Planned Parenthood recently decided to abandon the term “pro-choice,” saying abortion as too complex to be split into two opposing sides. The switch has led some pro-lifers to debate the best way to describe the pro-life movement.
Labels matter for both accuracy and public relations. The way the media frames the issue can influence how people view the two sides of the issue. For years, the media favoured abortion advocates with the ostensibly positive term “pro-choice” while seldom calling abortion opponents “pro-life.” Two decades ago the Globe and Mail “Style Guide” suggested keeping the focus on abortion (pro- and anti-abortion) but now its online stylebook suggests that “pro-choice” be used instead of “pro-abortion” because (it says) many “are not personally in favour of abortion, but are in favour of giving others access to it if they choose.” However, “pro-life” is to be avoided, it counsels, because it “unfairly demeans their opponents by saddling them with the obvious opposite labels anti-life and pro-death, and it inaccurately identifies the issue as life.” The Globe goes on to explain, if the issue was life it would encompass opposition to capital punishment, euthanasia, killing in self-defence, and war. Britain’s Guardian newspaper has the same policy on labels.
Other news organizations associate the pro-abortion side with human rights. The 44th edition of the Associated Press’ stylebook advises using “anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion.” Meanwhile, Reuters mandates that pro-lifers are “anti-abortion campaigners” and pro-abortion should be replaced with “abortion rights campaigners.”
These media standards have sometimes led to humorous results. Recently, when Republican strategist Juleanna Glover was interviewed by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC on Jan. 10, Mitchell felt the need to correct Glover when she identified herself as “deeply pro-life” by saying that she would call it “anti-abortion.” Wesley J. Smith also wrote on his blog on National Review Online that the Washington Post and the New York Times called Richard Doerflinger the “Associate Director of Anti-Abortion Activities for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops” when his actual title was the “Associate Director of Pro-Life Activities.” It is one thing to have a policy that favours this or that description, but actually changing titles to comply with a media outlet’s own ideological views is another.
Jonathon van Maren of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform, however, wrote a blog post urging pro-lifers to embrace the “anti-abortion” label foisted upon the movement by the mainstream media. “We’re not just pro-alive-and-healthy-fetuses, we’re also very specifically anti-suctioning-them-to-death,” van Maren explained in an interview with The Interim. “Our opponents often crow that they, too, are pro-life (albeit selectively) and constantly bring up a myriad of other ‘life issues’ while demanding that pro-lifers respond to all of them, or be damned as hypocrites.”
Van Maren further said: “If we call ourselves anti-abortion, we make it more difficult for them to distract from the issue,” and that’s important because “the vast majority of people have no idea (either intentionally or by default) how grotesque abortion actually is, so when they are confronted with that reality, rhetoric like ‘choice’ or ‘reproductive health’ falls flat very quickly.” He also points out that 19th century abolitionists proudly referred to themselves not as “pro-freedom,” but as “anti-slavery.”
To the possible objection that focusing on abortion may strengthen objections that the pro-life movement does not care about women, he replied, “the only way people can say that we don’t care about women is by arguing that abortion is good for women. We know that it is not, and thus all we need to do is point out that abortion doesn’t help women at all: it doesn’t make a poor women rich, it doesn’t unrape a rape victim, and it doesn’t turn a horrible boyfriend into a nice guy.”
Many pro-life individuals and groups, however, still prefer the “pro-life” label. Shauna Segadelli from Law Students for Life, wrote on the group’s website that there were some distinctions in how the abolitionist movement described itself in the United States. “Anti-slavery” was used for “moderate reformers who wanted to stop the spread of slavery from the South” and “abolitionist” was for “radicals” who thought “equality was morally right” and advocated for the immediate or gradual end of slavery.
Segadelli also believes that the successful pro-life formula should not be tampered with and that “abortion properly belongs in a coalition of life issues including capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, violence, and euthanasia and assisted suicide,” explaining, “supporters of the umbrella espouse a holistic view of the right to life.”
These views are echoed by Canadian pro-lifers. Mary Ellen Douglas, the national organizer of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that the pro-life movement is about “more than being anti-abortion.” It means being in favour of life, from conception to natural death.
Faye Sonier, a legal counsel with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told The Interim that “pro-life” best defines the movement. Sonier said, pro-lifers are “passionate and humble individuals …” and “I think we are clear on our identity and engagement.”
Jakki Jeffs, executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario, told The Interim that her worldview involves “choosing life in all circumstances,” and thus self-identifying as pro-life “no way is lauding it above” the other side. She is also against capital punishment, though she understands that the pro-life movement talks about “innocent life.”
Nevertheless, critics and abortion supporters enjoy pointing out that some pro-lifers are in favour of capital punishment and this is a contradiction of their values. “No matter your feelings on capital punishment, it is simply ridiculous to compare it morally to abortion,” writes Kristen Walker of New Wave Feminists in a blog post. While the unborn child is blameless and voiceless, “the vast majority of people who are executed by the state are guilty.”
Still, there are other pro-lifers who are not bothered by being called “anti-abortion.” Andrea Mrozek of the ProWomanProLife blog told The Interim that she does not mind which label is used. Personally, she chooses whatever term is most clear to her audience. In fact, “often, pro-life brings out negative associations for others,” whether it is associated with a church background or raises the guard of people who are virulently pro-abortion. She comments that “pro-life to me is an abortion-related term” and that specificity has its advantages. Mrozek adds that if pro-life is viewed negatively in society, as it sometimes seems to be, it could be in the interest of advocates of other life issues such as euthanasia and assisted suicide not to be associated with the pro-life movement.
A strategy proposal from Pro-Life Nation by president Troy Newman and senior policy advisor Cheryl Sullenger following the 2012 American elections suggests that “pro-life” is perhaps “too generic of a term if those who identify as such can cast their votes without
hesitation for radical pro-abortion candidates.” Newman and Sullenger say while it is “acceptable to keep the pro-life terminology,” it is “equally essential to detail explicitly what the pro-life movement wants and what its main goal actually is: the abolition of abortion.” This has not only been successful for the abolitionist campaign, but also in recent years for anti-smoking and anti-drunk driving initiatives. “Opposing an evil will not doom a movement to failure, but actually defines the depraved behaviour and assists the opponents in eradicating the conduct,” they wrote.