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Deconstructing the Abortion Lexicon

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Pro-life? Pro-choice? What do these terms really mean?

When one calls an anti-abortion activist “pro-life,” does this imply that all other individuals are somehow against life? Pro-death? I know that I personally support life in all its nebulous meanings, but I am also a supporter of abortion rights. To be “pro-life” positions your political opponents as champions of death. Under our current taxonomic standards, this is quite a quandary.

And the other side isn’t much better. What exactly does “pro-choice” mean anyway? An anti-abortion activist is probably very pro-choice when it comes to what he selects from his wardrobe to wear in the morning. And he is probably pro-choice when it comes to choosing what breakfast cereal to eat before he goes off to work. Or even not to eat any breakfast cereal at all. Abortion rights activists aren’t pro-choice, they’re pro-abortion. Calling oneself “pro-choice” is equally problematic as it positions the anti-abortion activists as fascists clamping down on our freedoms when, in fact, it is only one legal grey area that is truly being contested.

But in an attempt to free ourselves from the existing language of the debate, we run into another problem. What does it mean to be pro-abortion? If I am pro-abortion, does that mean I support haphazard and frequent abortions? For one to be pro-abortion sounds like one wholeheartedly supports and condones abortion across the board. Perhaps one who is pro-abortion even believes that abortion is a positive idea. This, however, is an unfair depiction of most activists on this side of the argument. For many people, the label of “pro-abortion” in the above context would be an unfair categorization. Most of these activists still believe that abortion is a sad, terrifying, but necessary right.

If put in a woman’s shoes, I might not personally choose to have an abortion, but this does not mean I do not support each woman’s individual right to choose to have the procedure. One can be ideologically opposed to the idea of abortion on a personal or emotional level while still supporting the legal right to choose on a public and governmental level. Despite this, “pro-abortion” still remains the logical antonym to “anti-abortion.” Both terms need to be thrown out the window if we are to make any sense of the situation.

So what now? “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” are vague and misleading. “Pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion” are equally problematic and prone to misunderstanding. Where does this leave us?

We can take the more “politically correct” route of “abortion opponents” and “abortion rights activists,” but if we’re really going to try to paint a fair and accurate picture, perhaps we need to stop focusing on such short, “precise” labels. There are multifaceted ways of looking at any complex issue. No one person can easily be lumped into either camp. Our society has grown to rely on easily digestible sound bites, but these do not facilitate real dialogue or conversation. We needn’t try to lump every complex position under one conglomerate banner; not everything fits neatly into such a binary.

When someone asks you how you stand on abortion, don’t answer “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Don’t answer “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.” Don’t reduce your opinions and beliefs to a short signifying label. When someone asks you how you stand, take the time to explain your beliefs, contradictions and all. We must learn to recognize the nuances in the differences of opinion. It is only in this way that we can truly open a dialogue and begin to understand one another.

This post also appears at Les Faits de la Fiction.

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About Bryan McKay

  • Baronius

    I disagree. Each camp would seem to have the right to name itself. And there certainly are camps, even granting that many/most people favor some restrictions. There is a group of people who work for the cause of ending abortion, and they prefer the name ‘pro-life’ to ‘anti-choice’. Likewise, there are people who actively support the legality and the availability of abortions, and they don’t like to be called ‘pro-abortion’.

    I understand the point of your article, that talking past each other doesn’t solve anything. I just think that taking removing the preferred names of each side would make things worse.

  • http://bryanmckay.com/blog Bryan McKay

    I agree that each camp certainly has a right to name itself. There is a certain unifying power in giving a name to a movement. It allows some actual unifying force to coalesce from the disparate and unorganized masses.

    It would be nice, however, if we didn’t have to have such signifiers to start with. The problem of the abortion lexicon was meant to frame the larger issue of group identification the the problems that this identification can raise.

    Your accurate identification of the nuances is right on. Even within the two “distinct” sides of the argument, there are variations. When the media, however, labels all who support abortion rights as “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion,” this is where problems begin to arise. These differences in group identification are precisely why I find the common lexicon hard to deal with. My piece isn’t meant to be an attack so much on the labels themselves, but rather on the homogenizing power the labels can have, especially when applied by a third-party.

  • http://biggesttent.blogspot.com/ Silas Kain

    I’ve always thought that Mommie Dearest was a thinly veiled cover for the pro-lifers. On the other hand, if the pro-lifers win with the new SCOTUS configuration, I’d buy stock in the wire hangar business.

  • Baronius

    Bryan, you’ve got to be a Democrat. Usually I’d say that as an insult, but not this time. :) In the Republican party, we have a term for the middle ground on this issue. Moderate. It works like this: you’ve got pro-life, moderate or moderately pro-choice, and pro-choice. That’s not to be confused with “moderate Republican”, which is a term used in the press to describe 90+% ADA ratings.

  • Mark

    I think pro-life, for those who truly are is fully and completely appropriate. To be pro-life is to totally accept and open yourself to the possibility of life and to defend it at all costs. This means no abortions and no contraception. Those who are on the opposite side might logically be anti-life, and they might disagree with that name because they still feel like good people, just people who dont feel like being inconvenienced. To oppose life, even on the most basic level of allowing people to eliminate their offspring is to be anti-life

  • James Walton

    If we didn’t know whether or not a seventeen-year-old was alive, we wouldn’t defend the right of a father to CHOOSE to kill it regardless (pro-choice), we would first discuss whether indeed it is alive (pro/anti-life). And if we found that is was alive, we may still say that the father does have a CHOICE, but we would (hopefully) decide that one of those choices was not only a sad and horrible choice, but also a WRONG and UNNECESSARY CHOICE. If we found that the seventeen-year-old was in fact not alive, then the notion of killing is not in the equation, because there is nothing to kill (or abort), and therefore there is no CHOICE in the first place (but in this case, what is it exactly that the father wants to do?…)

    I agree with Mark, that to be non-pro-life (that is, not completely opposed to abortion) is logically to be, anti-life. But I agree with Bryan also, who makes the very valuable point that language invades our truth – perhaps even precedes it- and as such, in limited and potentially dangerous/inappropriate etc… I think we define ourselves by our definition/labeling of what we consider to be oppositional (and vice versa), i.e. to a pro-lifer, someone who does not acknowledge the status of an embryo/foetus/person-in-the-womb/THING as ‘alive’ and/or does not support the equal rights of this THING (alive or otherwise [is it dead?]) with people who are already born (on ‘this side’ of the womb, e.g. you and I), is indeed someone who is ‘anti-life’. And to a pro-choicer, someone who does not think the choice to abort a thing (alive or otherwise [is it a machine?]) is a good choice, would indeed be someone who is ‘anti-choice’. These categories are defensible and sensible from their particular perspectives. But, as Bryan McKay sensibly demonstrates, these labels are easily deconstructable. But, by the same token [token?], any other ‘labels’ would also be deconstructable (and necessarily so), but perhaps, as Mr McKay recommends, we can (and should) at least go further than these labels in our conversations in order to (attempt to) disambiguate [or re-ambiguate] our positions.

    In fact, perhaps it is only with our constant re-addressing of this labeling issue that we can reflect upon the issue (of abortion) more efficiently and with greater respect for one another. Only with such self-conscious re-labeling/deconstructing can we have any sort of meaningful discussion on the topic. I [writer, not word], personally dislike the term ‘pro-choice’ especially, but since it does open the back door for illustrating the inconsistencies of the ‘position’, it is also very useful… The terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are not necessarily binary oppositions (as McKay illustrates), but they do draw our attention to the two foci, the protagonists of our discussion, the REAL ISSUES at the he[art] of our ethical proximity to the thing we call ‘abortion': CHOICE and LIFE.

    What is CHOICE and what is LIFE? Is there an innate ‘goodness’ to CHOICE? Is there an innate ‘goodness’ to LIFE? The answers to both of these questions is [of course] subjective, but if we really, seriously contemplate the two concepts, CHOICE and LIFE, I think it is particularly hard to philosophically [or anythingelseically] defend the notion that CHOICE = GOOD (What is GOOD [good [?] question]) – but you must make your own decision about whether CHOICE=GOOD or nay.

    I would say CHOICE has no innate ‘goodness’, but if we flip the equation round, can we say GOOD=CHOICE? I.e. Is there a ‘good choice’ to be made (and therefore a ‘bad choice’?) in every situation, or in only some situations? This depends on our positions vis-a-vis relativism etc. From a relativist p.o.v., the CHOICE you make is neither good nor bad, neither bad nor good, depending on where you anchor your proximity (relationship to) and relate (to the situation) from. Therefore, your CHOICE can ‘always’ be a good one, if your looking from the right angle. I would say this is fairly harmless in almost all circumstances, but surely when it comes to deciding whether or not THING-IN-WOMB=ALIVE and/or whether or not LIVING/NON-LIVING THING has equal right to POST-NATAL PERSON, then surely the issue is that much more important (as demonstrated by the real passion shown on both ‘sides’ of the discussion), that our focus must shift from our own proximity to the THING itself, i.e. we must move from discussing whether or not the CHOICE itself is a wholly_good OR totally_bad OR unfortunate_but_sadly_necessary one to what it is (the thing itself) that we are discussing.

    I believe that (most of) those who consider themselves ‘pro-life’ have already move into this level of discussion because they are arguing for something arguable, i.e. the fact that (a): the THING is alive; (b) the ALIVE THING is human; and (c) the ALIVE HUMAN should have the right to be born, equal to all of us who have already made it that far. This is, therefore, an argument (be it right or wrong) that has moved beyond the discussion of proximity, of ourselves, of the CONTEXT of the THING (foetus) and on to the ontology of the THING itself (from their p.o.v., it is a human, living THING), but those who insist on still discussing ‘CHOICE’ are not quite there yet. I must, therefore, respect and advocate Mr McKay’s position, that we should move beyond such language of pro-choice and pro-life… BUT… once you’ve found yourself fitting into the ‘pro-life’ category, it is indeed a useful and ‘TRUE’ label. ‘Pro-choice’ on the other hand denotes nothing and is self-deconstructing (and perhaps just silly)…

    In other words, there are two parallel arguments: one that argues for the FREE CHOICE of a person/community to DO a certain ACTION (abortion); and another that argues that FOETUS=ALIVE (and therefore EQUAL to post-natal person and therefore ABORTION=MURDER). We should indeed have both arguments, BUT surely, for goodness sake, we should have the LIFE argument first. If once concludes that the THING=ALIVE, then I believe that it is very hard indeed to defend killing that THING. If, on the other hand, the THING=NOT ALIVE (dead???) then the THING (what thing?) is not being killed and is therefore not something to defend from being killed and is therefore morally-abortable…

    So here is what you should think about: is the THING alive? That must be our first discussion (the answer is YES, of course).

    If we didn’t know whether or not a seventeen-year-old was alive, we wouldn’t defend the right of a father to CHOOSE to kill it regardless (pro-choice), we would first discuss whether indeed it is alive (pro/anti-life). And if we found that is was alive, we may still say that the father does have a CHOICE, but we would (hopefully) decide that one of those choices was not only a sad and horrible choice, but also a WRONG and UNNECESSARY CHOICE. If we found that the seventeen-year-old was in fact not alive, then the notion of killing is not in the equation, because there is nothing to kill (or abort), and therefore there is no CHOICE in the first place (but in this case, what is it exactly that the father wants to do?…)

    Anyway, the discussion should be brought to a new level. The old BOO/HURRAH arguments must go, we must respect all the arguments, but first, we must ask whether the THING is ALIVE. Yes, it is.