Semantics of the Abortion Debate

The English language has a rich and large vocabulary, providing speakers and writers a treasure trove of words from which to choose, including synonyms that each carry their own connotations. Two words may have the same meaning, but one may create a negative feeling and the other a positive. For instance, calling a person “large” is much more polite than calling him “fat.”

Orators, authors, and advertisers all take into account the emotional quality of words. This is particularly true in the cultural debate of ideas including the abortion controversy. Each side refers to itself by one name and the opposition uses another. Are supporters of legal abortion pro-abortion or pro-choice? Are those who oppose abortion anti-abortion, abortion foes, or pro-life? What is the difference and how do these terms shape the debate?

Recently, a Facebook friend responded to one of my posts in which I declared my support for Iowa’s new law that restricts abortion after a heartbeat can be detected. She first objected to the author’s use of pro-abortion to describe those who support abortion, stating, “I don’t think that anyone is pro-abortion.” I replied that we first needed to clear up the semantics used in the abortion debate before we could discuss the abortion issue itself.

All people choose certain words for their connotations to sway others to their beliefs. In the abortion debate, those who support abortion-on-demand prefer to call themselves pro-choice because this term provides a positive feeling. All Americans passionately desire choices. In that sense, everyone is pro-choice. We want to choose between Coke or Pepsi. The term pro-abortion, on the other hand, has an ugly, negative ring and brings to mind abort, terminate, or death. So, this group does not use it even though their support of abortion rights could be simply stated as pro-abortion.

In similar fashion, those who oppose abortion-on-demand call themselves pro-life because they value and seek to protect all forms of human life from conception to natural death. The term actually covers more than the abortion issue. However, those who want to keep abortion-on-demand legal choose to label these people anti-abortion. This is true. They are against abortion, but when a group or movement wants to persuade people to their way of thinking, using positive terms such as one with the pro- prefix (which simply means for) achieves better results than a term with the anti- prefix (which means against) when marketing ideas.

Some may say I am splitting hairs over words, however, let me explain. In the mid-1990s, I occasionally wrote letters to The Seattle Times, and not just for the Op-Ed page. Once I had a private email exchange with one editor over the paper’s use of anti-abortion. When I complained and asked why the paper did not instead use the term pro-life, the movement’s preferred term, he replied that all people are pro-life. Thus the paper found the term not useful. I could have given him the same argument I did above. All people are pro-choice as well. But in reality, The Seattle Times‘s use of pro-choice and anti-abortion betrays their stand on the issue.

Again, the selection of words is a matter of marketing ideas. Pro-life has the positive sound that its supporters want just as pro-choice does for those who claim that term. Anti-abortion and pro-abortion, though accurate descriptions, both create negative reactions and are used to place the opposition in a negative light.

Back to my Facebook friend’s claim that no one is really pro-abortion. I honestly believe some people are definitely pro-abortion and are not squeamish about the culture of death such beliefs cultivate: the eugenicists and those who make money from abortion.

 

 

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