In the week since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision establishing a right to abortion, the already explosive conversation has turned nuclear.
Complicating the issue is a variety of language that has become commonplace that favors one side or the other. Some of that language has become so ubiquitous that many people do not even stop to consider as stilted.
These terms have become the standard terms for the two sides of the abortion movement, despite both of them being slanted to favor their own side.
When someone is said to be “pro-life” it implies that the other side must be “anti-life” or “pro-death.” It expands beyond supporting abortion to support death in all forms, and conversely expands the anti-abortion stance as being supportive of life at all stages and forms. Many abortion rights advocates have countered by calling anti-abortion people “pro-birth,” noting that many politicians and individuals who oppose abortion also oppose certain policies and programs they find consistent with supporting life after birth.
On the other side of the coin, the term “pro-choice” implies that opponents are “anti-choice,” again expanding beyond abortion to choice in general. However, many people who oppose abortion also strongly oppose many other government regulations and policies that they see as an infringement of liberty.
In general, when referring to two sides of an argument, the two sides should be for and against the same idea. For example, the most accurate and neutral descriptors for the two sides of the abortion debate are “pro-abortion-choice” and “anti-abortion-choice.” It’s important to distinguish that supporters of the right to abortion do not necessarily promote the act of abortion itself, but the right to have that choice. “Anti-abortion” and “anti-abortion-choice” are interchangeable.
However, note that the prefix “pro” is positive and the prefix “anti” is negative, so even here there is inherent bias. Still, this is an accurate and fair description of the two positions.
This term has popped up a lot over the years, and teases abortion out to be an extension of reproductive choice. The word justice here in particular sets in stone that abortion is a natural right related to human reproduction. Although pregnancy is obviously directly connected to reproduction, there’s room for an argument that reproduction ends at fertilization, as the new human being has been created.
The word “right” or “rights” is inherent to this discussion as the key element of abortion morality and legality comes down to the potential of two competing rights between the mother and unborn child. The mother has certain rights of bodily autonomy and medical care while the unborn child potentially has a right to life, which is the main point up for debate although there are other considerations as well. But the word “right” can also insinuate that the opposite position is “wrong.” As far as I can tell, there is no way around this, but it’s something to keep in mind.
The term “baby-killers” when referring to physicians performing abortions or abortive women is obviously heightened language which seeks to pack the most emotional punch possible, and it is not helpful in the slightest.
The term murder is more complicated, especially now in states like Alabama where a doctor performing an abortion would actually be charged with a Class A felony on the level of murder. Murder technically means the “unlawful killing of a human being,” so up until Roe v. Wade’s reversal, this term was particularly wrongheaded. Even now, the word would be on murky ground as the law does not itself refer to the act as murder. “Homicide,” however, relates to the killing of a human being, lawful or unlawful, so more accurately applies to abortion.
Basically every way in which different individuals refer to the human being within the womb is wrapped divisive. “Unborn child” is technically correct as a human being has been created through the reproductive process. But the word “child” imbues more warmth and connection than some other terminology, which upsets people who believe the being has not yet become a person with a right to life.
Alternatively, abortion rights advocates sometimes refer to the entity as an embryo, or more often as a fetus, which is scientifically correct for the stage of the being’s life cycle when abortion occurs. But opponents argue that the use of that language is designed to disconnect from the humanity of the unborn and describe it in cold, clinical terms.
Terminating a pregnancy
One phrase I have often seen is that abortion is a termination of a pregnancy. But that is sidestepping what is actually happening in abortion. If this were the correct definition, then birth would also be considered an abortion, as it terminates the pregnancy as well.
Regardless of a person’s view on the personhood of a fetus, the act of abortion is inarguably the termination of that being’s life, thereby ending the pregnancy. Describing abortion as “terminating the pregnancy” pivots from what the action is directly terminating and shifts the focus to what it is indirectly terminating.
Proponents of abortion choice emphasize that abortion is a fairly routine and safe healthcare procedure. Everyone wants access to healthcare and the freedom to make choices they believe are best for themselves with the guidance of doctors. So this emphasis communicates that abortion is not up for debate as a medical procedure.
But this again obscures the conversation about what the procedure is, and whether it should be allowed. If the fetus has a right to life, then the fact that the procedure takes place in a medical facility relates to the mother’s health does not necessarily factor into whether it is appropriate.
Abortion rights advocates have expressed concern about the term “abortionist” as it has gained a negative connotation. The term is not particularly inaccurate, as we call physicians specialized in optometry as optometrists, gynecology as gynecologists, cardiac issues as cardiologists, etc. It is true, however, that the term has picked up something of a negative connotation, The issue is what to replace the term with— abortion physician seems acceptable, although it could be perceived to add legitimacy to the practice.
There are many real issues at hand in the abortion discussion that are not simple. These are the conversations we have to have in order to make a truly informed decision on how to correctly create policy while simultaneously addressing the many tangential issues that intersect with abortion.
But we can get nowhere if we continue to fall back on unfair language instead of meeting on neutral ground. The language may be good for politics, but it is devastating to the actual arguments.