Reflections on the Term "Pro-Choice"

Many pro-life people are instantly annoyed when they hear the term “pro-choice” used to describe those on the other side of this debate. So why do I use this term? Here are a few thoughts.

First of all, after having talked at length with hundreds of pro-abortion-choice people, I think that the majority of them would be mischaracterized by being called “pro-abortion.”

The term “pro-abortion” implies, whether intentional or not, that the person is in favor of the issue in question. Most pro-abortion-choice people I’ve talked to don’t like abortion, but they feel it’s a necessary evil. They are “pro-the choice to have a legal abortion,” so I think the term pro-abortion-choice is a very fair term. They do too. (For this same reason, I think the term “pro-war” is too vague to accurately describe the view of those that agree with “just war” theory. It’s too simplistic and should be avoided if attempting to choose words carefully. No one really thinks war is a wonderful thing.)

A fair point could probably be made that some abortionists and lobbyists are actually pro-abortion, but I usually refer to them as “abortion advocates,” so as not to accidently mis-characterize their views unfairly. Usually, on Life Report, we’re talking about people at the grassroots level that hold to a pro-abortion-choice view, not the professionals advocating for abortion rights. It’s those people on the grassroots level I’m most interested in engaging on this issue.
Secondly, there’s an issue with both of the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life:” they’re too vague.

Steve Wagner makes an excellent point in the introduction of his book, “Common Ground Without Compromise:”
“The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ fail to accurately capture the differing positions of people who are for or against abortion. Everyone believes in promoting choices, and everyone believes in promoting life. The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ are too vague to be accurate. As I wrote the book, however, I found that attempting to use more accurate titles complicated things unnecessarily. In the end, I settled for the classic terms many people on both sides prefer to call themselves: ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life.’

In this book, then, a ‘pro-choice advocate’ is someone who believes that, generally, abortion should be legal in many cases. A ‘pro-life advocate’ is someone who believes that, generally, abortion should be illegal in most cases.

I realize that very few people characterize their positions exactly this way. Real people don’t fit easily into categories and stereotypes. Each person has a unique set of beliefs and a unique way of discussing them. In order to keep this dialogue tool readable, however, I placed people into these two categories. My descriptions of the two categories are general enough that most people fit into one or the other. Read with his in mind, knowing that everyone is going to cash out their pro-life and pro-choice beliefs a little differently. That’s the value of listening and attempting to build common ground. You never know how you might find it, or with whom.”

I knew when I started this podcast that I would annoy some pro-lifers by referring to abortion advocates as “pro-choice.” Similarly, I knew that I would offend some abortion advocates by referring to our side as “pro-life,” which implies that abortion advocates are not pro-life for those human beings they believe are full persons. I actually spent some time talking about this in episode 1 for that reason.

Obviously the term “pro-choice” greatly oversimplifies the reality of the views of abortion advocates. A point I make when opening in a formal debate setting is something I borrowed from Scott Klusendorf:

“Let me be clear: The issue that divides us is not that [my opponent] is pro-choice and I am anti-choice. Truth is, I am vigorously “pro-choice” when it comes to women choosing a number of moral goods. I support a woman’s right to choose her own health care provider, to choose her own school, to choose her own husband, to choose her own job, to choose her own religion, and to choose her own career, to name a few. These are among the many choices that I fully support for the women of our country. But some choices are wrong, like killing innocent human beings simply because they are in the way and cannot defend themselves. No, we shouldn’t be allowed to choose that.”

I had three choices when starting the podcast as to how to refer to those that support abortion rights:

  1. I could refer to them as “pro-abortion,” which even I feel over-simplifies their position in a needlessly negative way.
  2. I could use my favorite terms, “pro-abortion-choice” and “pro-life-rights,” but as you can imagine, that’s very cumbersome to say over and over when hosting an informal show.
  3. I could sometimes refer to the other side sometimes as “pro-choice,” making clear every once in a while that those terms are too vague, meanwhile hoping that abortion advocates will be open to listening to what I have to say when it comes to the real issue, as opposed to just arguing about the terms and never getting anywhere.

I went with #3, and here are my results: I actually know abortion advocates that listen to the show!

Take for example a young lady who made the “pro-life lies” video that we’ve been commenting on for some time now. She enjoys the show, and she and I have had wonderful interactions in private emails since we started that series. She is listening to the content of what we have to say and agreed with many of the points we’ve made in the series.

Another example is Matt, a pro-abortion-choice listener in Maryland who  took our podcast survey last year. Matt had listened to 12 episodes, and said this:

“I’m actually pro-choice, but I think you guys are the most intelligent and affable pro-lifers on the air.”

Mary is pro-abortion-choice and has listened to about two-thirds of our episodes, and started an email to me with this:

“Although I’m pro-choice, I’m a frequent listener of your show, and have listened to about two thirds of your show’s archives.  On a personal note, compared to most pro-lifers I see in the media, I find you and your radio show to be far more knowledgeable (not to mention cordial).”

One of our first YouTube commenters named John said this:

“I’m pro-choice, but the way that this clip portrays your show I think you’re doing a very good job. No bashing going on, I think a civil discussion is great. And you can actually be entertaining.”

So while we can all agree that “pro-choice” is an overly-simplified term, I’m unconvinced that using it specifically on this podcast is hurting the pro-life-rights cause. I’m not making people that are already pro-life-rights less passionate about their beliefs, but I DO have pro-abortion-choice people listening to our show. They’re not just listening because it’s entertaining and honest, but because we at Life Report assume the best about people on both sides of the debate, and want to move the dialogue further than an argument over the terms.