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When Our Labels Fail: The End of 'Pro-Choice'

When Our Labels Fail: The End of 'Pro-Choice'


Jan 22 2013
Our impulse to divide and categorize has its limits.

I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Um, perhaps I should explain. I stand with Planned Parenthood's decision to ditch the term "pro-choice." According to a low-key announcement, their research showed reluctance among many to use either the "pro-choice" or the "pro-life" label.

"I'm neither pro-choice nor pro-life," one participant said. "I'm pro-whatever-the-situation is." Another argued for three categories: "pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle … It's not just back or white, there's grey." Even some who actually want to keep abortion legal call themselves "pro-life," making both terms problematic if they're not being used according to their generally understood meanings within the current political debate.

Both sides have long charged that the label used by the other is misleading. In the decades surrounding the U. S. legalization of abortion in 1973, news coverage routinely used the terms "anti-abortion" and "pro-abortion." As a longtime abortion opponent, I've never had a problem being called "anti-abortion" rather than "pro-life." As a longtime word lover, I find the most specific and accurate term to be preferable. There are lots of other contexts in which "life" is at stake and some might value something else more (justice, safety, self-preservation, science, or economics, for example).

Likewise, as Planned Parenthood has at last conceded, the term "pro-choice" is practically meaningless. While some abortion rights supporters decry the attempt to abort the phrase, some people-formerly-known-as-pro-choice acknowledge the inadequacy of a term they themselves describe as "bourgeois," "limiting" and "confusing," "frivolous," and even "flippant." So if the day has come (although I have my doubts that it truly has) when both sides will ditch its tendentious terms, then I say, "Hallelujah."

The impulse to place everything under the sun into one of two polar categories is largely a modern phenomenon, a product of Enlightenment thinking and its elevation of the scientific method. Don't get me wrong. I'm thankful for most that science has wrought. After all, if it weren't for manmade binary categories, we wouldn't have computers or computer language, and I wouldn't be posting this essay on the Internet.

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When Our Labels Fail: The End of 'Pro-Choice'