Women at an abortion rights protest

What should we call the position that the woman who is pregnant should decide whether she keeps the pregnancy or ends it? My column on Planned Parenthood’s semi-retirement of the word “pro-choice” got a lot of responses. Pro-rights, pro-woman, pro-freedom, pro-liberty, plus some thumbs-up for pro-choice—after all, we already know what it means.

Here’s a selection of e-mail responses and comments I received when I sent my column out to my usual list, but forgot to use bcc, sparking a lively discussion (and a few irate demands to be left in peace).

Lindsay Beyerstein, lead writer, Sidney Hillman Foundation

I’m a pragmatist. I think we need to use whatever rhetoric works best. If focus groups are telling us that “choice” isn’t working, then we’ve got to think of something else.

Rhetorically, “pro-choice” has a lot to recommend it, though. First off, “choice” is one syllable. Second, it’s part of a neat binary: “pro-choice” vs. “pro-life.” The media love a good binary.

It’s fashionable to pine for nuance in abortion discourse, but our movement should be happy that we’re easily identifiable in rhetorical space as the sworn enemies of the “pro-life” crowd. It saves a lot of explaining.

None of the various alternatives to “pro-choice” are as clear or informative or as easy to use as the existing term. For example, does the average person know that “reproductive justice” means pro-choice rather than pro-life? The pro-lifers are arguing for their own vision of reproductive justice, after all. “Reproductive rights” is a little clearer, but it’s an unwieldy noun that can’t easily be made into a punchy adjective, or a noun to describe someone who holds those views. “Repro rightser” doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “pro-choicer” and “pro-lifer” do.

Whatever the PR folks say, I’m always going to think of myself as “pro-choice” because it’s the most accurate term for my attitude towards abortion. I’m not pro-abortion, or anti-abortion. As long as every woman has access, I don’t care if the abortion rate goes up or down. (Except insofar as it declines because of a reduction in unintended pregnancy.)

Frances Kissling, scholar, writer, former director, Catholics for Choice

I think too much of the emphasis on what Planned Parenthood said has been placed on the word “pro-choice.” To an extent they made a mistake in leading with what they won’t do—use a certain word—and did not get enough traction on what they have learned and about the extent to which people are of two or five minds about abortion. There are many grays.

“Choice” abstracted from abortion is a very popular word. Think of school choice, or the ability to choose your own doctor. Those concepts imply deep commitments to what is best for our children and to the right to control our bodies in healthcare. It may well be that it is less popular on abortion because of the one-on-one trade-off against life—or because we have so pushed choice to the limit so that it is seen the only thing we value in a weighing of a decision about procreating.

Changing a word alone will do nothing. And if PP really wants to win over those who have mixed views or think abortion is mostly immoral, but support it, or just the pro-choice people who have been bored or unmotivated by the movement up to now, it will require a very changed way of talking about abortion. There are some good signs and some same-old about the rest of the PP presentation. It’s the first time a group has read polls and done focus groups where they have not immediately retreated from ambiguity and the fact that there is not majority support for abortion without limit or regulation. That shows a refreshing lack of defensiveness. There was an acknowledgement that for many people something very complex is going on, and the very layered way in which people think about the issue.

However, the personal decision, “no one can walk in an other’s shoes,” is too shallow and still too close to “leave women alone and just stay out of it.”

Helen Benedict, writer

“Personal decision”? How is that even a label? It’s not even an adjective. How about Leave Women the Fuck Alone? Or the old Get Your Government Off My Body? Too wordy I guess.

Wyndi Anderson, senior director of programs, Provide

Katha, I think you hit the nail on the head with this one line: “The trouble is, the stigma is not about the word but about the concept behind it, and eventually the negative connotations migrate to the new term.”

As someone who has worked with stigmatized folks who struggle to access services (people with addiction, mental illness, HIV etc.) I believe you are correct. We can change the language all we want, but when the person who needs access to abortion shows up for the medication or the procedure, they will face the stigma of the service and the decision and all the hurdles that come with it, no matter what frame we are using. I grew up in South Carolina, where there are lots of ways not to say “abortion” or “pro-choice”; there are all kinds of code words used. But the folks always knew exactly what we were talking about. We have to connect to and deal with the stigma of abortion if we are going to see change.

So we can change words and framing, which can be very powerful indeed and can have an impact on conversation. It is a start. But the real issue for me lies in the stigma related to the action/decision/choice. It is where the rubber hits the road with all the language we play with—does it, in fact, open up and maintain access?

I believe it is in our ability to connect with and talk about this issue with compassion, understanding and vision that will make the difference.

Peter Dreier, Occidental College

I say, whatever works.

If polling shows that there are lots of people (men and women) who support Roe v. Wade, but call themselves “pro-life,” it means that abortion opponents have done a good job of confusing people and branding themselves in a positive way. And, I admit, “pro-life” sounds positive and upbeat. But I do think that our side needs a slogan, a bumper sticker, to express what we are for. If “pro-choice” isn’t it, then what about “reproductive freedom”? Everyone likes “freedom,” right? I’m not sure what the right words are, but I don’t think we have to be wedded to “pro-choice,” just as we’ve moved from “Negro” to “black” to “African-American,” or from “homosexual” to “gay” to “gay and lesbian” to “LGBT,” and so on.

Few of the women or men in my college classes think of themselves as “feminists,” but almost all of them agree with pay equity, reproductive freedom and many other once-radical ideas of the feminist movement. Social Security was initially called “old age insurance” when Socialist Congressman Victor Berger first introduced it in 1911. Even after FDR proposed it as “Social Security,” many Americans considered it a “socialist” idea. But now even most conservatives believe that Social Security is sacrosanct, according to polls. Most NRA members say that support the Second Amendment, and oppose “gun control,” but pollster Frank Luntz found that most gun owners, and even most NRA members, favor tough background checks and other restrictive measures.

So, language matters, and it changes over time. If people support a women’s right to decide to have an abortion, but they don’t think of themselves as “pro-choice,” let’s find another way for them to say who they are and what they believe.

Daniel Zitin, book editor

“Choice” is a bankrupt and corrupt word now, precisely because of its use in such terms as “school choice,” which means “destroy public education,” health insurance plans of which you have a “choice” but all of the options bad and widespread other uses in various markets where you are offered “choices” that do not include what you really want or need but are merely intended to give you the illusion that you are nurturing your “individuality,” defined as the products you choose to buy. Even on its own terms, as a marketing tactic, the idea of choice is something most people are wising up to. I think today the best idea is to speak of “women’s rights,” to be for women’s rights, one of which is every woman’s right to control what happens to her body.

Fahima Vorgetts, Afghan Women’s Fund

I often had difficulty with the word “pro-choice” for the reason that the other side is using “pro-life,” which is very attractive and in a way put me on the spot. “Liberty of choice,” “freedom of choice,” “in control of my body,” “privacy” are high on my list.

Meredith Tax, US director, Centre for Secular Space

I never liked the term “pro-choice.” I prefer to talk about “reproductive rights,” because women have a right to bodily integrity, and also that enables one to bring in issues of healthcare, sexual choice and what kind of social support one actually needs to have children. The abortion rights movement went for “pro-choice” as a marketing strategy, but I don’t think it really helped us much. Evading the real issue seldom does. The real issue is and always has been female autonomy: do women have the right to decide when and if to have children, or has this issue already been decided for all time by God, destiny, tradition, the need to reproduce the nation or whatever other cause is invoked to keep women subordinate?

Further, I think we have to move away from sloganeering and find more complex ways to talk about reproductive rights. What we say does not always have to fit on a sign. But if it comes to signs, “Not the church, not the state, woman must decide her fate” still works for me.

Elizabeth Benedict, writer

Myself, I still like “choice,” but perhaps we could take the word “liberty” out of mothballs and promote “reproductive liberty.” It’s not used as often as freedom (no “liberty fries”) and has some nice historical echoes.

Phyllis Rosenzweig, poet

I hate to say this, but the “pro-life” people really win the best-name contest (although was it you who said they should really call themselves “pro-birth” since they don’t seem to care overly much about the life the person might have after it is born?). I have always been turned off by the label “pro-choice,” even if I approve the message. The label always sounded boring and somewhat stodgy to me, and an obvious attempt to play it safe and to try not to offend anyone. Isn’t the issue really one of being pro-abortion, the right to a legal and safe one, for any woman? Why not just say “pro-abortion” or perhaps, even better, “pro-abortion rights” when that is what “pro-choice” really, if secretly, means? It would still fit on a bumper sticker, but would using the A-word scare too many people away? I honestly don’t know. It is an issue of that creepy word—“branding”—and many people know more about how to manipulate that than I do. Perhaps thinking of it in terms of branding sounds like trivializing the issue, but we all do know the power of language. I would back whatever terminology PP decides is most effective.

David Abraham, University of Miami School of Law

Emphasizing “choice” was always playing with the master’s tools. “Choice” is market talk and equates the market with freedom. Like “choice,” the discourse of a “woman’s body is her own” is property talk and market talk. We live in a capitalist world where choice does seem to most folks the ultimate expression of their freedom. And given the significant libertarian streak in the American left, a more social discourse was, apparently, a less appealing prospect.

Robert Boyers, editor, Salmagundi

I have always liked “pro-choice” because I knew what the term referred to and didn’t regard it as at all problematic. But if it offends or alienates people who are otherwise sympathetic to the idea of women’s reproductive rights, then by all means let us drop the term. The term “women’s rights,” like the term “reproductive rights,” seems to me at least somewhat problematic, in that it raises questions about what is encompassed by a word like “rights,” which may seem to some people to refer only to rights officially accredited in law. For the moment I prefer the term “reproductive freedom,” which is specific and avoids at least some of the issues associated with the words “choice” and “rights.”

Barbara Winslow, Brooklyn College

“Choice” may or may not be corrupt or bankrupt for all the reasons you have given, but so is the word “feminism.” I have been teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies courses at various universities and colleges (and speaking at middle and high schools) for over forty years, and I get the same push back at the word “feminism”—it’s a word fraught with all sorts of class and race baggage. At the end of my class most students understand the complexities of the word “feminism” and write to me that they consider themselves feminists. As for the term “pro-choice,” the problems are obvious: class, race and gender determines choice. But historically “pro-choice”—at least for left feminists—has also meant no coercive sterilization, access to birth control, the right of women to bear children without state interference.

Judy Norsigian, executive director, Our Bodies, Ourselves

I have a similar experience to Barbara’s. Students enter these dialogues with different conceptions of all the various terms we use. It’s important to define how we use the terms we do, to explore our varying understandings of these terms and then see where we agree and disagree, as we examine position statements, policy proposals, etc. I usually explain why I use the term “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life”—I don’t like to suggest that someone who supports a woman’s right to abortion has any less concern for human life than someone who is opposed to abortion. And obviously, there is a continuum here in terms of the circumstances under which one might support access to abortion. More recently, I have heard more students express negative judgments of peers who are “careless” and don’t, by clear choice, use contraception to prevent pregnancy; some students say that they don’t want public funds to be used for those who are “irresponsible.”

My impression is that there is more “victim-blaming” emerging in these conversations. We have witnessed a similar attitude amongst those who don’t want to cover medical expenses for implant removal as part of the ACA-created health exchanges, if the woman originally got the implant for cosmetic reasons (not reconstruction after BRCA surgery). It would be interesting for someone to do a study of how often this problem/attitude emerges for men, i.e., “he made his bed, now he should lie in it.”

Sophie Pollitt-Cohen, GORUCK Events [Editor’s Note: And, full disclosure, daughter of Katha Pollitt!]

Specifically with regards to the word “feminist,” I couldn’t agree more. By shying away from the word, you validate the stereotype. I could go on and on about that with the word and my click moment when I had to say no I am a feminist and I also love my hair and wearing enormous heels and “This is what a feminist looks like!” That being said, I also do think sometimes you achieve more by working with the system and picking your battle.

Susan Douglas, University of Michigan

I too have wrestled with what we do with the word “feminism.” Right wing pundits and so many media representations have marginalized and demonized feminists and feminism such that many women simply don’t want to take on a stereotype that has nothing to do with who they are. So maybe we should trade it in for something else. On the other hand, feminism has a long, profoundly important history, and if we dump the word we jettison that history and capitulate to those who seek to take our history, politics and language away from us. I do find that when I teach or give talks about the representation of women and feminism in the media, that young women (and yes, even some men) will come up to me afterwards and say “Well, I guess I am a feminist.”

Sara Murphy, NYU-Gallatin School of Individualized Study

Really interesting column, Katha. I think you hit on a central dimension of this language shift, but I might twist it a little differently. You point, quite rightly, to the way any piece of language can mutate and become stigmatized, no matter how what its origins or the intentions that accompanied its introduction. But it strikes me that what Planned Parenthood is really fleeing here is the conquest of the rhetorical field around abortion by the right: the real problem, in other words, is not “pro-choice” but “pro-life.” After all, who is anti-life? The anti-abortion forces knew their business when they chose that language.

So I wonder what is going on when we see survey results that evince a discomfort with the term “pro-choice.” Is it that it has been so resolutely opposed to “pro-life,” which seems to represent a position that no one could possibly contest unless they were, in fact, part of some kind of “culture of death?” For some sectors of the population, has “pro-choice” been successfully recoded as thanatophilia? People in their twenties have really grown up with this opposition shaping the discursive field around abortion, implicitly and explicitly, after all.

And then there is perhaps a deeper set of questions that have their roots in the Roe decision itself: as so many people have pointed out over time, arguing the case around privacy has in the end proved problematic, since it did in essence posit abortion as a personal choice, as something engaged in a hypothetical isolated individualist space, a space that in so far as it exists is one of extreme privilege: if a wealthy woman wants an abortion, by and large, she has the “choice” to make her “private decision.” Since most of the rampant undermining of Roe affects poor and young women most deeply, one might say that this is really the revenge of the terms on which the decision was made back in ‘73. But what it also shows, I think, is how constricted our language and conceptual horizons are with regard to women’s political and personal status.

Don’t miss Katha’s initial column on Planned Parenthood’s move past the label “pro-choice.”