Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

The Texas heartbeat law, about which I previously wrote, is polarizing—go figure. That’s neither surprising nor particularly interesting in and of itself. What is, to me, much more interesting is the type of rhetoric which has proliferated in response to the existence of an enforced abortion ban in one of the states. Much pro-choice language has opted for verbal power plays in place of reasoned argument, using rhetorical moves to suppress dialogue and ostracize, even dehumanize, those who disagree.

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

First, I’ll explain a little about what I mean by “rhetoric.” Then, I want to examine how the different phrases, accusations, and mental images utilized by pro-choice people operate on the people who hear and see them. In doing this, I aim to show that they are using rhetoric irresponsibly, employing coercion and suppressing discussion aimed at seeking the truth.

An important note: I’m not trying to defend or attack the Texas law. There are different opinions about the law among our staff, and I know that we all have both some concerns about it and are happy that people are living who otherwise would be killed. Beyond that, I’m not at all interested in getting into my take on the law; I just want to talk about the rhetoric used by its opponents.

What Is Rhetoric? Isn’t it Always a Power Play?

The definition and proper function of rhetoric has been contested for centuries. As far back as Plato, rhetoric (at least done by the professionals of ancient Greece) was attacked as a way to use empty words to manipulate people for money and power. Cicero builds on this, opposing bad “rhetoric” with (his) good “oratory.” To some extent, this is what people usually think about when they hear the word “rhetoric.”

At base, rhetoric simply refers to the arrangement and presentation of words in order to convince people to hold a certain position. It can involve logic, narrative, mythology, appeals to commonly held beliefs, and even poetry. Good rhetoric also requires that the person using it knows what they’re talking about; a rhetorician doesn’t have to be an expert in everything, but they have to know enough to present a true and accurate picture of their subject.

The idea of rhetoric as a means of truth for the audience only works if we believe there is some objective truth to present or pursue. If we’re operating in a largely emotivist framework like the one postulated by Alasdair MacIntyre, then all rhetoric is a power play because every attempt to convince someone of a position is actually an attempt to impose our position by emotional force.

Of course, even when rhetoric is operating out of this emotivist framework, its power comes from a pretension to an objectivity which it denies. And so, even though much popular pro-choice thought is steeped in subjectivity and emotivism (for example, the idea that the government has no business telling a woman what’s right or wrong “for her”), pro-choice rhetoric maintains that there is something wrong with the pro-life position, or with Texas’ law, that would be wrong in all times and all places.

Good rhetoric doesn’t have to be a power play; it can be an invitation. But much of the pro-choice rhetoric right now isn’t good—it’s aim is to silence, rather than convince, the opposition.

“Draconian” Implies Illegitimacy and Tyranny

“Draconian” seems to be one of the favorite adjectives for the new Texas law. That word is the definition of a verbal power play. The meaning of the word is rooted in its imagery, alluding to the arbitrary will of a dragon terrorizing people. The implications of the word are clear: the Texas law is an exercise of tyranny and no legitimate government would pass it. Here’s an example of a purported news publication using it in their summary of a story:

The problem is, no one really explains why, exactly, the law is draconian. It was passed by a duly elected democratic body. The enforcement mechanism is controversial, and maybe it’s problematic, but that’s not enough to make a law draconian in and of itself. There are plenty of unwise, problematic, and/or controversial laws that are not, therefore, draconian: No Child Left Behind, Obamacare, etc. (the Patriot Act is legitimately draconian, so I can’t use that as an example).

Calling the law “draconian” seeks to skip past any discussion of whether the law aims at legitimate ends, or ends that would be legitimate if you agreed with the legislature’s premises (i.e., that unborn humans are people with rights). It presents the legislators as oppressors, and anyone who supports the law as participants in oppression. If pro-choice people want to make that argument, that’s fine, but it’s necessary to establish premises instead of just assuming them.

Charges of Vigilantism Ignore the Democratic Process

Another common tactic, due to the strange enforcement mechanism of the law, is to say that it promotes vigilantism and turns citizens of the state into bounty hunters. The vigilantism charge is inaccurate; vigilantes are people who lack legal power and take the enforcement of justice into their own hands, while the government specifically gave legal power to the citizens to enforce the heartbeat law.

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

You might think I’m letting the state off on a technicality, but it’s important in the context of how accusations of vigilantism function. Vigilantes operate outside the law; to say that someone is a vigilante is to implicitly say they are breaking the law. But anyone who files suit against an abortion practitioner in Texas is following the law; you might think the law is bad, and maybe it is, but it creates exactly zero vigilantes.

The “bounty hunter” thing is, admittedly, harder to counter, given that it’s theoretically possible for individuals to collect evidence, bring people to court, and financially benefit from a decision against them. But even that involves the collection of sufficient evidence to get a judge to decide in your favor in a civil lawsuit; groundless lawsuits under the Texas abortion law would be thrown out just like groundless lawsuits for any other infraction.

And that’s the thing about how these accusations function: they imply that the Texas law and its functions are outside the legal system, but the law was passed within, and would be enforced within, the legal system. The law was passed by a legitimate elected body of representatives, and the cases under it would be brought by legally authorized entities and decided by duly appointed judges. If you want to argue that the legal system is broken, fine—and I agree, especially because our legal system allows abortion. If you want to argue that the federal government should override the state law in this case, you can do that too, but you have to actually make an argument about how laws and separation of powers and legitimacy works. 

Dystopian Women’s Rights Claims Beg the Question

You might notice a theme with some of the rhetoric we’re examining: the accusations generally beg the question. That is to say, the phrases treat assumptions that would have to be argued and defended as conclusions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the various Handmaid-themed charges that Texas has sent women back to the “Dark Ages” or ushered in a dystopia in which women have no rights.

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

Let’s take the implicit argument seriously for a moment. If the pro-life position were incorrect, then many, if not all, restrictions on abortion would be improper limitations on female bodily autonomy. It would be wrong to restrict bodily rights without sufficient justification, and the best pro-choice thinkers try to make compelling arguments that, because the fetus is not a person or because bodily autonomy is a more important right, there can be no justification for state interference in women’s autonomy.

But the difference between, say, Judith Jarvis Thomson and Ilyse Hogue is that the former, wrong though she may be, tries to make sound arguments while the latter merely spews catchphrases. Pretty much any comment or post invoking the Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely into the latter camp. There’s no argument, just this spectre of a terrible misogynistic future if conservatives/religious people/whoever they want to browbeat today are allowed to exist in civil society.

The rhetoric is only compelling to those who already agree. It presumes that restricting abortion undermines women’s rights, but it doesn’t make the case that abortion is the sort of thing which ought to be considered a right—the very thing about which we disagree! If they’re wrong, and the pro-lifers are right that unborn humans are just as valuable as born humans, pro-choice activists are perpetuating the killing of a class of people by inventing a pretend “right.” This is the whole argument.

But Handmaid imagery is designed to help pro-choice people avoid supporting their claims. Instead, anyone who disagrees must hate women and want to control them. It’s, ironically, a means of silencing the opposition by crying “wolf” that the opposition is silencing them. 

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

If your opposition is evil, the thinking goes, it’s not your job to engage with or convince them, but to silence them; “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

Which brings us to…

Calling Those Who Merely Disagree “Terrorists” Is Never Appropriate

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

Here’s a quick hot take: it’s never appropriate to call people with whom you merely disagree about a political issue “terrorists.” In fact, the most shameful aspect of pro-choice rhetoric right now, right after a painful Afghanistan withdrawal, is that they are openly comparing their fellow Americans to the Taliban. In some cases, they’re saying the average Republican is worse than the Taliban!

One wonders what kind of evidentiary standard would be necessary to show that your countrymen are the moral equivalent of jihadists who killed over 3,000 Americans. Whatever it is, crass tweets and throw pillows aren’t getting there. 

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play

I think everyone should be able to agree you have to back up that kind of a claim. Unfortunately, the only evidence generally provided for this dangerous language is the undefended rhetoric (especially of the “Dark Ages”/Handmaid variety) we’ve already debunked. Accordingly, it’s grossly inappropriate for pro-choice people to call Texas pro-lifers terrorists.

But we also have to consider what the effects of this kind of irresponsible rhetoric are. A terrorist is not someone to whom you owe respect; he is the sort of person it would be right for someone to kill, or at least strip of all other rights. To call someone a terrorist is to remove them from the political community, to verbally mark them as an enemy of the state. The use of the term, even by these all-too-flippant commentators, is an incitement to violence—and because it’s violence of those within the political community against those without, it’s self-legitimating violence.

Calling people terrorists dehumanizes them; they are the enemy, not a person. And, especially in our current hostile climate, rousing the rabble on your side of the political aisle is dangerous. How little will it take for fringe elements on the pro-choice side, convinced that an entire state is now under “Taliban rule,” to do violence to those they view as terrorist perpetrators? If you think it was bad that a handful of pro-life people engaged in violence against abortion practitioners in the ‘90s—and it was—then you should also think it is bad for pro-choice activists to act as petty demagogues and encourage violence through charged rhetoric.

Using Rhetoric to Foster Dialogue

As we can see, much of the rhetoric currently in use acts as a power play to shut down discussion and stigmatize the other side. I won’t pretend that it’s only pro-choice people who do it, but pro-choice Twitter is a lot more mainstream than the QAnon right (and you have to go pretty far towards QAnon to get people calling mainstream leftists terrorists). The fact that it’s a casual thing for a Democrat to say that they believe roughly half of the country are on level with al Qaeda and wish to impose a totalitarian patriarchy is a sign of the advanced stage of diseased rhetoric in the United States (and elsewhere).

The only answer to bad rhetoric, to rhetoric misused to shut down and divide, is a rhetoric of hope. It may require eschewing the traditional bonds of party and belief, but inviting people from all sides to construct a better future together is the part of responsible rhetoric. It’s not enough for pro-life people to say what’s wrong with the pro-choice position, or even with harmful online rhetoric; we have to make the case that the pro-life position is better, that a pro-life world is qualitatively better than a pro-choice world.

Yet, in order to construct a true pro-life rhetoric, it’s helpful to recognize the logical issues with popular pro-choice rhetoric and the manner in which it acts upon its hearers. And so this is an invitation to understand how slogans circumvent arguments, how words affect their hearers, and how to choose your words to guide yourself and others toward truth.

Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: Good rhetoric doesn’t have to be a power play; it can be an invitation
  • Tweet: Here’s a quick hot take: it’s never appropriate to call people with whom you merely disagree about a political issue “terrorists.”
  • Tweet: Much of the rhetoric currently in use acts as a power play to shut down discussion and stigmatize the other side.
  • Tweet: Even at the expense of traditional bonds of party and belief, responsible rhetoric invites people from all sides to construct a better future together.

The post Pro-Choice Rhetoric as Power Play originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Content & Research

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Director of Content & Research at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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