News that Planned Parenthood is planning to abandon the old familiar serviceable term “pro-choice” has ruffled feathers and awakened a certain amount of predictable feminist grumbling, including some by Slate’s own Amanda Marcotte, who argues that the term was useful.
However, this decisive public shift in rhetoric has been a long time coming. Many critics have complained about the inadequacy of feminist language surrounding the issue of abortion. Nearly 20 years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote a bold and thought-provoking piece in the New Republic claiming that the movement’s rhetoric and attitude toward abortion did not take into account the emotional and moral complexities of real abortions.
As someone unwavering in my support of women’s right to legal abortion I think it is clear that, from the beginning, the war of words was lost: The term “pro-choice” is far less charismatic, less uplifting, less capacious than the term “pro-life.” Who does not want to be arguing in favor of life? (It is interesting to note that polls have found that significant numbers of people identifying as pro-life are in fact in favor of legal abortions; such is the irrational magnetism of the term.) “Choice” sounds, in comparison, cool, flippant, casual, bourgeois. “Choice” belongs to realms like whether to have a tuna sandwich or a Caesar salad for lunch; it does not naturally evoke the gravity of the awe-inspiring issues at stake.
But how should the movement better express the crucial and complicated idea of a woman’s right to control her own body? I think “pro-freedom” would be better, closer to what we mean, though still not as transcendent a term as “pro-life.” (It would be excellent if Planned Parenthood somehow had the power to obliterate the term “pro-life” as well.) “Freedom” is at least a more expansive word than “choice,” with glimmers of promise, of possibility, of amber waves of grain; it has a patriotic undertone that might appeal to those confused people who do believe in at least a limited right to abortion but won’t call themselves “pro-choice,” because “choice” seems to belong to a pampered elite.
But behind this question of words lies the more arduous question of concepts and philosophy. The idea that “life begins at birth” is also outdated, too easy. It is useful politically, but as many have pointed out, in the age of sonograms, of cloudy little hands and feet coming into focus at nine weeks, how many people actually believe it?
Our language betrays our desire. A cluster of cells that is wanted is a “baby,” and one that is unwanted is a “fetus.” One never hears excited parents-to-be referring to the “fetus”; the leap of imagination from fetus to baby is so ordinary, so automatic, so universal that we cannot pretend, even in the realm of political expediency, that it is not so. We can’t try to argue that some clusters of cells are not “life” if we are, say, busy calling our own cluster of cells a baby.
Wolf argued persuasively in her long-ago piece that the dismissal of abortion as no big deal among certain ideologically efficient feminists was not serving the movement well, and not admitting that there is “life” involved discredits the entire movement. How can anyone believe us if we do not believe ourselves? Surely one of the reasons the anti-choice movement (god, now what will we call it?) has gained such traction is that there were lacunae, weaknesses, holes in the absoluteness, the moral cleanness of the abortion rights position. (That there are also holes in the other side’s absoluteness does not make this any less true.)
It’s easy to see why the early crusaders for these rights would feel the need for certainty, for admitting no complexity, for brooking no sentimentality or mysticism, but the acknowledgement of ambiguity, of difficulty, lies at the center of any honest conversation on women’s reproductive rights: There are sometimes hard choices to be made, about a woman’s body and the nascent life therein, but it is the woman herself who should be making them.
It may be that a change in language frees those who believe in an absolute right to abortion to a more honest wrestling with the issue. Let’s imagine a scenario in which we admit that abortions may involve an obliteration of something that could legitimately be called life but that they are done to protect something that could also be called life. Planned Parenthood is, after all, in the business of protecting women’s lives, their futures, their ability to pursue education, to establish security, to have homes filled with future children, and their freedom to decide how best to use their short time on earth.
If the last election showed anything, it was that the Republican attempt to control women’s bodies, in all variety of weird ways, in language and in law, failed spectacularly in winning over the hearts and minds of the American public. Secure in this knowledge, Planned Parenthood, and other agencies of women’s rights, should have the space to invent a more honest, persuasive, modern way of talking about this cluster of pressing issues.