If The Right Is Going To Criminalize Abortion, We Should Damn Well Use The Word
Photo: Debra Sweet, 2011. Creative Commons License 2.0

You may have noticed that in the last few days, Yr Wonkette has made a bit of a stink about the term "choice" as a euphemism for "abortion." We've praised Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams both for talking about the right to abortion, and Yr Editrix, in Thursday morning's Tabs, said it's high time we "stop with the focus-grouped, mealymouthed 'right to choose.' (Choose what, choose Jif?)"

A number of folks took issue with that in the comments we don't allow, while others also were none too happy with New York magazine's Rebecca Traister for taking Democratic leaders to task for their seeming unwillingness to say "abortion." (To be sure, a number of comments focused more on how it might be bad strategy to criticize Dem leaders in an election year, also too.)

So we figured this might be a job for a Doktor of Rhetoric. Words matter, language matters, and Crom knows that ever since Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich teamed up in 1994 to talk about the "death tax" and to make "liberal" the dirtiest word in politics, Republicans have made a dark art of finding terms that will set off electric storms in the amygdalae of rightwing voters, inflaming their emotions with language that will move the base to support policies that help the party's big donors.

A quarter century later, it's starting to feel like framing abortion rights as the "right to choose" is perhaps tainted by the same defensive reflex that led Bill Clinton to proclaim that the "era of big government is over," as he caved to the Right on "welfare reform," ushering in a regime of harsh new barriers to helping people who needed help. Speaking of a "right to choose" almost feels like a concession to the Luntzians: Instead of whole-heartedly saying abortion is essential to freedom and bodily autonomy, "choice" seems to euphemize, as if accepting the Right's insistence that abortion is shameful, a moral failing, the choice of people who should have kept their legs shut and not gotten in trouble.

This isn't to say that "choice" or "pro choice" is a bad term in itself; it's a convenient shorthand that will likely stay around for some time. But it's also good to see the shift toward people talking about abortion without hesitation or guilt, too.

As Heather Young, who had an abortion when she was 17, told CNN for a story that ran just the day before the draft decision leaked,

We need to quit tip-toeing around the word abortion. People need to know that people have abortions for all reasons, not just life or death situations. I was 17, scared. I would probably not be here today if it wasn’t for my mother and doctors who helped me.

Saying "the right to abortion" instead of "to choose" has a similar feel to the 2015 #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign, which encouraged people to talk openly about why they'd had abortions and how it made a difference in their lives. Popularized by feminists Amelia Bonow and Lindy West after yet another GOP effort to defund Planned Parenthood, the campaign inspired thousands to talk about abortion openly, with the goal of destigmatizing and normalizing it. That led in turn to Bonow and West forming the Shout Your Abortion nonprofit, which offers a very direct message: "We are out here. We are having abortions, and we are talking about them, at whatever volume we choose. It’s time for us to take back our own stories."

I absolutely get why "pro-choice" emerged as the alternative to the demonstrably empty term "pro-life," and particularly as an alternative to "pro-abortion." Heck, who wants to say they're in favor of abortion? So we got "I'm not pro-abortion; I'm in favor of protecting the right of women to have an abortion." But there's also a sense that it concedes rhetorical ground to abortion opponents, when if anything, those who want to take away the right to abortion are the ones who've been hiding behind a euphemism from the get-go.

When my very Catholic mother bundled me up and took me to a candlelight anti-abortion vigil when I was maybe 11 or 12, I know that I was sickened at the idea that people were killing babies. It's very easy to have absolute moral clarity when you're a child. But the Evangelical-driven political movement to do away with abortion rights has always been more about rightwing power than about "life" — after all, until the Religious Right seized on abortion as a wedge issue in the late 1970s, most Evangelicals, and most Republicans, supported Roe. Getting conservative Protestants to join Catholics in opposing abortion was a marriage of convenience that would be helpful in pursuing more immediate rightwing goals like preserving tax breaks for segregationist schools, and for that matter, building support for the segregationist church-run schools that sprang up in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Yoking Evangelicals to the anti-abortion cause succeeded far beyond the dreams of the rightwing activists who started it, and ending abortion supplanted segregation as the Right's driving force, although the racism remained a cherished part of the culture war agenda, too. Were some people truly committed to "pro-life" ideology and the cult of the fetus? Certainly. The Right really does want to stop every last abortion if it can.

But misogyny and hatred of women's independence were constant handmaids, as it were, and that too was reflected in the language surrounding the issue, which sought to turn fetuses into humans with full rights, while dismissing people with wombs as vessels for the "pre-born child" at best, and to demonize them as murderers, or callous airheads who might terminate a pregnancy to fit into a cute dress, Doctors, of course, became villains who performed "partial birth abortions" or might even "rip a baby from the womb" at any moment prior to birth, as if anyone would carry a pregnancy nearly to term and then decide to have an abortion on a whim, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars because abortions late in pregnancy are performed only by a few specialists.

If the term "pro-life" felt like a smokescreen for most of the last 40 years, it was truly given the lie by the COVID epidemic, as Republicans made absolutely clear that they had little interest in preventing the virus from spreading, and indeed tried to suggest that Grandma Millie should be happy to die of COVID if it helped the country's GDP. Not that pointing out the hypocrisy mattered, because the Evangelicals knew it was a linguistic pretense all along.

I also can't help but think that the GOP death cult's decision to snottily coopt the language of abortion rights — "bodily autonomy" and "My body, my choice" — for the sake of not wearing masks or not getting vaccinated may also have helped sour a lot of us on the language of "choice." If the same phrase can apply to the right to have an abortion and to ignoring public health, then why not just come right out and say "abortion" so there's no confusion?

The draft opinion overturning Roe (and Planned Parenthood v. Casey) makes clear that the Right isn't about to bother pretending it's restrained by precedent or law. The Trump administration and its "alternative facts" made clear that the very nature of reality is just, like, your opinion, man, so why not be absolutely clear that the right to abortion is what's at stake here, not an abstraction like "choice."

[New York / CNN / Vice / Vogue / NYT / Photo: Debra Sweet, 2011. Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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