What's In A Name? Pro-Life, Pro-Choice

by Jay Johansen
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'Tis but thy name that is my enemy. Thou are thyself though."

-- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II

What they call themselves

The abortion debate has seen a surprising amount of discussion about what would seem to be a trivial side issue: what name we should use to call the people on each side. One side calls itself "pro-life". The other side calls itself "pro-choice". But each side objects to the name that the other wants to use for itself. (For this article, I will call each side by the name it prefers for itself.)

Pro-choicers say that the term "pro-life" is misleading, because pro-lifers do not necessarily defend an absolute right to life in every situation: some pro-lifers support capital punishment, believe war can be justified, etc.

But then, the same objection is raised to the term "pro-choice": Pro-choicers do not necessarily defend an absolute right of people to choose for themselves in every situation: some pro-choicers support laws against race discrimination, believe there should be restrictions on violent political protests (especially if the target is an abortion clinic), etc.

The obvious reply for either side is surely to point out that any name short enough to be convenient cannot realistically be expected to be a complete description of the thing named. The whole point of a name is supposed to be that it is a handy short term to identify a group, so that we don't have to give a lengthy explanation every time we want to refer to them.

Consider the names we use for other social movements. The "green party" does not prefer the color green in general, but rather calls itself by that name to identify themselves with plants and other living things. The word "feminist" of itself presumably tells you that the movement has something to do with women, but it certainly doesn't tell you exactly what. If you'd never heard the term before and were asked what you thought it meant, your first guess might well be that they were for more femininity, that is, for behavior typically (or stereotypically) associated with women, which of course is almost the opposite of what they are really for. I sincerely doubt that "gay" people are any more gay in the traditional sense of the word -- happy and care-free -- then other people, and surely their movement has nothing to do with encouraging gaiety in any general sense.

What they call each other

Pro-choicers prefer to call their opponents "anti-abortion" or even "anti-choice". Pro-lifers generally accept the term "anti-abortion". They certainly don't deny that they oppose abortion, so there is no claim that the term is fundamentally misleading. Nevertheless, they prefer the term "pro-life" because it describes what they are for rather than what they are against. This makes it more accurate in at least some sense: pro-lifers oppose other things that threaten innocent lives besides abortion, like infanticide and euthanasia. Of course pro-lifers reject the term "anti-choice", because their objection is not to the idea of "choice", but rather to a particular choice, namely, abortion.

Pro-lifers prefer to call their opponents "pro-abortion", or occasionally "pro-death". Of course pro-choicers object to the term "pro-death" because it is clearly a derogatory term, and they do not see themselves as supporting death, but supporting choice.

It is not entirely clear to me why pro-choicers object to the term "pro-abortion". They say that they are not "pro-abortion", they are "pro-choice". But so what? If you referred to someone who opposed limitations on gun ownership as "pro-gun", I doubt he would object. I doubt that he would insist that he is not "pro-gun", but "pro-right to own a gun" or some such. Surely even the most ardent member of the National Rifle Assocation does not believe that every American should be forced to own a gun, or even that every American should own a gun. They are "pro-choice" on this issue, right? But they wouldn't be fighting about it if they didn't think that gun ownership was generally a good idea, so it is surely fair -- not to mention convenient -- to call them "pro-gun".

Are pro-choicers saying that they think abortion is, in fact, a bad thing? If so, then why are they fighting so hard to defend it? If not, if they think abortion is a good idea under at least some circumstances, then what is wrong with the term "pro-abortion"?

What the media call them

After the October 4, 2000 presidential debate, moderated by PBS reporter Jim Lehrer, a reporter for the Washington Post, Tom Shales, took Lehrer to task for asking Mr Bush if he described himself as "pro-life". Shales wrote
Lehrer committed another blunder when he said to Bush, "You're pro-life?" Generally, reputable journalistic organizations do not use this term to refer to those opposed to abortion. Would Lehrer have turned to Gore and said, "You're anti-life"? He should know better.
While the question is presumably rhetorical, the answer is, "Almost surely not, he would have asked 'Are you pro-choice?'" If he had, would Mr Shales have objected that this implies that Mr Bush is "anti-choice"? My guess is that Mr Shales would not have had a problem with calling someone "pro-choice", but I don't want to put words in his mouth, maybe he would have objected just as strenuously.

One need only study the major media to see that, indeed, few major journalistic organizations ever refer to pro-lifers by the name they apply to themselves. This is surely unusual. As I noted above, the terms "green", "feminist", "gay" and many others are not particularly descriptive, but nevertheless the media show no hesitation in calling such groups by their chosen name.

For a long time the media referred to the two groups as "pro-choice" and "anti-abortion". But apparently the bias here was too obvious -- calling one group by the name they liked for themselves, and the other group by the name their opponents used for them -- that they couldn't defend the practice. Today they generally call the two groups "abortion rights" and "anti-abortion". These terms are more even-handed than the old set, but there's still a slant: The pro-choice concern that they do not want to be identified by what they support but rather as supporting a choice is respected ("rights" in this context means pretty much the same as "choice"), but the pro-life concern that they want to be identified by what they are for rather than by what they are against is not.

What you call them

Does it matter what you call them? Surely the answer is "yes", though we could debate how much.

It is commonly accepted by people who engage in public debate that "setting the terms of the debate" is a key goal. If you can get people to ask the question your way, then the answer is often inescapable.

For example, in the mid-90s Congress changed the welfare system to make it easier for people to move from welfare to work and penalizing those who didn't. Supporters said the new rules would encourage people to support themselves and penalize deadbeats trying to milk the system. Opponents said the new rules would cut off support for millions of poor people. Both sides could defend their claims as factually correct. But if the question is, "Should people receiving tax-funded assistance be encouraged to get jobs and support themselves?", the obvious answer is "yes". If the question is, "Should assistance to poor people be cut off so they're left to starve?", the obvious answer is "no".

Likewise, in the abortion debate, if the question is, "Should women have the right to control their own bodies?", the obvious answer is "yes". But if the question is, "Should it be legal to torture and kill an innocent baby?" the obvious answer is "no". If you can get people to routinely refer to your side as "pro-choice", that subtly leads them to think of the debate in terms of the first question. If you can get people to routinely refer to your side as "pro-life", that subtly leads them to think of the debate in terms of the second question.

Of course if anyone seriously studies and thinks about the issue, they should quickly see through such a simple tactic as one side or the other giving itself a positive-sounding name. But in real life most people do not seriously study and think about any given issue. Each person has a small number of issues that are important to him, and the rest, well, he just gets a quick, casual impression. For the large mass of people who don't particularly study an issue, a good name, a clever slogan, even a funny cartoon can be all it takes to sway them.


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Posted 10 Dec 2002. Updated 15 Jan 2003.

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