Pro-Life/Pro-Choice/Pro-Birth and the Problem of Names

With many states currently debating restrictive abortion legislation and funding for Planned Parenthood coming under increased scrutiny at the Federal level it is worth reiterating some of the basic challenges present in any debate over abortion. Moreover, we must take seriously what happens to life after birth.

Kenneth Burke, the noted literary and rhetorical scholar, reminds us in his work that naming is a critical function in the process of identification. What one calls themselves and terms their other is part of the process of unification and division. For years now when teaching argumentation to students who are emotionally and politically invested in the abortion debate I always begin by asking them to choose the names they use very carefully. This issue, like many others, is difficult to argue about for a number of reasons. One such reasons is that two of the many sides in the abortion debate claim status as a pro movement. Within more structuralist interpretations of argumentation theory a claim can only be properly disputed when there is a claim and counter claim (or at the least a negation of the claim). As such we have a pro advocacy position and a con oppositional position.

Yet, the implied con positions in the abortion debate often spark vitriolic anger when named. For example, when pro-life movements call their opponents anti-life it provides an easy frame for derision and ignores that many pro-choice advocates would prefer to see a world where abortions are safe, legal, and rare. Similarly, when pro-choice advocates call their opponents anti-choice it can cause controversy. In part the label anti-choice has a decidedly “un-American” tone. Also, it ignores many committed pro-life advocates who accept abortion in some limited circumstances.

If we are committed to seriously arguing on the topic of abortion we need to keep the nuances of the many different perspectives on abortion that exist. Also, we need to recognize that there are many ways to reduce abortion rates aside from laws that target the act of abortion itself. While a wave of pro-life legislation rolls across many states, we are missing key questions about who abortion impacts and why.

For example, data suggests that race and class impacts abortion rates:

The proportion of abortion patients who were poor increased by almost 60%—from 27% in 2000 to 42% in 2008, according to “Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients, 2008,” byRachel K. JonesLawrence B. Finer and Susheela Singh of the Guttmacher Institute

Further, “In addition, Black and Latina women were significantly overrepresented, though no one racial group made up the majority (Colorlines).

Last, we ought to recognize that pro-life legislation is more often pro-birth as opposed to pro-life. Opposing abortion on the grounds that every fetus ought to be brought to term is very different from investing in comprehensive sex education to give women the opportunity learn reproductive health early and often, it is very different from defunding Planned Parenthood which provides women many health services, it is very different from ending funding for WIC which helps insure healthy children and mothers, and it is very different from making a social and fiscal commitment to the children that are brought into this world.

Consider Rep. Jim McDermott’s comments below:

Also on The Daily Show Jon Stewart points out that while Mississippi may have the toughest abortion laws in the nation, it ranks 50th in mortality rates.

This suggests that the abortion controversy is content to suggest that concern for the quality, health, and existence of human life ought to stop at birth. Evidence of this is anti-abortion legislation coming at the same time that services that assist life in the world are placed on the copping block.

My aim here is not to take up the pro-life/pro-choice debate, but instead to suggest that any concern with life (as a key evocative term) must not forget that our obligations do not end at birth. A former advisor of mine is a fierce advocate of CHIP/SCHIP programs because in a society where we have determined that children bear less responsibility for their actions and are not fully considered citizens, then the obligation of the state to protect them from harm is increased.

What does a national conversation about the quality of life at birth and there after look like?


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