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Terminology… January 18, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Social Policy, Uncategorized.

I’m interested in what people think about this, a piece by Kate Roiphe on Slate where she discusses the impending change by Planned Parenthood in the US from the term pro-choice to some, as far as I can make out, yet to be determined term. She suggests pro-freedom.


1. hardcore for nerds - January 18, 2013

‘Pro-freedom’ is worse than ‘pro-life’ in that it’s completely meaningless, and pro-lifers will obviously point to the ‘freedom’ of an unborn child from death.

None of the arguments made against ‘choice’ as a term in the RH article make much sense to me, or they define choice too narrowly. ‘Choice’ is an economic term? What about democratic choice? Choice should be a plural term? It already is, by definition. There should be positive supports? Of course, that’s integral to the idea of meaningful choice. Women of colour needed to emphasis control over their reproduction? Well, again isn’t that what choice is – to have a child or not?

The last one, “Pro-choice is a political label and has nothing to do with the real stories and lives of women who have abortions” is the most bizarre but I guess the only one with a real grain of truth. If women want to use another phrase to describe the issue of reproductive decision-making, no-one should stop them. But it will inevitably become a ‘political label’ as long as there is political argument over the subject.

American politics seems so suffused with sublimated racial and class issues that a lot of radical rhetoric comes off as awkwardly self-conscious: hence, choice is a ‘bourgeois’ term (in the Slate article)… which doesn’t sound like a phrase you’d hear in Ireland to the right of the smaller socialist groupings. I don’t doubt that wealth allows women to exercise choice more effectively, but the unequal distribution is the problem there and not the principle of choice.

The fact that abortion is legal in the US means that they’re essentially operating in a ‘post-choice’ landscape, albeit one with a lot of opposition from pro-lifers. I read a take from an American blogger recently – before the Savita controversy broke here – that the ‘pro-choice’ side is bogged down in fighting incremental restrictions on abortion, justifying things like abortions for rape, and what they really need to do is emphasise the ‘free, legal and safe’ ideal and show that there is no mandate for reversing Roe v. Wade, so it’s not going to go away.

This seems like a more timid approach that is perhaps uncomfortably close to triangulation – ‘choice’ doesn’t have enough popular appeal, so we’ll recast it in a form adapted to as many as possible.
Whereas in Ireland we are, and will remain in the foreseeable future, in a ‘pre-choice’ society where the principle of the woman having any significant decision-making power over her womb is still politically anathema. ‘Choice’ definitely seems like the rallying cry of contemporary activists here, I don’t see if any other term would be more effective.


Wendy Lyon - January 19, 2013

‘Choice’ definitely seems like the rallying cry of contemporary activists here, I don’t see if any other term would be more effective.

Well I think it’s more that Irish activism on the issue is in some respects following a path already carved out. When Choice Ireland began some of us did have concerns about the potentially “bourgeois” connotations of the word, but we weren’t starting from scratch in a context where abortion rights campaigning was totally unheard of. The meaning of “choice” was already widely understood so it just seemed more sensible and logical to take it on ourselves. I’m sure the Alliance for Choice before us reasoned it the same way.

It can obviously be a useful term in reaching people who are uncomfortable with abortion as a thing. Anti-abortion strategists in the US would concede that it was a great success to frame the debate as being one over who gets to decide about access to abortion, rather than a debate over abortion itself. I’m not sure that isn’t still a useful rhetorical device, although perhaps the word “choice” itself has taken on too much baggage at this point. If people who are “personally opposed” to abortion but think it should be a woman’s decision are now reluctant to use the pro-choice label, then the whole reason for adopting the word in the first place no longer exists.

I’m not sure to what degree (if any) this informed PP’s decision, but there certainly is an issue of the status quo providing “choice” only to certain classes of women – much as it does here. In fact access to abortion is probably easier for an Irish women who is not economically/legally prevented from travelling to England than it is for poor women in many parts of the US. And that’s without even getting into the way that US laws and policies have limited poor women/WOC’s other reproductive choices, eg through forced sterilisation, punitive social welfare schemes, no right to health care or maternity leave etc. The US pro-choice movement has historically failed to integrate these issues into its campaigning and that does make the word “choice” look like a rather empty rhetorical device.

Finally I think it’s interesting to contrast this debate with the one taking place right now over prostitution laws. Many of those who argue that women must have the right to choose abortion on economic grounds are the same people arguing that women cannot really choose to engage in sex work on economic grounds (see for example the IFN’s contribution to the Oireachtas Justice committee this week). I fully expect to see this argument picked up by the anti-abortion movement in the near future, where it will be claimed that abortion should be illegal to prevent women being “coerced” into it by their financial circumstances. In the US they’re hinting at this already.


hardcore for nerds - January 19, 2013

That’s a good point about following an existing path, although I don’t see any evidence that choice is regarded as a particularly limited term in Ireland (apart from the increasingly stated view that pro-choice is an ‘extreme’ position that the majority in the middle don’t or wouldn’t share, which is a whole ‘nother issue). It’s only in the US context where they have choice as a basic legal right, albeit hedged and restricted in myriad ways at the local/state level, that they seem to be worried about it losing its resonance.

I agree with those criticisms of the pro-choice movement and the blindspots/emptiness of rhetoric, but surely the argument is for more/better choice and not some other principle altogether? Especially not a slogan as abstract and theoretical as ‘pro-freedom’, which seems even more likely to be seen as tied into white/bourgeois/economically liberal interests.

The prostitution comparison is interesting – I haven’t followed the issue in great depth, apart from some things I’ve read on your blog. The attitude towards sex work fits entirely with the prevalent attitude towards women’s effective choice in abortion, in that they shouldn’t have any (except what they exercise by avoiding the state’s jurisdiction). On the other hand the left has to grapple with notions of how personal choice/freedom interacts with economic pressures in prostitution, which I suppose could be useful when it comes to tackling the validity of ‘choice’ in abortion as well.


Wendy Lyon - January 19, 2013

Oh, I certainly wasn’t trying to defend the “pro-freedom” suggestion, I agree that it doesn’t get around the issues that make “pro-choice” problematic (for some). And the concept of “freedom” in American political discourse is already problematic in so many ways, I’d be reluctant to expand it at all! Can’t really see it working as a slogan outside the US anyway.

As for “choice” in the Irish context, I think it’s something we need to start talking about now so we can avoid the mistakes that were made in the US. I don’t mean necessarily that we drop the term, just more that we make it clear that our aims go beyond the right to choose abortion. In fairness that’s been said and agreed at pretty much every significant pro-choice gathering I’ve ever attended here, but it’s not good enough just to be discussing it amongst ourselves.


WorldbyStorm - January 19, 2013



hardcore for nerds - January 19, 2013

although “Abortion Rights” seems to be the new contended here now: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2013/0119/breaking24.html


2. PaulD - January 18, 2013

Further evidence, as if we need it, that Americans lead the way in taking euphemism to the point of absurdity and meaninglessness.


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