politics, social justice

OH MY GOD BABIES: the Semantics of Abortion

There are few things that make me more uncomfortable about the state of modern America than the current debate about abortion. Specifically, I have an issue with die-hard “pro-lifers” who have a tendency to confuse their religion or their googly feelings about babies with ethics, and have a habit of throwing around exaggerated accounts of how they are right, and everyone who disagrees with them is a soulless baby killer.

Now, what I’m not saying is that abortion is always good. Nor am I saying that pro-lifers are always wrong. For the record, I have googly feelings about babies, too. What bothers me most about the debate surrounding abortion is that, ostensibly, we’re all fighting for the same things here: education and proper care for women dealing with pregnancy, and appropriate actions regarding their unborn offspring. Obviously, the two sides of the debate do not agree with each other about what “proper care” and “appropriate actions” actually means. In my opinion that’s ok. Or would be if I believed that a real conversation could take place between the two factions regarding the issues at stake.

Unfortunately,what seems to be happening with people on different sides of this issue is that they have laid down their boundaries along semantic lines. The differences between how each group chooses to understand the vocabulary of abortion politics leads to a lot of misunderstanding–some of which, I firmly believe, is willful. The more pro-life news I read, the more it seems that “die-hard pro-lifers”  prefer arguments about semantics over practical discussions about what policies are the best for the greatest number of people. And this leads to the expressions of viewpoints that are mired in bad science and stories about adorable babies and religious terminology, and never seem to get around to addressing the actual effects that abortion-related policies have on real-life women across the country.

The most abundantly problematic semantic issue I find in the abortion debate is that of the titles the two major factions have chosen for themselves. “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” are not opposites. The term “pro-choice” (and I will admit to a bias, though I maintain that it’s a bias in favor of accuracy and sensibility) is fairly accurate: the average self-identifying “pro-choice” individual supports policies that give women a choice about what will happen to their bodies when they become pregnant, including but not limited to, having the option of abortion. What they don’t do is tell women they should have an abortion or that they shouldn’t choose to keep their child. That’s why the term “choice” is used. It’s not an ideology that’s pro-abortion, it’s an ideology that’s pro-options.

The term “pro-life,” on the other hand, sets up a number of serious semantic issues. First of all, it creates a false dichotomy between “pro-lifers” and “the other guys,” who, if they are not “pro-life,” must logically be “anti-life” if they are to continue to be understood as an opposing faction. This creates an immediate gap between people who want to identify as “pro-life” and everyone who doesn’t agree with them. It’s pretty understandable: I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with someone who is “anti-life” either. After all, what would it accomplish? A true enough response, if the dichotomy were accurate, but it’s not. The second problem with the term “pro-life” is that it doesn’t address the concept of “choice” at all. “pro-life” groups are all about “saving lives,” which is hypothetically noble, but the concept loses a lot of it’s credibility when these groups insist on explicitly valuing the lives of unborn children over people in Syria. In addition, I don’t find the term very accurate if “pro-life” groups are willing to shut down valuable women’s health resources (some of which provide the majority of sexual health resources to women who otherwise couldn’t afford them) in order to achieve the singular goal of saving the lives of unborn babies. Despite numerous claims to the contrary by pro-lifers who claim a holistic approach to supporting all life, being “pro-life” is politically akin to being “anti-choice.” And that’s the title I choose to use.

The biggest problem with being “anti-choice” as a political ideology is that it supports policies that take away women’s options about their pregnancy, seemingly without regard to what else is being taken away. Her sexual freedom. Her agency. Her equal opportunity, with men, to say, “no, I don’t want to deal with this.” Sometimes, her own life. I’m not saying abortion is always the best option for a woman who doesn’t want to keep her child. Adoption and prevention are wonderful options. But that should not be the decision of the courts or the church. It should be the decision of the woman. What “anti-choice” activists seem to ignore, or simply not to care about, is that whether or not abortion is legal, it’s still going to happen. It statistically still does. The difference between a legal abortion and an illegal abortion is primarily in the mortality rates of the desperate women who seek them.  In practical terms, seeking to restrict the options of women is to say that the lives of the unborn children are more important than the lives of the unprepared mothers, and that will never be an ideology I can support.

Meanwhile, I am outraged by articles like this one by Kelly Clinger, who explicitly endorses the viewpoint I ascribe to “anti-choice” activists when she draws parallels between modern-day abortion and the holocaust of WWII. She criticizes “the hard-heartedness” of the women who seek late-term abortions and makes references to “piles of hair shaved off of Jews in the concentration camps,” posing hypothetical questions about the effect “if we had the bodies of 50,000,000 babies piled on top of each other in a museum somewhere.” This woman has basically accused women seeking abortions of behaving like Nazis, and what gets me is, she thinks it’s ok. She’s so entrenched in the “pro-life” rhetoric surrounding abortion that she has stopped seeing pregnant women as women with complex and unique and personal needs, and has started seeing them as a factory for a cause that she can self-righteously champion.


2 thoughts on “OH MY GOD BABIES: the Semantics of Abortion

  1. You are a fantastically good writer. I am going to nitpick you a bit though.

    You say “pro-life” sets up a false dichotomy between being pro-life and (presumably) anti-life. Doesn’t “pro-choice” do the same: set up a false dichotomy between pro-choice and (presumably) anti-choice? A woman be pro-life and still choose the adoption option.

    In the same vein, you say “pro-life” doesn’t address the concept of choice at all. Does “pro-choice” do any better of a job addressing the concept of life?

    But since we both love each other and internet debates suck a ton, let’s address any follow up in person instead. I still want to commend you on writing one hell of a good post.

    • Ms.BrandyNichole says:

      Thank you!
      I will be happy to talk more in person, but there is one bit that I want to address here, because I’m not sure if it’s totally clear in the article.
      In terms of the dichotomy that “pro-choice” creates, I don’t believe it’s necessarily false. While I agree that a woman can be “pro-life” (or “pro-choice”) and still choose adoption rather than keeping the child, a “pro-life” political stance tends to advocate for the removal of the abortion option–that is, the limitation of choice. Namely, other people’s choices. My issue with the “pro-life” viewpoint is not what “pro-life” people choose to do themselves, but rather the limitation of choice that they seek to impose on others by attempting to change public policy to enforce others to make the same choice that they would.
      But you’re right that “pro-choice” does not address the concept of life. I’ll have to think on that.

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