Those of you who have spent any amount of time on social media lately know that political discourse has been particularly ugly in recent weeks. Ever since the controversy began over separating children from parents caught crossing the border illegally, there have been comments about what it means to be “pro-life.” My favorite tweet from the time of that controversy came from my colleague Rachel Crawford:
Anyone thought of policing the terminology of #prolife today? I think it would really help start a productive dialogue
There are many worthwhile discussions to be had about immigration policy, but policing the term “pro-life” is not a prudent way to start one. [Tweet that!] There are good, compassionate, reasonable pro-life people of every political stripe. This is possible because being pro-life in regards to abortion is entirely consistent with all kinds of other positions all over the political spectrum.
Imagine you were talking to someone about child abuse, and they said, “You know, I understand that you’re personally against it, but I think we should trust parents to make the right decisions for their families.” Would you feel like their comment about trust was a meaningful contribution to the discussion or a bizarre red herring?
When abortion-choice advocates speak about abortion they often say we need to trust women to make their own decisions. They say that abortion is an especially personal choice that we should trust women to make for themselves because they are the experts of their own lives.
This rhetoric is an unfair representation of the pro-life position because it implies that pro-life people do not trust women. It insinuates that people oppose legal abortion because they think women are inadequate and unable to make choices about their lives. This is a common and false accusation of pro-life people.
Pro-life people are not opposed to abortion because they distrust women. Implying that misogyny is influencing their position on abortion is a misleading sidestep of the real issue. Pro-life people think that a woman should be able to make her own decisions about which doctor she wants, what clothing she wears, her career, her education and many other choices which men have as well. There are some choices, however, which are dangerous or violent in some way. These choices deserve careful examination by the public to determine if they should be against the law. Examples of these choices would be drinking and driving, vandalism, or assault. The choice to kill people should clearly be against the law. Pro-lifers argue that human embryos are people, so you can’t kill them.
Discrimination? Microaggression? Propaganda? These are common labels against pro-lifers. Anyone arguing for the rights of the unborn can expect to be characterized as enemies of women, of liberty, and of human rights. Sometimes we can learn from these accusations and pick better terms or listen with more charity. Other times, these labels just don’t fit. Or worse, they are baseless slander.
I would like to suggest that the abortion debate is riddled with a problematic term: “fetus.” At best, this term is a harmless shorthand way to refer to a “human fetus,” “fetal human,” or the “child-in-utero,” and other non-discriminatory terms. At worst, and it’s often used this way, it’s a misleading rhetorical move designed to instill dehumanizing prejudice against the unborn. Either way, we can do better.
Some may call the term “fetus” a “microaggression,” although I’m not a big fan of that concept. My grievance with this term is that it’s typically a subtle but deliberate spin in verbiage intended to relocate the discussion away from any possible implication of human rights. The net effect of that rhetoric, if left unchecked, is a dehumanizing prejudgment about the status of the unborn, as if this “fetus” isn’t really a human being. This use of terms can even be a kind of discrimination. It isn’t discrimination in the sense of breaking a law or violating someone’s civil rights. But it does qualify as verbal discrimination because it is dehumanizing and prejudicial language.
Nevertheless, despite my complaints, I don’t think this term is a huge deal. I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do run into this issue often enough that I have to say something about it.
Tim, Rachel, and I sat down to share some of our favorite stories from the people we talked to at the 2018 Students for Life East Coast Conference. We walked away from that conference glowing, excitedly telling each other stories, because that was one of the most encouraging days we had experienced at ERI. We decided that you should have a chance to listen in on those stories, especially if you’re a financial supporter that made this work, and the amazing results we witnessed, possible.
Whether you are participating in legislative efforts, sidewalk advocacy, volunteering at a Pregnancy Resource Center, or leading a Students for Life group, you should be talking about your pro-life work. Pro-lifers need to talk more about what we are doing for the movement because building awareness is half the battle of grassroots mobilization efforts. Successful social change comes from recruiting those who agree and reaching out to those who disagree.
Let’s take a look at how pro-choice people discuss their activism. I am going to use the Women’s March of January 2017 as a case study for how we as pro-life advocates can improve our own messaging by examining the March’s approach and identifying what we can learn from it. The second Women’s March took place this year on January 20th, but, for the sake of simplicity, I am only going to reference the first march in this post. The march this year was less clear and consistent in its messaging, so it isn’t as useful a case study.
Women’s March in Washington in January, 2017. Photo credit: Roya Ann Miller
When the Women’s March took place last year, it was discussed all over social media, news sites, and in our communities: the kind of buzz that every social protest hopes to create. People talked about why they were going, how they planned on getting there, and what their experience was like after they came back from either the national or local march. If activism sparks discussion, it is a sign that the activism achieved some level of success. These marches were not just public demonstrations which took place on one day and were over the next. The people participating talked about it openly before, during, and after with anyone that they could reach.
Here are my takeaways after closely studying the success and shortcomings of the pro-choice movement’s participation in the Women’s March: