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"Pro-Life" an Inaccurate, Meaningless Term

On this week’s podcast, I interview Jessica Grose, who wrote an excellent article for Slate explaining why the Gallup polling that shows a jump in the number of Americans who identify as “pro-life” doesn’t necessarily mean what it might seem to initially.  After all, while 47% of Americans embraced the label “pro-life”, the number of Americans who thought abortion was “morally wrong” actually declined, and support for the right to abortion remains high.  So high, in fact, that the only logical conclusion is that some people who identify as “pro-life” must support the right to abortion. 

In other words, the term “pro-life” is more of a tribal identifier or a feel-good term than it is a political stance.  This become only clear when you consider that pro-life activists tend to follow the lead of the Vatican (even if they’re Protestant) and object to all forms of fertility control that offer women a reasonable amount of control over their own bodies.  If they had their way, women wouldn’t have condoms or the pill or diaphragms or anything besides the rhythm method, one that sows discontent in marriages because it turns sex into a scheduled event instead of a spontaneous demonstration of affection.  It’s basically impossible for most self-identified “pro-life” people to agree with objections to legal contraception. Daily Kos's poll of Republicans found that 31% wanted contraception outlawed.  That sounds like a lot initially, but that was only amongst Republicans, who are usually far more conservative than the rest of the country. Most people who call themselves “pro-life” flout the movement to use and support the use of contraception.

So when anti-choice organizations advertise this Gallup polling as evidence of their success, we have to note that they’re exaggerating their own effectiveness.  They may be able to guilt and cajole people into adopting a feel-good term like “pro-life”, but they haven’t been effective in getting Americans to support outlawing abortion, much less contraception.  They’ve even failed in their mission to get Americans to support abstinence-only education, i.e. tricking sexually active kids into not using the hated contraception. 

Most people are quite capable of adopting feel-good labels for themselves without following it up with action or even belief.  Consider how many conservative women like Sarah Palin claim to be “feminists”, even though they object to pretty much everything that actual feminists work for.  That’s the problem with labels---there’s no minimum standard you have to meet to take one on.  When someone calls herself “pro-life”, that is as likely as not to mean “I want you to think of me as a sexually modest person who loves rainbows and babies”, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the person wearing the label supports banning abortion, refrains from premarital sex, objects to contraception, or will never have an abortion herself.  It means mainly that the anti-choice movement has been effective at creating and disseminating a feel-good label.

None of this, however, means that pro-choicers should entirely dismiss the Gallup poll. One of the things that alarm me about the dissemination of the “pro-life” label is that it does work well in increasing the stigma attached to abortion.  And as Carole Joffe demonstrated in her book Dispatches From The Abortion Wars, when abortion is stigmatized, even people that support the right become afraid to defend it.  And that allows a small but vocal misogynist, hard line minority to push through increasingly miserable restrictions.  Someone who identifies as “pro-life” and still wants legal abortion and contraception is simply less likely to stand up against those who would restrict it.  She doesn’t want to be tarred with the brush activist anti-choicers use against those who support reproductive rights---that we’re sluts and users and anti-family. 

The widespread popularity of the term “pro-life” indicates above all that anti-choicers have been successful in intimidating the American population into caring what they think about us.  You certainly see this in the mainstream media coverage of the abortion wars.  Journalists and pundits pander to the notion that the anti-choice movement is composed of a group of people with deeply felt moral convictions that should be respected, instead of portraying them accurately as wild-eyed fanatics who have convinced themselves that they can get people to quit having sex through enough legal restriction of reproductive health care and education.  The widespread popularity of the term “pro-life” also owes a lot to this mincing media coverage.  Your average member of the public has no way of knowing how radical the movement is that they align themselves with when they call themselves “pro-life”.  If more people understood that activists use the term to indicate a hard-line position against legal abortion and contraception, way more people would abandon the term.

What to do about it?  Pro-choicers tend to navel gaze when it comes to dealing with the propaganda machine that created the term “pro-life”.  We want to come up with an equally good term and compete with them on their level.  Generally speaking, I think this is a bad idea.  Pro-choicers can’t ever really compete with anti-choicers on the same plane---we don’t have the same stomach for misrepresentation and intimidation as they do, nor should we want those things.  Instead of trying to win a propaganda war against an opposition that doesn’t feel constrained by the ethical responsibility to be honest, we should instead look to making it harder for anti-choicers to mislead the public on who they are.  And we should start by pressuring the mainstream media to drop the use of the fuzzy, meaningless term “pro-life”, and replace it with more accurate terms such as “opponents of legal abortion”, “anti-contraception” or “anti-choice”. 

NPR has already taken this step.  Opponents and supporters of abortion rights will be referred to with those terms, instead of “pro-life” or “pro-choice”.  It’s a good first step, and hopefully NPR will continue down this path of embracing accuracy and start covering the way that the anti-choice movement also fights sex education and legal contraception.    


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