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?

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

Analysis Politics

Timeline: Donald Trump’s Shifting Position on Abortion Rights

Ally Boguhn

Trump’s murky position on abortion has caused an uproar this election season as conservatives grapple with a Republican nominee whose stance on the issue has varied over time. Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul's changing views on abortion.

For much of the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump’s seemingly ever-changing position on reproductive health care and abortion rights has continued to draw scrutiny.

Trump was “totally pro-choice” in 1999, but “pro-life” by 2011. He wanted to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood in August 2015, but claimed “you can’t go around and say that” about such measures two months later. He thinks Planned Parenthood does “very good work” but wants to see it lose all of its funding as long as it offers abortion care. And, perhaps most notoriously, in late March of this year Trump took multiple stances over the course of just a few hours on whether those who have abortions should be punished if it became illegal.

With the hesitancy of anti-choice groups to fully embrace Trump—and with pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and EMILY’s List all backing his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—it is likely his stance on abortion will remain a key election issue moving into November.

Join Rewire for a look back at the business mogul’s changing views on abortion.

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