Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Language of the Abortion Debate

Jockeystreet thinks that much of the language of the abortion debate is misleading:

While I don't expect a minor change in the language to bring the entire abortion debate to a sudden, happy resolution, I do think that it's time that all those who really should know better start picking their words a little more responsibly.

As we all know, labels like "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are bulls**t whose only purpose is to demonize and divide.

When someone calls themself "pro-life," the words are designed to say nothing about themself and everything about their opponent. It's a cheap shot, meant to designate the other side, the opposite of pro-life, as "anti-life." It's the kind of word game that allows lunkheads like our current President to refer to someone like me as a member of "the culture of death." Me, a long-time vegan, war-protesting, anti-death penalty, human service worker who volunteers in local Rescue Missions and guiltily signs over checks to every children's fund and food bank that sends a plea for help each month. A member of the "culture of death." Our swaggering, gun-loving, pro-war, pro-death penalty, let-the-poor-fend-for-themselves ignoramus prick of a President an advocate of the "culture of life." Words without meanings.

Astrices added. What do you think?


Richard H said...

When turned into rhetoric, "life" as in "pro-life," "choice" as in "pro-choice", etc., become abstractions. The power of abstractions is that we're enabled to expand our discourse to talk about more stuff (which is why Math is the most abstract). Of course the more abstract you are, the more disconnected with reality - which is troublesomely particular.

The bible tells us "the wages of sin is death." We don't like that. Yet we're immersed in it. Even many of our strongest attempts at life end up causing death - since we're stuck in sin.

So on the subject of abortion, I'd guess there are many who aren't purely proLIFE just as there are many who aren't purely proDEATH.

But it's near my bedtime so this is probably just muddled gibberish

Jeff the Baptist said...

Actually the two terms are fairly appropriate if a bit spun for political reasons.

Pro-life people would probably be better termed anti-abortion. Perhaps not all the time, but most of the time. The spin is that you never define yourself by a negative. It says reactionary. Also in recent years "pro-life" politics have expanded beyond abortion into stem-cell research and physician assisted suicide. That means "anti-abortion" as a descriptor is no longer sufficient.

Pro-choice people are not pro-death or pro-abortion. They aren't running around putting guns to pregnant women's heads making them go to clinics. They're often a mix of anti-government regulation and pro-abortion access.

j2 said...

More words to ban...

pro-life, pro-choice, anti-choice, anti-life, anti-abortion, pro-abortion, pro-war, anti-war, pro-execution, anti-execution, and swaggering.

"Ignoramus prick" is okay but preferrably when used in a self-deprecating manner.

To recap, when discussing the subject of the abortion procedure and a woman's right to utilize it the above banned words, phrases, or labels are not to be used.

I debated the exclusion of the word "bush", too, but the outcry from the pornography industry was immense.

SUZANNE said...

I prefer "fetal rights" advocate. I think "pro-life" can be spun to the advantage and disadvantage of pro-lifers. I think "fetal rights advocates" is the most precise and most advantageous label for pro-lifers on the abortion issue.

Another issue is the fact that while "pro-life" was once reserved exculsively for the anti-abortion crowd, it's now used for all kinds of people who support the "culture of life". But this can be misleading. There can be anti-abortion people who support euthanasia; anti-euthanasia people who support abortion; pro-death penalty people who are against abortion, etc.

I think "fetal rights advocates" is the best term. It just cuts to the chase.

Anonymous said...


Okay. I'll give you "prick" and "anti-war." I mean, just about everybody, outside a handful of profiteers and sociopaths, probably considers themself "anti-war" as a general policy, despite their attitudes about this or that specific war. Which is why I use the clumsy "war-protesting" instead of anti-war. And, yeah, "prick" is just me being mean. One might say it's even me being a prick. It's not useful except as a means to vent a little rage.

"Ignoramus" and "swaggering" have solid definitions though, so I'm not giving them up. I've seen Bush walk around. He swaggers. Make of that what you will. I've heard him talk and I've seen his policies in action. Hence, ignoramus.

I'm with you on banning the word "bush," porn industry be damned. From now on, he will be known as "he whose name cannot be spoken."


"Fetal rights" is interesting. I'll buy it. You can be for fetal rights, I can be for abortion rights, everybody can know what everbody else is talkig about without people being able to bend words to make you look like you get your kicks oppressing women or to make me look like I rejoice in the slaughter of bouncing babies.

Michael said...

I think Jockeystreet is a name-caller but does not care to have labels attached to him. Or did I miss something?

Anonymous said...


I don't know if you missed something.

My frustration with the labels comes as much from the pro-abortion crowd demeaning the anti-abortion crowd as from the other way around. Yes, I get sick of certain people arrogantly (as I perceive it) and erroneously (as I perceive it)using loaded speech and accusing me and people like me of being a part of a culture of death and such, and my reactions to such people are sometimes hostile and dismissive. But probably the most offensive misuse of language on the issue came from a woman whose views in general I support, who, as a guest on an NPR panel discussion, repeatedly referred to her opponents as "anti-choice" and essentially made them out to be woman-hating bigots. Nothing that the women on the other side of the debate said in any way justified that treatment, and that offends me. I know many, many people who are strongly opposed to abortion, and most of them take that stance out of genuine moral conviction, out of beliefs I respect. They hold a view very different than mine for very good reasons, and to hear someone dismiss them out of hand and accuse them of having only the basest, most selfish motivations is something that usually provokes a strong and sometimes vulgar reaction from me.

All of which is to say, perhaps, that I'm a name-caller when it comes to individuals, but not when it comes to painting groups with broad strokes. I have particular feelings about a particular person who I think is a particularly reprehensible guy. But I don't feel so good about dismissing and insulting a full half of the country.

Dana said...

richard h - maybe not many. Check out

which in the introduction lists "reproductive technologies" as one of the topics on the sanctity-of-life issue, but does not touch on it in the FAQ or in any of the articles. I find this interesting, if discouraging.

jockeystreet, if you get a chance, read Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives, a book by William Brennan.

Richard said...

I completely agree with the article.

Anonymous said...

I will try to remember to look for that some time. I read a few reviews online. In your opinion, what makes it worth recommending (the reviews were okay, but brief and therefore mostly full of catch-phrases)?

Oloryn said...

Jockeystreet, you've basically stumbled across the essential Bulverism of modern rhetoric. If you're not familiar with that term, plop 'Bulverism' into Google and hit "I'm feeling Lucky". That will take you to a copy of the article where C. S. Lewis defined the term back in the 1940's. As common as Lewis found the technique (also known as the genetic fallacy) back then, I'm convinced it has become even more pervasive since, with some people raising it to an art form. Anymore, it seems, the goal of debate isn't to prove that the position you're taking is logical and reasonable, it's to prove that your opponent's position arises from some irrational cause (or 'taint', as Lewis puts it) which makes their reasonings dismissable, thus saving you from the much more difficult effort of putting forth a logical and coherent exposition of your own position.

Bulveristic use of labels is a big part of more recent "advances" in the technique, and it's by no means confined to one party or position. The label that tends to stick in my own craw is 'homophobia' and its derivatives. Hey, let's label everyone who disagrees with a homosexual lifestle as (literally) merely arguing from irrational fear, and thus dismissable. It's a one-word Bulverism.

I'd challenge everyone to listen carefully to the rhetoric you hear (and sometimes even just everyday conversaion) and note how often this technique is used. How much effort is expended towards actually arguing the real issues, and how much is extended towards trying to show that an opponent has some 'taint' which makes their arguments merely dismissable? Even more, listen to your own arguments: how often do you find yourself lapsing into Bulverism, dismissing someone who disagrees with you because of their 'obviously tainted reasonings'?

To me, the scariest sentence in the above article is 'Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs.' It often seems our society is busily proving that every day.