Truth in advertising is a legal requirement in the United States. But truth in advocacy often gets a pass. The polemics surrounding the abortion issue makes that manifest.

Abortion is in the news again, thanks to the live coverage of the Supreme Court oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson, a case testing the constitutionality of a Mississippi statute banning most abortions after 15 weeks.

Few issues arouse as much passion as abortion. It’s not hard to see why. Depending on one’s perspective, abortion is about a woman’s right to control her own body, free of governmental interference. Or it is about an unborn child’s right to survive and to avoid physical extermination. As the late constitutional law professor John Hart Ely noted in his often-cited 1973 Yale Law Journal article on Roe v. Wade, “the moral dilemma abortion poses is so difficult as to be heartbreaking.”

This essay does not attempt to evaluate the merits of either side of that moral dilemma. Rather, it examines how each side uses language to legitimize its positions and denigrate those of its opponent. Some might excuse such textual manipulation as zealous advocacy. But it borders on dishonesty, and makes this inherently contentious issue even more inflammatory.

Consider how each side describes itself. One claims to be “Pro Choice,” the other “Pro Life.”   Both titles are misleading over-simplifications.

“Pro Choice” evokes immediate sympathy because the opposite of choice is compulsion, and who wants that? But the label leaves unasked the question: Whose choice?

Every pregnancy involves three parties: the pregnant woman, the man who impregnated her, and the product of that pregnancy. Obviously, the woman’s right to choose is involved. Indeed, every aspect of her life, including her medical, emotional, and financial prospects, are all affected.

But the man is also affected. If the mother chooses to bring the fetus to term, the father is legally responsible thereafter for the financial support of the child. On the other hand, if the mother chooses to abort the fetus, the father has no right to stop her.

Some observers, including a few feminists, have noted and criticized this disparity.  Karen DeCrow, a former President of the National Organization for Women, wrote: “If a woman makes a unilateral decision to bring pregnancy to term, and the biological father does not, and cannot, share in this decision, he should not be liable for 21 years of support … autonomous women making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice.” But hers is a minority position. For most men, abortion provides little or no choice.

And of course, the fetus has no choice whatsoever. Some might respond that this is only common sense. The fetus is not a cognizant, communicative being, as we typically consider such beings to be.

Yet the same can be said of many living beings whose right to choose is recognized by courts, even if they are incapable of formulating and expressing that choice. The case of Terri Schiavo involved a young woman in an irreversible persistent vegetative state. She was no more capable of communicating than a fetus would be. For seven years, her husband and her parents litigated removing her from life support. The sole dispositive issue for the courts was what choice Ms. Schiavo would make, were she able to formulate and express it.   

No such effort is made in the case of a fetus — perhaps because, in most cases, the answer would be obvious.

In short, the “Pro Choice” label is misleading. It is pro choice for some but not for others.

But the “Pro Life” label is also open to challenge. As with the “Pro Choice” label, it is superficially appealing. If the opposite of choice is compulsion, the opposite of life is death. Who would favor that?

But again as with the “Pro Choice” label, the “Pro Life” label is intentionally selective.

Americans are deeply divided on the issue of abortion, but they are much less divided on allowing exceptions for rape and incest. About 80% favor such exceptions, even in red states like Texas and Alabama. But if, as “Pro Life” advocates supposedly believe, abortion is murder, than it is murder whether or not the fetus is the result of rape or incest. After all, the fetus did not commit the rape or incest. Aborting such a fetus is no less murderous than aborting a fetus resulting from voluntary intercourse.

So if one is really “Pro Life,” one should logically oppose any exceptions, even for rape or incest. Yet few on the “Pro Life” side are willing to carry their position to that logical extreme.

And if all life is sacred, why stop at fetuses? Spermatozoa are living things. Masturbation leads to the destruction of millions of male sex cells, with no possibility of fertilization. If the movement is truly “Pro Life,” why doesn’t it condemn the intentional termination of these living creatures?

And what about criminals sentenced to death? Although the Catholic Church condemns both abortion and capital punishment, most “Pro Life” advocates display no such consistency. They consider the life of a fetus to be sacred, but they believe a criminal convicted of a capital offense has forfeited his right to life.

The misuse of language extends beyond the titles of the movements.

“Pro Choice” advocates consistently refer to their goal as safeguarding women’s “reproductive rights.” But this isn’t China. No one is arguing for a “one child” policy. The “Pro Choice” advocates know full well that the “Pro Life” movement has no quarrel with a woman’s right to reproduce. On the contrary, most “Pro Life” advocates would insist that a woman exercise those rights fully; and they would ban any interference with them. A more honest description of the “Pro Choice” movement’s agenda would be “non-reproductive rights.”

For their part, “Pro Life” advocates typically misdescribe their opponents as being “pro-abortion.” Although there have been some recent attempts to “celebrate” or “shout” one’s abortion experience, the “Pro Choice” movement, for the most part, does not encourage abortion. Rather, they see abortion as a last resort, a somber but sometimes sadly necessary alternative. Their objective is not to promote abortion but rather, in the words of Bill Clinton, to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.”

The tendency to bandy misleading terms and slogans in the abortion debate is unfortunate. But there was at least one linguistic silver lining in the Supreme Court oral argument. In the one hour and 53 minutes of high level debate, not once did an advocate or justice refer to “birthing persons.” Instead, all participants referred to “women.”

Sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, truthful and plain-spoken English prevails.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Law


  1. Jonathan

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and articulate comments.

    The key messaging problem is that the Supreme Court probably isn’t really considering choice vs life – in fact, I very much hope that it gets out of that decision-making process. I hope that the Court is considering whether judgements about abortion are made by courts peering into the Constitution’s “penumbral rights of privacy and repose,” or in the political processes of the fifty states. But that is not how the matter is framed in the popular press. I expect that many state legislatures that have enacted restrictions on abortion will quickly ease those rules as soon as the Court gives them teeth – lest many legislators find themselves suddenly in need of gainful employment.

    Also, an incidental point – spermatozoa and ova are gametes and don’t pass the usual definition of “living things.” They cannot ingest, respire, grow, excrete, or multiply. They’re close to living things and essential for life, but not living things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s