When Our Labels Fail: The End of 'Pro-Choice'
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.
It's important to understand that some categories are not manmade; they are part of the created order, and their existence is affirmed in the Bible: night/day, light/darkness, good/evil, heaven/earth, and male/female, for example.
But most of the binary categories we operate by in modern society are cultural constructs, not God-ordained. They are often helpful means for creating order out of chaos and for understanding reality within our finite human understanding.
We should recognize that categories that are not from God are limited. Even if useful and good for a time, that usefulness and goodness may be passing. We must be careful not to so distort the reach of any God-ordained category to the point of heresy or idolatry.
Let's consider some other terms that falsely force issues into two polar sides that are inadequate for the complexities of the issues.
· Liberal/Conservative: What do these terms even mean anymore? One could be conservative fiscally, but liberal on social issues (or vice versa); another might be fiscally and socially conservative but culturally liberal (as I am); or someone might be in the middle in all these areas.
· Republican/Democrat: Last year more people identified as "independent" in a Gallup poll than with either of the two major parties. As for me, I know how I tend to vote when choosing the least among many evils, but as far as identifying with either party, most days I'd rather call myself a cat within a pack of hungry dogs than a Republican or a Democrat.
· Black/White: The Bible says God created us as male and female, not black and white (or any color in between). I'm not advocating for any pretentions of colorblindness or ignoring cultural and racial history and heritage, but let's remember that racial categories are the result of humanity's fall, not God's creation.
· Mainstream/Countercultural: A Christian organization where I worked once prohibited "countercultural" hairstyles. This confused me because I thought Christians were supposed to be "countercultural." And now that "countercultural" is mainstream, it's really confusing.
· Heterosexual/Homosexual: This topic is a minefield, I know. But suffice it to say here that while certain behavior might be categorized as same-sex or opposite-sex, the movement that began in the nineteenth century to classify people according to these two identities has, arguably, been more destructive than not.
· Masculine/Feminine: Sure, there are a few fixed features within these categories that are rooted in nature, but nowhere near as many as some seem to think. And let's not even discuss trying to apply these terms to Christianity.
· Egalitarian/Complementarian: This may ruffle some feathers, but the fact is that only a tiny slice of the historic, catholic church that has existed for two millennia and around the globe has heard of these two categories; even fewer care. (One of these categories wasn't even labeled until the late 1980's, according to one of its originators.) The contemporary church can definitely benefit by taking the longer view on this and so many other issues.
While there's room for ample disagreement around the examples given above, I stand by the underlying principle: Christians should be the first to distinguish between eternal categories ordained by God and those rendered by human design.
Within the category of manmade categories, we should distinguish those that are useful and good from those that are false or destructive—like "pro-choice."