Sunday, April 3, 2011


In my experience one of the most frequently debated subjects within the abortion debate is the accuracy of the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels. Instead of arguing about issues that really matter--the definition of personhood, the effects of restricting abortion--people bicker about the technicality of labels. I'd like to get this out of the way.

Some insist you cannot be “pro-life” if you support military interventions, the death penalty, eating meat or killing mosquitoes. If you support any institution or action that involves killing anything, it is hypocritical to call yourself “pro-life”.

By that reasoning I suppose if you support any institution or action that restricts choices, it is hypocritical to call yourself “pro-choice.” Thus you cannot be “pro-choice” if you support the existence of police stations, prisons or Child Protective Services. Against the choice to beat children? Then you’re not really pro-choice. Apparently.

And so people suggest allegedly more accurate titles: anti-life, anti-choice, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, etc. Here’s the problem:


Pro-choice people don’t want everyone to die. Very few of them are serial killers. They don’t have a widespread problem of suicide. I know it sounds ludicrous for me to point these things out, but being “anti-all-life” is what “anti-life” (or even worse, “pro-death”) implies. Even if you argued that “anti-life” implies specifically “anti-fetal-life”, consider that plenty of pro-choice people have children of their own. In fact, about 61% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.


And of course pro-life people don’t want to take away all choices. Shockingly, pro-life people make hundreds of choices every day. You can argue that this isn’t about “anti-all-choice” but rather “anti-reproductive-choice.” Yet pro-lifers aren’t fighting the choices to have sex, practice abstinence, have your own children, adopt, put children up for adoption, etc. And while admittedly the pro-life movement is divided on contraception, there are pro-lifers, including many here at SPL, who are pro-contraception. The only choice pro-lifers are consistently against is the choice to kill an unborn child.

(See more SPL stickers here.)


Some people view abortion as a way to combat environmental problems. Some see it as an act of mercy. Some people have even gone so far as to call abortion the ultimate motherly act. In these cases, people believe abortion is not just a necessary evil but a social good. Here the term “pro-abortion” is appropriate.

Yet there are many people who are politically pro-choice but “personally pro-life.” They defend the right to have an abortion not because they think abortion itself is good, but because they believe the ability to get an abortion is necessary to preserve women’s fundamental rights. There are plenty of pro-choice people who would not get an abortion or want their partners to get an abortion, but who feel compelled to defend the choice to get an abortion. Here the term “pro-abortion” does not fit.


Personally I feel this term is fairly accurate. However please note the majority of the pro-life movement recognizes the right to an abortion when the mother’s life is endangered or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. Furthermore, the idea behind the pro-life movement goes beyond saying abortion specifically is wrong to saying all non-defensive taking of human life is wrong. (Yes, there are those that believe the death penalty and some military interventions are defensive. That’s a separate discussion.) “Anti-abortion” doesn’t quite cover the scope of what we’re trying to say.

In the end, not one of these labels is entirely correct. The reality is that the abortion situation involves a combination of factors that make broad labels difficult to apply. We could start using labels like “Anti-non-defensive-killing” or “Pro-the-choice-to-abort” and thus perhaps avoid petty quibbling over rhetoric. Or we could just call each side by their preferred-yet-not-wholly-accurate name, and move on.

4 comments: said...

Great post, M!

As for me, typically I use the phrase "pro-abortion" to describe the hard core element of the abortion movement-- those who are actively pushing for policies that absolutely will increase abortion, and who have no genuine interest in making abortion rare. Those who are less extreme, I label as either pro-choicers or abortion advocates.

I do use the term "pro-life" for our side, because I figure that at this point, everyone knows that we're talking about the lives taken by abortion. "Anti-abortion" is fine by me, too. Broader advocacy can be described with the terms "consistent life" or "whole life."

Marysia said...

Good analysis, Kelsey.

I do think that anyone who identifies as prolife needs to thoroughly question, and question, and question themselves over whose lives they should affirm and expand their circle of concern so that it is ever larger.

Narrowness of concern is a real problem among those who identify as prolife yet can't and don't want to accomplish anything concrete to reduce abortions because they treat the fetus as something floating around in the air, or inside an inert container (that is, another human being-the woman!) This I would call hypocrisy.

I would also name this as hypocrisy: bragging about how "prolife" one is, while funding wars and corporate bailouts yet slashing funds for family planning, WIC, child care, and community health centers.

Nulono said...

Nat Hentoff had a great article on how "pro-abortion" works, but it seems to be a broken link now.

Nulono said...

"How can you be pro-life if you eat dead animals?"

Eating live animals would just be mean!