Is there a better word than "pro-choice"?

By calling themselves "pro-life," abortion foes won the rhetorical war. Could "pro-freedom" win it back?


Lynn Harris
June 1, 2010 4:32PM (UTC)

In the Washington Post, political historian Nancy L. Cohen analyzes polling data (and "misleading media reporting abetted by partisan hype") to show that national opinion on abortion is more complex than folks like Sarah Palin, who cannot see nuance from her house, have recently made it out to be. Cohen draws this conclusion: "A majority of Americans do not want to see abortion criminalized, but the nation is evenly divided between those who call themselves pro-life and those who call themselves pro-choice. Although abortion rights supporters can take heart that they retain the advantage on practical matters of law and policy, the antiabortion movement seems to be winning the framing war with its 'pro-life' label. It is this trend, not changing policy views, that the Gallup polls have picked up."

Frankly, I'm surprised Gallup took this long. While "pro-choice" may once have been "good enough shorthand for liberty, human dignity, individualism, pluralism, self-government and women's equality," Cohen writes, we lost the war of words the day the liars took "life." (Liars, and also crooks, because now they're even stealing "choice" and "messaging" it into meaninglessness. "More young women agree with these feminist foremothers [on abortion] than ever before," Palin said in a recent speech to the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. "And believe in that culture of life, empowering women by offering them a real choice." Wait, what?)

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"Choice," as I've said before, doesn't cut it any more. Honestly, "choice" sounds to me like what you make between baked and mashed. "Choice" sounds -- to the opposition, or the undecided -- like a bunch of "choosy" women choosing among an array of options, including abortion on a whim (sic); not the fundamental right to bodily integrity and full participation in society. Even if it weren't up against "life" -- the rhetorical rock that will always beat our scissors -- "choice" has become, as Cohen writes, "inadequate to our actual policy preferences and to the philosophical values Americans hold on the subject of abortion. It essentially cedes the moral high ground to the antiabortion movement. It doesn't do enough to communicate the very American ideals at the foundation of the abortion rights movement -- the belief that, in a free and democratic nation, the decision to have a child should rest with the individual woman and those with whom she freely consults."

Alternatives? I like "reproductive justice" for the whole movement, but it's got about five too many syllables to preach to anyone but the Reproductive Justice Chorale. We've got some good ones for them, like "advocates of forced pregnancy," but again, way too big for bumper stickers. Calling abortion (along with all reproductive rights) a fundamental human right speaks to the deepest, deepest truth. But rhetorically, it doesn't give you a good new suffix for "pro-" -- and sorry, but mention "human," and someone's gonna go, "ISN'T THE BABY HUMAN, TOO?!"

Cohen has an idea. Her sly, stirring proposal: "The words of three Supreme Court justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, can guide the abortion rights movement back to its deeply American roots. In the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, upholding Roe, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice David Souter and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: 'At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life,'" she writes. "Are you pro-freedom or pro-life? Now those are values worthy of debate."

Ooh, good one? Right? "Freedom"? That's better than "choice," right? (As we've learned, it's also better than "French.") Speaking of which, it kind of sticks it to 'em, stealing "freedom" back from those who invoke and champion it with their fingers crossed behind their backs. (And who attach it to the prefix "hates.") Shades of Roosevelt, Bill of Rights; nice. Right?

Well, Gloria Feldt, for one, isn't quite ready to start rewriting our signs. "I like 'freedom' fine," says the activist, writer, former Planned Parenthood prez, and author of the forthcoming "No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power." "But I'm a realist from experience, both with using the rhetoric and studying public opinion polls. Freedom is a strong American value but it doesn't move the dial of public opinion because in the rhetorical wars, 'life' still trumps 'freedom.'" (Goddammit!) "Anti-choicers easily turn 'freedom' into 'license.' Especially when it pertains to women and sex. There are limits to freedom, legally and ethically," she continues. "Frankly, if choice weren't a good word, the anti-choice people wouldn't be co-opting it at every turn. I agree that it has become so diffuse as to lose its meaning. Still, in the end what is morality but choosing?"

Where does that leave us? "I think the only answer is to turn the tables and put the spotlight back on women," Feldt says. "Our right to life, our human rights." Well, OK. That doesn't give us a new catchword, but -- more importantly -- it reaffirms the moral core of our fight. (Perhaps especially as the forced-pregnancy establishment has shifted strategies from pretending they don't hate women to telling the truth.) Certain words are potent weapons, yes, but they're not the war itself. And, as the polls suggest, we can win the war without them. Perhaps we should choose other battles after all.

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Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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