Doublespeak and Abortion

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I've been catching up on some really old posts at Language Log, and I noticed one by Bill Poser that I really think misses the boat on a few points. The post is about a general phenomenon of using nicer-sounding words that convey more positive connotations in the place of words that would cast a more negative light. Some of the examples he gives are clear euphemisms that might rightly be called doublespeak. When he comes to the use of language for the abortion issue, however, I think he gets several things wrong. I'll quote the entirety of what he says about abortion rather than summarizing it, because I think in this case the particulars of what he says are important:

It may be true that abortion rights advocates prefer to avoid the term "abortion", but I think there's more to it than that. Describing one's movement as "pro-abortion" suggests that one actually favors abortion, that is, considers that abortions are a fine thing. Few if any advocates of abortion rights take such a position. Their position is, rather, that women should have the right to have an abortion if they consider it the best choice: "pro-choice" really is a more accurate description than "pro-abortion". In the abortion debate if one wants an example of the use of propagandistic use of language, it is the use of the self-designation "pro-life" by opponents of abortion rights. Opponents of abortion rights are not in general advocates of a "pro-life" stance: many of them are quite sympathetic to military activity and favor the death penalty, both of which are considered by many others to be "anti-life" stances. And those who oppose abortion under any circumstances, even when the life of the mother is threatened, are not "pro-life" even in this narrow context. Rather, they take a position that values the life of the foetus over that of the mother. So "anti-abortion" is a much more accurate term than "pro-life".

Poser is right that it's inaccurate to describe the pro-choice movement as pro-abortion. The movement as a whole does not see abortion as a good thing in itself, even if some people in it might (and some in it clearly see it as a profitable thing and thus like it in terms of what it gives them). The pro-choice view in its most common form sees abortion as a bad thing that sometimes is necessary because of other moral issues, and those who seek to restrict it are doing a grace injustice to those who ought to have it available. It's not that abortion itself is good, but the availability of the choice to have an abortion is very good. Thus the view is best called "pro-choice", since what is supported is the choice.

Poser goes on to argue that, analogously, the term "pro-life" is also inaccurate, since it isn't life itself that pro-life people care about. It's abortion that they want ended. Pro-lifers can oppose abortion to save the life of the mother, and those who do so aren't absolutely pro-life. They prefer one life over another, and that life is the life of the fetus. Poser suggests, then, that "anti-abortion" is a better word. I suggest, however, that if we go by the parallel argument he uses for "pro-choice" we ought to say that what he's shown is that "pro-fetus" is a better term for those who oppose abortion even in the case of saving the mother's life. After all, it's the fetus' life that's most important for such people.

The reality, of course, is that the pro-life movement as a whole doesn't have a monolithic agreement on that issue. Some pro-life people think the life of the fetus trumps the life of the mother. Others think the life of the mother is more important. Others think they are equal value, and other issues must decide these hard cases. So his example really just picks out one version of the pro-life position and then defines the movement in terms of that one version. So I don't think that's a very fair argument.

What's worse is that he ignores the real parallel between the terms 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice', a parallel that has long seemed to me to be the real basis for using these terms rather than 'pro-abortion' or 'anti-abortion'. The main issue of dispute between the two camps is whether abortion is morally permissible, and the argument for each side turns out to rely on one crucial question. Is the moral status of the fetus such that its life ought to be protected, even given a women's right to choose what to do with her body? If so, then life trumps choice. If not, then choice trumps life. Thus the two positions rely on the value of life as more important than the value of choice or vice versa. Thus calling one position "pro-choice" and the other "pro-life" is the most accurate way to refer to the main area of disagreement.

Poser seems to object that pro-lifers don't put life as the most important consideration, and he gives a case when life conflicts with life. But you can pull the same trick with choice. Pro-choicers very clearly don't care about what the fetus would choose. So they must not be pro-choice. I wouldn't endorse such an argument against calling the pro-choice position by that name, because we are not talking about every choice. There are lots of choices that pro-choice people don't support, including most notably the choice of other people in a woman's life to dictate whether she can have an abortion. But when we call the view "pro-choice" we are talking about her choice. Similarly, when we call the pro-life view by that name we are not talking about every instance of life, just the life in question. Pro-lifers consider the life of the fetus to be more important than the choice of the mother in terms of determining whether an abortion is morally ok.

As for killing in war and the death penalty, the same point applies. One can be pro-life and support both. Those who support capital punishment and just wars do so because they think justice requires killing in those instances. They even go so far as to say that those who refuse to tolerate such justice are the ones who do not value human life sufficiently. There are different ways of conceiving of how the high offense of taking a life justifies a capital penalty, but there are several, and they generally rely on the high value of human life. One argument is that for such a high crime, no penalty less severe than death can amount to justice being served. Another is that the willingness to commit as great a crime as murder amounts to an implicit endorsement of one's own execution. Both arguments are found in Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential moral thinkers in the history of the world. Those who ignore that and act as if people who support the death penalty are opposed to life just betray their ignorance of what supporters of capital punishment actually believe.

Similar things apply to just killing in war or law enforcement. If protecting someone's life requires killing a murderer or attempted murderer, then a law enforcement officer ought to do so, many argue. If killing in war is required to bring about a certain end, then justice requires it, and the justice that many just wars rely on has to do with protecting people's lives. Saying that allowing such killing is anti-life reflects either an ignorance about how just war theorists think or an unwillingness to think very hard about such matters. It is the principle that life is valuable that leads many people to think protecting it is valuable, even if the lives of those who threaten life might be lost in the process.

Besides, plenty of people consider themselves pro-life who don't think abortion is always wrong. I know of one public figure who thinks that, and that's John Ashcroft. I can't think of any others. Most pro-life politicians add some exception clause about rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother (on which see my discussion here). So the very argument Poser uses against the term 'pro-life' can easily apply against the term he says is more accurate, 'anti-abortion'. It's just a bad argument.

So in the end I don't think any of Poser's examples count against using the term 'pro-life' to describe the position often called that. It may be that many people who adopt that term are opposed to abortion, where the pro-choice view favors the choice to be able to have abortion. That is one way to compare the two views, but I don't think it gets at the heart of the dispute. The most fundamental disagreement about the two views is over which factor is more important in the morality of abortion. Is it the choice of the mother or the life of the fetus? The standard designations most accurately reflect the disagreement, and that's why I use them and expect my students to use them unless they can give me better reasons for a different set of terms.

But one thing seems really clear to me. Calling the pro-life view "anti-choice" is analogous to calling the pro-choice view "anti-life". Thinking life trumps choice does not amount to thinking choice is bad in the same way that thinking choice trumps life does not amount to thinking life is bad. People on both sides make this mistake, but it's bad when some of the major sources of information that portray themselves as neutral (including some major newspapers) do this sort of thing as an official policy. This is a dysphemism, not a euphemism, as the above examples were (or were at least claimed to be). I'm not 100% sure that calling good evil is worse than calling evil good (although I wonder if that is true). But I do think finding a term that makes something look worse than it is will have far worse consequences in the long run than making something look better than it is, because negative misimpressions are much harder to overcome than positive misimpressions. The negative sticks with people more. I think we should therefore be on guard even more seriously for them, then.

2 Comments

Since the political issue usually under discussion concerns whether (& when) abortion should be illegal, perhaps the most accurate labels would be "pro-" and "anti-criminalization."

That's a good point if you're focusing on just the political issue. I do think the moral issues are very important for many people in justifying their legal views, but the issues should be separated, and this is a nice way to do it. I'm still going to insist on 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' for the moral issue, but I can see how talking in terms of criminalization is more accurate for the legal issue.

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