In a recent blog, Pat Richards wrote about the term, “pro-choice,” agreeing with others that it is out of date. After seeing that last week’s listserves, blogs, and news forums I subscribe to had discussed the use of the pro-choice label for those who want to preserve abortion rights – actually, all reproductive freedoms – I decided to jump into the healthy discussion with a few thoughts of my own.
A New York Times article (7/28/14) titled, “Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message,” is quoted frequently. Planned Parenthood representatives were “shunning” the continued use of the pro-choice label out of a desire to more accurately reflect that “women’s health,” and not just abortion, are under attack. A January, 2013 article in Buzzfeed summarized polling data collected in 2012 that served as the impetus for Planned Parenthood to begin moving away from the pro-choice label. Questioning if the move would really help the reproductive rights movement as a whole, The Atlantic also published, “The End of Pro-Choice: Will ‘No Labels’ Really Help the Abortion Debate?” All articles noted that Planned Parenthood does not have a new label of preference – without a replacement or multi-organizational agreement, it is highly unlikely that all organizations will opt to avoid or stop using “pro-choice.” It would be a logistical challenge for organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and, really, whatever one thinks of the term, it is not leaving the American political vernacular anytime soon.
As a leader in providing quality, comprehensive, and affordable healthcare to women and a political force for the same, Planned Parenthood strives to effectively communicate with those it serves – medically and politically. Thus, it is not surprising that Planned Parenthood leadership began espousing a move away from the pro-choice label towards a greater emphasis on individual situations. An individual situation is what first put abortion on the minds of many average Americans who otherwise might not have had a position. In 1962, Arizona resident Sherri Finkbine sought an abortion after learning that the thalidomide she took for morning sickness caused severe and fatal deformities to babies. She ended up getting the abortion in Sweden after significant and costly publicity. A Gallup Poll at the time reported that most Americans supported her decision and during the following years, the majority of men and women believed abortion was a personal decision between women and their physicians. Sherri Finkbine’s situation is one of millions of individual situations involving reproductive decision-making that must rely on the freedoms advocated by the pro-choice movement. Good for Planned Parenthood for embarking upon that message. As a former clinic director, I know in real terms that no two abortion patients can be framed in the same box. Ever.
After the Finkbine publicity, “abortion” became acceptable, so much so that activists used “pro-abortion” when discussing legislation to legalize it. According to a 1990 William Saffire column, “pro-choice” was first used in the context of abortion in a 1975 Wall Street Journal article by political writer Alan L. Otten; he used “right-to-life” for those opposed to abortion. “Pro-life” was used primarily in the context of anti-war commentary. In 1976, the New York Times used it to describe plans for anti- abortion-related activities led by pastors. No one likes to be “anti” anything; it makes sense that “pro-life” met pastoral, political, and marketing goals just as “pro-choice” did for abortion rights at the time. Language always changes as the need arises whether political, logical, or definitional.
“Pro-choice” may seem outdated or confused. Some vibrant discussion has transpired in the comment sections of articles and blogs, as well as on sites like the Abortion.com Facebook page, in which there seems to be a general thought that, yes, the term/label may be confusing or meaningless to younger people, but what is needed is more aggressive education about what choice really does mean. Some believe that the pro-choice movement has behaved too rationally as the anti-choice movement bullied politicians so successfully that they instilled fear in them. In other words, all that “pro-life” is about is the fetus, not the woman or her family, and not about life once born. There is also a lot of agreement with something Pat Richards mentioned in his blog – “abortion” (A B O R T I O N) needs to be mentioned unapologetically, without shame and as a legitimate, viable facet of reproductive healthcare.
While many may think of the past 40 years as the most active for the pro-choice movement, the fight for healthcare, and especially to access birth control and safe abortion, has been fought by women of generations long gone. The Comstock Act of 1873 banned the possession and/or distribution of goods or mere information about abortion and contraception. “Therapeutic abortion boards” were established at hospitals in the 1950s for the purpose of approving abortions on a case-by-case basis. The formation of the Jane Collective in Chicago in 1969 was to help women access abortion. Yes, women have always had to fight to get – and keep – their reproductive freedoms. Along the way, the language has changed, and it will again. Young women in particular must join the fight for reproductive freedom before it is too late. The erosion of those freedoms over the past several years should have prompted at least a broad, multi-organizational discussion about how to improve pro-choice messaging long ago.
Anti-abortion advocates and organizations are also writing or blogging about the pro-choice label discussion with spinful abandon. It is probably nice for them to get their minds off of GOP talking points about rape or the ouster of the Georgia affiliate of the National Right to Life for being so “extreme” that it excluded abortion for rape and incest (politically inefficient perhaps?). On the other hand, as we know too well, we must not let their spin become the message about this discussion. Honest people who operate with facts they are not. Pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-women’s health, pro-individual freedom – ultimately, actions count more than words.