helping women who feel forced to “choose” abortion because they think they cannot afford pregnancy and parenthood or they think they have no outside support.

Feldt Admits Life Packs a Stronger Rhetorical Punch

What I like best, though, is that former Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt just throws in the towel. She cedes the rhetorical advantage entirely to pro-lifers in Lynn Harris’ article “Is there a better word than pro-choice?“:

Well, Gloria Feldt, for one, isn’t quite ready to start rewriting our signs. “I like ‘freedom’ fine… Freedom is a strong American value but it doesn’t move the dial of public opinion because in the rhetorical wars, ‘life’ still trumps ‘freedom.’… Anti-choicers easily turn ‘freedom’ into ‘license.’ Especially when it pertains to women and sex.”

Yes, life trumps “freedom” every time.

And Feldt is right: “freedom” (as that group would define it and as pro-lifers would be quick to point out) would be a sin license, a green-light to do whatever to whomever you want, all in the name of “freedom.” Sadly, we’re nearly there already anyway.

Feldt Urges A Moral Certainty Without Language To Support It

Gloria Feldt elaborated on her quote in her blog post,

More than new language, we need a new surge of moral certitude about the rightness of our cause. That, much more than changing the rhetoric based on the latest poll, would solidify the amazing gains we have made for women during the last century.

To me there appears to be a contradiction within this statement. If pro-choicers made “amazing gains…for women,” why do they need “a new surge of “moral certitude about the rightness of [their] cause”?

People don’t need to be convinced that electricity is an “amazing gain”—it’s obvious. Abortion, however, takes convincing. People need to be persuaded that abortion on demand is, in fact, a gain.

The women of Silent No More will tell you that it’s not. Their stories show the value of language in convincing people of the rightness of the pro-life, rather than the pro-choice, position.

What, Apart From Words, Does One Use To Persuade?

What I’m left wondering is this:

If one concedes that one has lost the language/word-choice battle, with what does one hope to convince women that abortion is a good thing? How does one convince people if not with words?

Violence is one alternative, but I pray we’re not headed down that road.

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