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Monday, July 23, 2018

Strike this word from your abortion debate vocabulary

The word is "consequence."

"Consequence" has two closely related meanings. First, it can be used to indicate a cause-and-effect relationship, synonymous with the word "result." A consequence may be positive, negative, or neutral:
  • Monique studied hard over the weekend. As a consequence, she aced her final exam.
  • Joe smoked cigarettes for thirty years. As a consequence, he has an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • Allison decided to move across the country. As a consequence, she has notified her landlord that she will not renew her lease.
That's all well and good, but "consequence" is so frequently used with a negative connotation that it has acquired a second meaning: "punishment."
  • Son, you're grounded for two weeks. Bad behavior has consequences.
  • It's little wonder some victims of sexual assault decline to report the attack to police. Even when a report is made, rapists rarely face any consequences for their actions.
Now, compare the following two statements:
  • After a period of sexual abstinence, Maria and her husband decided that they wanted to conceive. They resumed having sexual intercourse, and as a consequence, Maria became pregnant.  
  • Anne had a one-night stand and her partner did not use a condom. As a consequence, Anne became pregnant.
Both statements make the exact same point: pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse. And in the context of the abortion debate, that fact is relevant to the legal allocation of risk. But while no one would think that I'm out to punish Maria, abortion supporters will leap over tall buildings to conclude that I'm out to punish Anne.

This is how we get President Obama's infamous proclamation that he supports abortion because if his daughters were to "make a mistake, I don't them punished with a baby." The pro-life movement immediately cried foul at the notion that babies are punishments; babies are of course people, inside the womb and out, and the rewards of parenthood are many.

But when we use the word "consequence"—or, even more problematically, speak derisively about a desire for "consequence-free sex"—pro-choicers and fence-sitters come away with the impression that we agree with Obama about babies being punishments. Because many pro-lifers come from religious traditions that view premarital sex as sinful (and abortion activists love to exploit that fact), the odds of listeners automatically applying the negative connotation of "consequences" are very high.

When we're trying to change minds to save lives, it doesn't matter what you actually meant. It only matters what they hear. So stop saying "consequence." There are plenty of neutral alternatives available, like "result," "effect," and "outcome." It's one small change that could have very positive consequences for the cause of life. 

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