“Pro-Life:” Not What You Think It Means

Amanda Marcotte

Anti-choice organizations may guilt people into adopting a feel-good term like “pro-life,” but they haven’t succeeded in getting Americans to support their broader agenda.

On this week’s podcast, I interview Jessica Grose, who wrote an excellent article for Slate explaining why the Gallup polling that shows a jump in the number of Americans who identify as “pro-life” doesn’t necessarily mean what it might seem to initially.  After all, while 47% of Americans embraced the label “pro-life”, the number of Americans who thought abortion was “morally wrong” actually declined, and support for the right to abortion remains high.  So high, in fact, that the only logical conclusion is that some people who identify as “pro-life” must support the right to abortion. 

In other words, the term “pro-life” is more of a tribal identifier or a feel-good term than it is a political stance.  This become only clear when you consider that pro-life activists tend to follow the lead of the Vatican (even if they’re Protestant) and object to all forms of fertility control that offer women a reasonable amount of control over their own bodies.  If they had their way, women wouldn’t have condoms or the pill or diaphragms or anything besides the rhythm method, one that sows discontent in marriages because it turns sex into a scheduled event instead of a spontaneous demonstration of affection.  It’s basically impossible for most self-identified “pro-life” people to agree with objections to legal contraception. Daily Kos’s poll of Republicans found that 31% wanted contraception outlawed.  That sounds like a lot initially, but that was only amongst Republicans, who are usually far more conservative than the rest of the country. Most people who call themselves “pro-life” flout the movement to use and support the use of contraception.

So when anti-choice organizations advertise this Gallup polling as evidence of their success, we have to note that they’re exaggerating their own effectiveness.  They may be able to guilt and cajole people into adopting a feel-good term like “pro-life”, but they haven’t been effective in getting Americans to support outlawing abortion, much less contraception.  They’ve even failed in their mission to get Americans to support abstinence-only education, i.e. tricking sexually active kids into not using the hated contraception. 

Most people are quite capable of adopting feel-good labels for themselves without following it up with action or even belief.  Consider how many conservative women like Sarah Palin claim to be “feminists”, even though they object to pretty much everything that actual feminists work for.  That’s the problem with labels—there’s no minimum standard you have to meet to take one on.  When someone calls herself “pro-life”, that is as likely as not to mean “I want you to think of me as a sexually modest person who loves rainbows and babies”, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the person wearing the label supports banning abortion, refrains from premarital sex, objects to contraception, or will never have an abortion herself.  It means mainly that the anti-choice movement has been effective at creating and disseminating a feel-good label.

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None of this, however, means that pro-choicers should entirely dismiss the Gallup poll. One of the things that alarm me about the dissemination of the “pro-life” label is that it does work well in increasing the stigma attached to abortion.  And as Carole Joffe demonstrated in her book Dispatches From The Abortion Wars, when abortion is stigmatized, even people that support the right become afraid to defend it.  And that allows a small but vocal misogynist, hard line minority to push through increasingly miserable restrictions.  Someone who identifies as “pro-life” and still wants legal abortion and contraception is simply less likely to stand up against those who would restrict it.  She doesn’t want to be tarred with the brush activist anti-choicers use against those who support reproductive rights—that we’re sluts and users and anti-family. 

The widespread popularity of the term “pro-life” indicates above all that anti-choicers have been successful in intimidating the American population into caring what they think about us.  You certainly see this in the mainstream media coverage of the abortion wars.  Journalists and pundits pander to the notion that the anti-choice movement is composed of a group of people with deeply felt moral convictions that should be respected, instead of portraying them accurately as wild-eyed fanatics who have convinced themselves that they can get people to quit having sex through enough legal restriction of reproductive health care and education.  The widespread popularity of the term “pro-life” also owes a lot to this mincing media coverage.  Your average member of the public has no way of knowing how radical the movement is that they align themselves with when they call themselves “pro-life.”  If more people understood that activists use the term to indicate a hard-line position against legal abortion and contraception, way more people would abandon the term.

What to do about it?  Pro-choicers tend to navel gaze when it comes to dealing with the propaganda machine that created the term “pro-life”.  We want to come up with an equally good term and compete with them on their level.  Generally speaking, I think this is a bad idea.  Pro-choicers can’t ever really compete with anti-choicers on the same plane—we don’t have the same stomach for misrepresentation and intimidation as they do, nor should we want those things.  Instead of trying to win a propaganda war against an opposition that doesn’t feel constrained by the ethical responsibility to be honest, we should instead look to making it harder for anti-choicers to mislead the public on who they are.  And we should start by pressuring the mainstream media to drop the use of the fuzzy, meaningless term “pro-life,” and replace it with more accurate terms such as “opponents of legal abortion,” “anti-contraception” or “anti-choice.” 

NPR has already taken this step.  Opponents and supporters of abortion rights will be referred to with those terms, instead of “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”  It’s a good first step, and hopefully NPR will continue down this path of embracing accuracy and start covering the way that the anti-choice movement also fights sex education and legal contraception.    

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.