[For pro-choice month on Feminist Fire]

Discussions of abortion are often damaged by misleading terminology, slurs, glosses, appropriation and general bad language. This is unhelpful. I want to look at some of the ways in which the words we use when we talk about abortion and abortion rights are colouring or even driving the debate.


Pro-life – this has been collared by those opposing the right to abortion, and is designed to present this opposition in a positive light, suggesting by contrast that those supporting the right to abortion are “anti-life” or even “pro-death”.

Pro-choice – this one has been taken by those supporting the right to abortion to emphasise that they seek choice for women, so that they are also presenting their position a positive one – and suggesting by contrast that those opposing the right to abortion are “anti-choice*” or “pro-compulsion”.

(* Anti-choice is a term actually used by those identifying as pro-choice when they wish to express condemnation of that position or frustration at the appropriation of pro-life by a group of people whose views are not always consistent with preserving either life or quality of life – support for the death penalty or war, or opposition even to abortions that will save the mother’s life seem common in the “pro-life” camp.)

Pro-abortion is a controversial one – some embrace it while others may distance themselves from this term as they may consider it an inaccurate description of their position. They only support the right to abortion, usually as part of a wider philosophy that includes support for comprehensive sex education, for access to contraception, for improving sexual health and sexual choices, and for stopping rape. They want to give women the real power over their bodies that is needed to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

How a person feels about abortion may also colour how they name what is happening and who/what it is happening to. Someone who opposes the right to abortion will often speak of a baby, child, person, human being who is being killed, destroyed or even murdered. Someone who supports the right to abortion will often speak instead of a foetus, embryo, clump of cells that is being removed or a pregnancy that is being terminated. The first list of words is designed to cast abortion as the killing of a real human being; the second is designed to cast it as a medical procedure carried out on a woman’s body, leaving the child entirely out of account.

Finally, I want to mention the way we describe what some women do when they do not have the right to abortion. Expressions like backstreet abortion and unsafe abortion emphasise the dangers for women if they do not have access to safe and legal abortions. Expressions like illegal abortion tend to emphasise instead the criminality that is involved.


Words matter.

And the trouble with these words is that are not just ways of expressing how we feel about abortion. They are also ways of expressing how we feel about people who disagree with us – and when those words are both inaccurate and disparaging, they make it hard to have a sensible dialogue about the subject. If someone describes me as a pro-death babykiller, I am probably going to listen to that person about as much as he or she would listen to me if I retorted that s/he was a pro-compulsion psycho with a brain the size of a pea.

When I listen to those who oppose the right to abortion, I usually have one of two reactions.

The more common reaction is – you nutter, just shut up, OK? This is usually the one that comes out when people start drawing upon religious dictates or romanticising the foetus and its potential, glossing over the very real seriousness for women of an unwanted and possibly even a dangerous pregnancy.

The other reaction, which I find more interesting is – well, I can see your point. I can see that you genuinely do care about the woman as well as the life within her. Maybe I even need to think a little more deeply about what you are saying, because actually you are making sense to me now. A bit.