Thirty-seven years after the Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion, we are still struggling to find the right language to identify the opposing sides in a debate that will likely never end. Those who support abortion rights (or is reproductive rights?) call themselves pro-choice. Yet those who would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned recoil from the label anti-choice, and rightly so, and call themselves pro-life. A lot of the media have adopted the pro-life label as a matter of convenience, which infuriates the other side since those who support reproductive choice (yet another way to say it) consider their views life-affirming, not anti-life.
When one side is intent on slurring the other, activists pick and choose among the labels. Anti-abortion works for the pro-life community, but pro-abortion is not how pro-choice activists see themselves. "It drives me crazy when people say we're pro-abortion," says Jen Bluestein, communications director for EMILY's List
, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women. "You can be pro-life and pro-choice," she explains, meaning you would not seek an abortion yourself or advocate for one, but would not want to take away the right from someone else, or criminalize the procedure.
Language is important because how the argument is framed can determine who wins at the ballot box. For two decades after Roe, until the early 1990s, the pro-choice side enjoyed an edge in the national debate. The advent of ultrasound images evened out the political playing field, and supporters of abortion rights talked about abortion in a different way, pledging to make it "safe, legal and rare," a phrase introduced in the '92 presidential campaign by Bill Clinton, running as a centrist Democrat. Fast-forward to 2010, and anti-abortion advocates want to require women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe the fetus.
In Florida, conservative Republicans pushed through such legislation only to have it vetoed
earlier this month by Gov. Charlie Crist, who wrote in his veto message, "This bill places an inappropriate burden on women seeking to terminate pregnancy," adding that he put his personal "pro-life" views aside in making the decision. Crist was pro-choice in the 1990s, but was elected governor as a pro-life candidate. He's now running for the U.S. Senate as an independent, where he's Exhibit A of how malleable these labels can become in the political arena.
National Public Radio set down its own marker for how the two sides should be labeled. In a memo to staff
distributed earlier this year, NPR said it would no longer use "pro-choice" and "pro-life." After what the network describes as a lively debate, editors came up with "abortion rights supporter or advocate" and "abortion rights opponent," phrases that are politically correct but unlikely to catch on outside the studios of NPR. Each side has too much at stake to surrender the labels that have become part of our culture, and the media too often just go for the shorthand.