Janet Harris says that it’s time to stop calling abortion a “difficult decision” and that people who support abortion rights need new language for expressing their advocacy. She couldn’t be more right, but from a pro-choice perspective, the current political dialogue is even worse than she documents.
For years, the pro-choice movement has been on the defensive, using more and more convoluted, poll-tested messaging to try to stand its ground. But in many states, it has been losing as pro-life advocates have passed a series of restrictions that have made it more difficult to gain access to abortion. Slowly but surely, pro-life forces are chipping away at a woman’s freedom to control her reproductive rights.
The pro-choice side cannot win the debate as it is currently framed; it can achieve only small victories when the other side overreaches. An example: Requiring an ultrasound is okay, not just an invasive one. The reason pro-choice advocates can’t and won’t win is because they don’t have an affirmative argument, only a defensive one. A popular formulation for Democratic candidates (one favored by Hillary Clinton) has long been that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” They might as well wave the white flag because implicit in this formulation is that abortion is bad and shameful. No wonder the discussion quickly devolves to just how “rare” we can make it.
The problem is “choice” will never trump “life.” Choice is valuable, but life is precious. As long as there is no competing affirmative value for abortion, then life will always win.
Lately, there have been murmurings of new language presaging a new movement to affirm the true value of abortion. A small, brave cohort of women have come forward to affirm the positive value of abortion in their own lives. Their explanations present a promising, new message frame for abortion rights, centered on not just freedom of “choice” but on the benefits of the outcome of choice. The freedom itself matters, of course; the right to control one’s body is basic. But it remains abstract. More concrete are personal benefits, such as waiting until one is willing and able to care for a child, and societal benefits, such as women who are able to finish high school and college and join the workforce.
As was the case with gay rights, the country is ready for a new discussion on abortion. For years, the public dialogue on gays did not comport with the private reality. The laws treated homosexuality as deviant, when it was common; as shameful, when it was human. The gap between repression and reality was bound to be breached. The same evolution looms on the abortion issue. Estimates are that one in three women today has terminated or will terminate a pregnancy. It is not a coincidence that these choices are being made at a time of increasing possibilities for women. Control over one’s reproduction is a deeply affirmative value. It’s time to assert it.