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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 Times piece, 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. Wade then 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.