Why Not Use the Term Pro-Abortion?

Rachel Larris

If we don't paint abortion in positive terms does the reproductive rights community lose the semantic war on abortion?

A few weeks ago MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer used the phrase “pro-abortion” to describe a pro-choice viewpoint. It wasn’t meant to be derisive; she clearly just had a brain freeze. On twitter a reproductive rights activist said she “cringed” to hear Brewer’s slip.

I asked, why? On the face of it what’s wrong with being “pro-abortion.” Reproductive rights activists, such as myself, believe that access to abortion is a positive medical service that is provided to women. And since providing medical service is always seen as a positive, why is it automatically wrong to say you are “pro-abortion.” What makes the terms “pro-abortion” different from declaring oneself “pro-dental care” or “pro-mammogram?”

Amanda Marcotte replied to my twitter question by stating it’s critical that people understand feminists support the choice *to* have a baby. To use the term pro-abortion, which is what the anti-choice activists call us, is to presume to be against babies and for mandatory abortions. Pro-choice, is just that, pro-CHOICE, to allow women to make the decision WHETHER to give birth or not.

Logistically, the use of the term “choice” is necessary to fit within our political beliefs, but many in the reproductive rights community admit it’s not the best semantic terminology for a political fight. “Choice” brings with it the connotation of the personal, but also of the “option.” You support the option for women to become mothers, but also the option for them not to do so. It lacks the glaring black/white furor of other side’s terminology. Consider: anti-choicers on abortion: NO NO NO. Pro-choicers however are not saying YES YES YES. We’re saying IF YOU WANT, IF YOU WANT, IF YOU WANT.

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Politics is about the reductive; nuance is untranslatable as a political position, and possibly unwinnable. Consider the number of times a pro-choice candidate or organization has used some version of the phrase that we need to “reduce the need for abortions.” As if the only difference between us and those who dislike legal abortion is the sheer numbers. Ask if there were only 5,000 legal abortions allowed each year there would be the same amount of condemnation? Then consider the South Carolina budget was held up because of six abortions! Just six.

Logistically, however, it makes sense for reproductive rights groups to talk about reducing the need for abortions, because it joins with other goals we support. Every repo activist I know also supports greater access to free or cost-effective contraception and better sex education. But don’t we support those goals independent of the idea that such actions reduce the “need for abortions.”

I happen to believe that both actions would reduce the need, but that’s not the point. By painting abortion as something that should be reduced, the reproductive rights community may be painting themselves into a semantic corner.  

But I don’t think a winning option is changing the phrase “pro-choice” to some other euphemism either. Collectively the community has not been able to settle on alternate terms — although there have been some contenders — none have been whole-heartedly adopted.

One reproductive rights activist said that she didn’t think it mattered what terminology our side used; whether we changed our standard phrase from pro-choice to any other word because it ultimately hides what we are supporting, the right to access abortion when it is desired by an individual. In that sense lumping abortion with all the other reproductive rights goals does not help our fight for abortion-rights in the specific. After all, anti-choicers seem pretty focused on abortion, even when they talk about contraception.

Which leads me to my final question, are reproductive rights activists, either by design or by accident, moving away from owning the word abortion as a positive term? After all, there is only a single advocacy group that still uses the term in its full name, the National Abortion Federation.

So I return to my first question: what is wrong with using the term “pro-abortion?” If we do not paint the term as a positive one; procedure that is not to be any more shameful than kidney biopsy have we not already lost the terminology war?

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