Why We Should Stop Using “Pro-Life” And “Pro-Choice”


RECENTLY, a series of “sting videos” was released by the Center for Medical Progress supposedly depicting Planned Parenthood representatives plotting to profit off fetal tissue sales. They’re being taken as proof of criminal activity on Planned Parenthood’s part, and have compelled a wave of states to defund the organization this summer. Congress will resume debates over whether or not to defund Planned Parenthood on the federal level this fall.

It doesn’t take much digging to throw the videos’ legitimacy into question. The evidence is so weak that I can only imagine one reason why it would be construed as sufficient for legislative action: the videos play on extreme anti-abortion rhetoric that frames the election and performance of abortion as a cruel act of disregard for life. Part and parcel of that characterization is the rhetoric which frames the practitioners who perform the procedure, and, of course, the women who elect to have it, as heartless murderers. And it’s fueling a fresh – and so far, partly successful – assault on women’s access to a variety of forms of reproductive care, from abortion and contraception to pap smears and STI testing.

The polemical nature of abortion discourse makes it hard to have a constructive or reasonable conversation about the issue. As someone who believes in access to abortion in many cases and for a variety of reasons, I find some of the more extreme lines of rhetoric on both sides — as if there were two clear-cut camps — problematic. And I fear that the intense polarization of the issue creates the ideal situation for extreme legislation.

The (admittedly less extreme) parallel of heartless murderer rhetoric – which fails to pay heed to women’s rights over their bodies or the fact that childbirth impacts a woman’s ability to participate economically – is the “hands off my body” rhetoric from those in favor of access to abortion. While I can empathize with the reaction – after all, limiting or prohibiting access amounts to forcing a woman to carry a fetus in her body – it insinuates that those against abortion are necessarily driven by the desire to control women’s bodies, to destine them to childbearing and childrearing. It reduces the “other side” to sexist, controlling men (and some women, too) who don’t care about women’s autonomy.

But what many people against abortion – men and women – care about is the fact that what is being ended is a life. And few people who are pro-abortion access, I think, would reply, if asked, that ending a life is something trivial. Arguments over when humanness begins are relevant here, but they can also obscure the important point that, whatever our answer is, it’s at the very least a potential human life that is being ended, and that this is significant. While we may hold that a woman’s rights to her body and her future trump the rights of the fetus to life (at least in certain circumstances), we would do well not to avoid the fact that a potential human life is coming to an end, and that matters.

The most basic terms of the debate, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” are designed to suggest that “the other side” doesn’t care about something important. They imply that people who don’t support access to abortion, or only support it in very restricted cases, are “anti-choice,” and that people who believe in freer access to abortion are “anti-life.” Both are reductionist — and even demonizing — insinuations that neglect the possibility of valid reasons for each position. So long as we stick to the choice vs. life rhetoric, we’re not talking about the same things (the preciousness of life and the autonomy of women) – we’re just launching unmet talking points at one another across a chasm that can’t be bridged.

And this polarized political debate doesn’t reflect the nuance within public opinion. Writing for LA Times, Charles C. Camosy notes, “significant majorities of Americans say that the term ‘pro-choice’ describes them somewhat or very well, while simultaneously saying that the term ‘pro-life’ describes them somewhat or very well.” This leads to nuanced policy views: “61% of Americans believe that abortion should be broadly legal during the first trimester — while only 27% support it during the second.” Caring about both women’s rights and potential human life results in complicated views around abortion, a complicated topic worthy of complicated views – and complicated language.

Camosy describes what may be an example of abortion and economic policy in a society that recognizes legitimate points on both sides of the debate. He lists 18 European countries that have set the limit on abortion at 12 weeks – half that allowed in most U.S. states. However, these countries also provide governmental support for women and child raising not currently available in the U.S, conditions that make abortion access less necessary for women’s economic equality. “The equivalent for the United States,” Camosy writes, “might include a guarantee that women be given equal pay for equal work, a mandate for generous paid paternity leave, increased legal protections against job discrimination for women with children and subsidized child care.” It may not be a perfect solution, and there may be better ones, but perhaps there is no perfect solution if both women’s autonomy and fetal lives are deemed significant.

I don’t know what would happen in the U.S. if those against abortion access talked about women’s autonomy and if those for it talked about ending a fetal life as valid concerns. My hope is that a fairer approach would inhibit extreme legislation in both directions – the kind of legislation which bans or severely restricts women’s access to abortion or which treats abortion as yet another means of birth control, completely devaluing the potential human life.

Valid arguments can serve as checks against either extreme. But they will only do so if we make and hear them.