Abortion, Politics and the Death of “Pro-Life”


Dear Readers,

Below is an article that I initially wanted to pitch to a few different magazines, but I decided to run it here first for three reasons. First, it is closely related to this series. Second, it is a topic that will resonate with HG readers. Finally, because of the importance of the subject.  

You will note by the style and tone that this is a much more serious posting than what I usually write on HG, but I think it is important to run it in its original format. I promise next time to return to my usual levity.

This is a serious topic, so please be considerate with your comments.

Thanks – y

The abortion debate ebbs and flows in the national media. Sometimes it is prominently featured on front pages; other times it is not mentioned for weeks on end. Recently, pro-lifers have again taken center stage with the enactment of a new bill in Arkansas and the proposed “Heartbeat Bill” in North Dakota. The former will restrict abortion procedures to the twelfth week of pregnancy. The latter, if approved, will go a step further and ban abortions at the sixth week. Roe v. Wade currently refers to “viability of the fetus” regarding abortion, roughly around week 24.

These two victories for the pro-life camp are supported by, and bogged down by, exhaustive debates concerning nuances and jargon. But these circular arguments mask a deeper theoretical issue that should be addressed, one that begins with the term “pro-life” as a reference to abortion in and of itself.

Not so long ago, in the ’50s and ’60s, being “pro-life” was synonymous with the larger Right to Life movement that was central to multiple issues besides abortion, such as capital punishment, euthanasia, infanticide and even childhood poverty. In the late ’60s, various Right to Life groups with a specific focus on abortion began to mobilize and coalesce under the umbrella organization of the National Right to Life Committee, which was formed in 1968. The NRLC was formally incorporated in 1973 as a response to Roe v. Wade, but was still using the appropriate moniker of being “anti-abortion”.

The term “pro-life” emerged in response to widespread national interest following Roe v. Wade. It is unclear whether the term “pro-life” preceded the term “pro-choice” or vice versa, but one thing is certain: both terms were coined with the clear intention of altering public perception through effective PR and branding. In the Encyclopedia for Women in American Politics, authors Jeffrey Schultz and Laura Von Assendelft state that “movement leaders chose the ‘pro-life’ label to put forward a positive image”.

It should come as no surprise that the term “pro-life” emerged from a calculated decision to spin public discourse on the topic of abortion and present anti-abortion groups in a certain way. What could be better than being a proponent for life itself? More importantly, it paints the opposition as “Anti-Life”, cold blooded killers. As Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, stated in 1990: “The truth is that pro-life came first, a clever slogan presenting a negative position in a positive light.”

It took a few years for “pro-life” to catch on – the first journalistic use of the term in reference solely to abortion was in a New York Times article in early 1976 – but the term has stuck around for nearly four decades, skewing the language of the debate. But beyond the obvious PR wordplay, there is a more problematic side to the term “pro-life” with regards to women.

As commonly known, pro-life advocates want to end abortion through governmental action, barring the procedure entirely. Bette Grand, the Republican representative from North Dakota who is behind the “Heartbeat Bill”, stated on her blog: “At what point does the state’s legitimate and compelling interest in protecting the life of the child become stronger than the women’s right to privacy?” In other words, she is saying that women are unable or incapable of being trusted with making the “correct” decision regarding an unborn fetus, and a governing body must step in to make the decision for them. Therefore, the term “pro-life” questions the rational decision-making abilities of women.

The reality is that a woman’s perspective on abortion – for or against – all boils down to choice. Abortion, like school vouchers or same sex marriage, is just one of a slew of cultural issues that individuals make decisions on based on their personal preference. In this vein, abortion typically fits in to larger worldviews that track neatly the easily digestible Left-Right dichotomy of US politics.

But these larger worldviews are also a result of active rational decision-making. A woman chooses to be a secular humanist because she believes that the perspectives contained therein offer her the most benefit. Similarly, she can choose to be a Wiccan, or a Libertarian. Even evangelical Christians, who are frequently vocal whenever the abortion debate flares up, support active decision-making regarding ideologies. Websites for the biggest evangelical churches in the country are filled with jargon about “choosing the right path” and “making a decision for Christ”.

And herein is the problem with the terminology. Representative Grand has made an active decision to be pro-life because she believes that opposing abortion is the best path for her chosen lifestyle. Yet, at the same time, she wants someone else – in this case the government – to decide for the rest of the female population what is best for their lifestyles. By being “pro-life”, Grand discredits the ability of other women to make a rational choice about what is best for their bodies, even though she herself made a rational choice about what is best for hers.

Rick Warren, super-pastor of the Saddleback megachurch and bestselling author of The Purpose Driven Life, perfectly epitomizes this duality. In an August, 2012 interview on ABC’s This Week, Warren states: “Everybody’s world-view informs how they vote on any particular policy. So I’m in favor of everybody being able to come to the table with a world-view. I do not believe in imposing what I believe on everybody else.”  Warren supports the claim that people make decisions on various policies based on their worldview, and he believes that each person is entitled to their own subjective choices and beliefs. Yet, Warren’s frequently cited pro-life stance indicates the opposite; that worldviews which support abortion should be quashed by the government. What he should have said is, “I do not believe in imposing what I believe on everybody else, except pertaining to people who choose to have abortions.”

Therefore, we should bury the term “pro-life”. Not only is the term an obvious marketing ploy, but it implies that women are not rational decision makers. The debate is not about approving abortion procedures, or about which week constitutes fetal “viability”. It is about if you believe a woman can make a rational decision regarding her body or not.

Image via AddictingInfo