Activism

As Abortion Rights Shrink, What's the Best Language to Use to Protect Women's Options?

As leaders like Planned Parenthood are dropping "pro-choice" language, is there a smart alternative—and should there be one?

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Across America, reproductive freedom is shrinking. Even with Alabama’s recent court victory protecting abortion rights in that deep red state, the overwhelming trend is very discouraging.

Red-state Republicans have shut down clinics in states like Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld protesters’ right to harass women going to clinics. State legislatures have enacted 21 new abortion restrictions so far this year. Worse yet, recent research has found that while many young women support the substance of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right to end pregnancies, they are still apt to label themselves pro-life.

What’s going wrong? There’s no one answer. But a striking development is that the reproductive health movement is backing away from its longtime "pro-choice" label. Planned Parenthood has recently decided to drop it in favor of newer messaging that seeks to connect abortion with a wide range of women’s issues. 

“The ‘pro-choice’ language doesn’t really resonate particularly with a lot of young women voters,” Planned Parenthood president Cecille Richards told the New York Times. “We’re really trying to focus on, what are the real things you’re going to lose? Sometimes that’s rights. Sometimes that’s economic or access to health care for you or for your kids.”

The “pro-choice” label has always been controversial, even within the movement. Women of color have long said it is biased, as not all women have the wherewithal to make this choice. Political messaging experts like linguist George Lakoff say it’s too heavily tilted toward marketing and not morality. With opponents of reproductive rights cheering Planned Parenthood’s move, the unanswered question is what label or crisp messaging will replace pro-choice?    

Carol Tobias, the National Right to Life Committee president, said this conundrum was a big victory for her side. She told the Times, “I find it very encouraging that they find that after 40 years they have to do something different because they know it’s not working.”

Pro-choice advocates agreed, saying dropping the label was a victory for the Right as they wondered what would take its place. Slate’s Amanda Marcotte wrote:

“I'm afraid that the desire to go label-free is doomed to fail. I'm not going to start writing pieces where I describe pro-choice organizations as pro-whatever-the-situation-is organizations or help-people-understand-the-circumstances organizations. Labels are simply part of language, and shorthand rhetoric is part of the political debate. As long as abortion is a contested issue, there's no opting out of that.

“The only real choice you have is to label yourself or let others do it for you, and of those two options, smart folks will pick the former every time. Pro-choice has its drawbacks, but at least it's accurate.”

A Label From Another Time?

In 1973, after the Supreme Court legalized the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood adopted “pro-choice” as its organization’s message. It moved away from the “pro-abortion” label, which they thought was too negative and would alienate the women who wouldn’t choose to have the procedure themselves. 

Not everybody working for reproductive rights applauded that move. Women of color and indigenous women have long disliked the term “pro-choice,” because they believe that it only resonates with women who have the privilege of choice—the time, transportation and money.

Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, wrote an open letter to Richards after the Timespiece, expressing disappointment that the article did not acknowledge their two decades of work challenging the term.

For its part, Planned Parenthood had been struggling with the label for years. Last year, it produced a video to announce and explain their decision to drop it. They stated that a majority of Americans were in favor of safe and legal abortions. But polls and focus groups conducted post-2010 midterm elections found that many young women who say they are in favor of Roe v. Wadethen go on to label themselves as “pro-life.” That apparent contradiction is the result of women labeling themselves based on what they believe their personal decisions would be.

The reaction among young people sparked Planned Parenthood to start talking about “women’s health” or “economic security” to explain the stakes. But that’s not a shorthand discussion, as Dawn Laguens, vice-president of the political advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood told the Times.“You just have to take more words.”

Political messaging experts have had other problems with the term for 20 years. Linguist George Lakoff said his community has long been saying the discussion should be about morality.

The problem is the word “choice,” he said, citing linguist Deborah Tannen. “She correctly observed that ‘life’ is a moral issue and that ‘choice’ is a shopping issue. Morality beats shopping.”

Lakoff said the reproductive rights movement needs to address abortion with a moral lens:

“It has to do with freedom, which is a moral issue. And it has to do with the freedom to control your own body. And nobody wants not to be able to control their own bodies—men, women or anybody. [It’s] freedom to control your own destiny. So to control your own body and your own future — those are essential to what it means to be a free human being. And democracy is supposed to be about that.”

Lakoff added that contraception, which also faces new attacks following the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling, also needs a new framework to convey more than merely preventing pregnancy. Simpson agreed. For her, boiling down the desire for reproductive freedom to the word “choice” doesn’t embody or communicate all of the ways abortion intersects with other issues women of color face. Instead, it eclipses the lack of access some women face.

“Women of color and Indigenous women have not had the privilege of always having a choice,” she said. “So when we talk about a pro-choice label, that really already alienates the a lot of marginalized communities from the conversation.”

The goal for Simpson and her supporters has therefore been “to talk about our lives from a holistic place and not just a privilege that some of us have and some of us may not.”

Alternatives to 'Pro-Choice'

Simpson and her colleagues have been using “reproductive justice” to name their movement, which they say encompasses the intersection of health and justice.

“Reproductive justice talks about not just the woman’s right not to have a child, but it talks about a woman’s right to have a child and to parent her children in a healthy and safe environment and her right to bodily autonomy from violence and exploitation,” she said.

Lakoff said that as we reframe the debate, we are going to have to use more than just a word or two to make sure the message is immediately clear. He suggested using “freedom to control your own body,” which could eventually turn into slang such as “body freedom.”

“The fact about slogans is they require proper framing,” Lakoff said. “If the ideas aren’t there the slogan won’t mean anything.… That’s a very important thing. You have to have the idea before you have the slogan.”

He added that people working to reframe the message by using more words will also have to explain why they are doing it so that it will work.

“It doesn’t work immediately,” Lakoff said. “It doesn’t work without a lot of people saying it. And to say it, you need to know why it’s there.”

Meanwhile, Lakoff said that the movement should stop calling its opponents by their preferred "pro-life" label at all costs.

“It has nothing to do with life,” he said. “They don’t think the government or insurance companies should pay for pre-natal care or post-natal care, so they don’t care about the baby after it’s born or before it’s born. They’re not pro-life at all. They’re anti-life. They’re against life before birth, they’re against life after birth.”

Lakoff said the movement needs to use sharper words to describe opponents, such as: “They’re trying to control your body, your future and family.”

Simpson said the opposition seeks to oppress and shame any woman considering any family planning option. “I don’t know if I have a term for that yet, but I know they are committing reproductive oppression,” she said. “Any legislation or work that’s trying to shame a woman around her reproductive decisions that is a form of reproductive oppression.”

The Movement’s Next Steps

Two generations—41 years—have passed since Roe v. Wade became law. Going back to square one is clearly a frustrating, if not impossible task, but it also appears to be necessary.

“We screwed up for that long,” Lakoff said. “And we’ve been telling people for 20 years. It’s not like this has not been known. It’s not like this has not been written about. It’s not like the entire Senate and House caucuses didn’t hear it. They all heard it. It’s not like the communications people hadn’t read it. They all heard it. They’ve been screwing it up for a long time. The problem is our side.”

Simpson believes that looking at abortion through a larger framework has begun to catch on. For example, in 2004, women of color successfully pushed national, mainstream organizations to rename the “March for Choice” to the “March for Women’s Lives.” In 2010, when racist, anti-abortion billboards stating, “Black Children Are an Endangered Species” were put up in several states, Simpson said the backlash from communities of color and mainstream media was so swift they were quickly taken down. Simpson said that showed how reproductive rights are embedded cultural values.

“I think we’re starting to see the ripple effects,” she said. “What is important for us is the media is starting to use this term. It understands that there is a more expansive [reproductive justice] framework that is out… It’s bringing more women into this movement.”

At Planned Parenthood, Richards responded to Simpson’s open letter, stating:

“I am eager to meet with leaders of national women of color-led RJ organizations to formulate shared strategies that honor all of our strengths. I’m also eager to talk to you about the events of the last few weeks, and what we can learn from this experience going forward.”

For her part, Simpson said, “I feel like it was a great next step for us as we talk about moving across our movement to really achieve what we all want, which to us is reproductive freedom and reproductive justice for all women.”

There still is a lot of work to be done to figure out the best way to the message the movement—but it seems the message needs to focus on broader issues, be tied to morals, and be developed by all women.