Pro-choice vs. Pro-life: Why These Labels Will Never Get Us Anywhere

Caveat: I know I’m not the first person to suggest this (see, e.g., this piece by Alicia Shepard of NPR and this statement by Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood), but I keep hearing it over and over and over again, so I thought I’d put my perspective out there, as well. 

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile now, but an abortion post just popped up on a message board I’ve been a member of for five years, and a poster made a comment that reminded me I should really just go ahead and get this out there.

The poster’s comment was the same one I’ve seen (and heard) time and time and time again in conversations about abortion: “I’m pro-life for myself, but pro-choice for others.”

Setting aside for a moment my belief that access to reproductive health information and services (including abortion services) is a human right, and one that is constitutionally protected, I hope that others can see how problematic this statement can be.

The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” were originally coined in the early 1970s in the wake of Roe v. Wade, with “pro-choice” standing as a slogan for the idea that women should have the legal ability to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy, and “pro-life” standing as a slogan for the idea that Z/E/F are lives entitled to protection and, as such, women should not have the legal ability to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy. Over the years, these terms became firmly entrenched in the US political and social spheres, boiling down to a core idea of whether or not abortion should be legal in the country.

Aside from the general confusion caused by claiming to belong to both sides, the larger issue, at least in the US, with somehow trying to straddle both camps is that politicians use polling information where people identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” in drafting laws. So, if X percentage of Americans identifies as “pro-life,” anti-choice legislators can (and will) use that information as fodder in crafting and pushing more anti-choice bills, like the 95 pieces of legislation we’ve seen enacted in the first half of 2012 that restrict reproductive rights.

But using voters’ ascription to these terms in drafting legislation is dangerous, precisely because of individuals like the poster above – individuals who feel that they themselves would never have an abortion (thus their desire to label themselves as pro-life), but do not want to restrict access for other women (and their insistence that they are also pro-choice).

And this phenomenon IS playing out in the polls. For instance, in a Pew Research Poll from April 2012, 53% of respondents felt that abortion should be legal all or most of the time compared to 39% of respondents who felt abortion should be illegal all or most of the time. However, in a Gallup Poll from the same time period (early May 2012), 41% of respondents identified as pro-choice, while 50% of respondents identified as pro-life. How much more confusing can we get?

If we ever want to truly move beyond the rhetoric towards a country that enacts legislation in the best interest of its citizens, then we need more clarity. A lot more clarity.

If I had it my way (you know, in one of those “Heather is Empress of the World for a Day” moments), we’d do away with those archaic “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels immediately. They make for catchy bumper stickers, but they don’t help us make the world a better place. And we’d tell everyone that the new “camps” were pro-abortion rights (meaning that women should have access to abortion services in all or most circumstances), or anti-abortion rights (meaning that women should only have access to abortion services in a few circumstances, or no circumstances at all).

And on my empire, all pollsters would also be required to ask the same question when they do their abortion polls:

Do you believe that abortion should be legal in:
(a) All circumstances
(b) Most circumstances
(c) Only a few circumstances (i.e. in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman)
(d) In no circumstances

People can call themselves whatever they damn well please. But I think all of us, in either camp, need to recognize that words have societal and legal meanings beyond what we as individuals ascribe to them, and that our use of those words can be used by those in power to enact things that we might not want.

Ridding ourselves of labels bogged down my decades of rhetoric and starting fresh with – admittedly less catchy, but way more accurate – new descriptors might be the only way to start to move beyond the morass the this issue of reproductive health, and particularly abortion rights, has become in the country.

© Heather Parker and Antigone Awakens, 2012-2013.

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