Why Not Use the Term Pro-Abortion?

A few weeks ago MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer used the phrase “pro-abortion” to describe a pro-choice viewpoint. It wasn’t meant to be derisive; she clearly just had a brain freeze. On twitter a reproductive rights activist said she “cringed” to hear Brewer’s slip.

I asked, why? On the face of it what’s wrong with being “pro-abortion.” Reproductive rights activists, such as myself, believe that access to abortion is a positive medical service that is provided to women. And since providing medical service is always seen as a positive, why is it automatically wrong to say you are “pro-abortion.” What makes the terms “pro-abortion” different from declaring oneself “pro-dental care” or “pro-mammogram?”

Amanda Marcotte replied to my twitter question by stating it’s critical that people understand feminists support the choice *to* have a baby. To use the term pro-abortion, which is what the anti-choice activists call us, is to presume to be against babies and for mandatory abortions. Pro-choice, is just that, pro-CHOICE, to allow women to make the decision WHETHER to give birth or not.

Logistically, the use of the term “choice” is necessary to fit within our political beliefs, but many in the reproductive rights community admit it’s not the best semantic terminology for a political fight. “Choice” brings with it the connotation of the personal, but also of the “option.” You support the option for women to become mothers, but also the option for them not to do so. It lacks the glaring black/white furor of other side’s terminology. Consider: anti-choicers on abortion: NO NO NO. Pro-choicers however are not saying YES YES YES. We’re saying IF YOU WANT, IF YOU WANT, IF YOU WANT.

Politics is about the reductive; nuance is untranslatable as a political position, and possibly unwinnable. Consider the number of times a pro-choice candidate or organization has used some version of the phrase that we need to “reduce the need for abortions.” As if the only difference between us and those who dislike legal abortion is the sheer numbers. Ask if there were only 5,000 legal abortions allowed each year there would be the same amount of condemnation? Then consider the South Carolina budget was held up because of six abortions! Just six.

Logistically, however, it makes sense for reproductive rights groups to talk about reducing the need for abortions, because it joins with other goals we support. Every repo activist I know also supports greater access to free or cost-effective contraception and better sex education. But don’t we support those goals independent of the idea that such actions reduce the “need for abortions.”

I happen to believe that both actions would reduce the need, but that’s not the point. By painting abortion as something that should be reduced, the reproductive rights community may be painting themselves into a semantic corner.  

But I don’t think a winning option is changing the phrase “pro-choice” to some other euphemism either. Collectively the community has not been able to settle on alternate terms — although there have been some contenders — none have been whole-heartedly adopted.

One reproductive rights activist said that she didn’t think it mattered what terminology our side used; whether we changed our standard phrase from pro-choice to any other word because it ultimately hides what we are supporting, the right to access abortion when it is desired by an individual. In that sense lumping abortion with all the other reproductive rights goals does not help our fight for abortion-rights in the specific. After all, anti-choicers seem pretty focused on abortion, even when they talk about contraception.

Which leads me to my final question, are reproductive rights activists, either by design or by accident, moving away from owning the word abortion as a positive term? After all, there is only a single advocacy group that still uses the term in its full name, the National Abortion Federation.

So I return to my first question: what is wrong with using the term “pro-abortion?” If we do not paint the term as a positive one; procedure that is not to be any more shameful than kidney biopsy have we not already lost the terminology war?

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  • bei1052

    Because it doesn’t sound as nice as pro-choice.

  • beenthere72

    I agree with Amanda – that’s how I feel too.  I’m only pro-abortion in a way that I support it’s existence and availibility, but I’m not pro-abortion in a way that I want everyone to have one or even that I think it’s a positive thing, no more than I think having a root canal is a positive thing (sure, it’s got health benefits, but it’s no joy to have).     I feel that pro-choice is just much more appropriate considering I support a woman’s right to options – to birth or not to birth.  


    I think pro-lifers want us to feel ashamed about supporting abortion – in shame there’s acknowledgement that we’re doing something wrong.    But if there is any shame to be had, it is not from the abortion itself, shame is in the action that led up to it and having to face the consequences of that action.     I’m ashamed of a lot of things I did when I was younger.


    I’m curious to hear what those other alternate terms were?

  • prochoiceferret

    I think that if someone needs a quadruple-bypass heart operation, they should be able to get it. I am pro-quadruple-bypass-heart-surgery. So why does everyone want me to try out one of these?


  • beenthere72


  • rachel-larris

    beenthere72 there have been many suggestions at terms the community might use instead of pro-choice, I believe using reproductive rights or reproductive justice are some alternate versions.

    I’ve thought about using the root canal analogy for abortion as well. No one WANTS a root canal and we may take steps to avoid needing one. But cavities (life) happens. But that doesn’t make having a root canal (or its availability) a “negative.” In fact if you really need a root canal you damn sure going to want to have one, even if its personally uncomfortable.

    My main question is that by not associating abortion as a positive term in and of itself, and using other words than abortion, are we, in fact, ceding some ground on this issue?

  • crowepps

    My main question is that by not associating abortion as a positive term in and of itself, and using other words than abortion, are we, in fact, ceding some ground on this issue?

    I have brought this up before, but the correct term for any procedure done to remove an ectopic pregnancy, the remnants of spontaneous abortions and fetal deaths is ALSO abortion, and I am pretty tired of ProLifers insisting that in THOSE cases the operation being done isn’t an abortion at all but instead the truncated term ‘D&C’.  The medical term is “D&C abortion” just as the medical term for removing a DEAD fetus is “D&X Abortion”.


    People can argue all they want about whether people should or should not have abortions when the reason for the abortion is that they just do not want to be pregnant, but I think ProChoice needs to make clear that attempts to legally ban ‘abortion’ can impinge on absolutely necessary medical care for women whose WANTED pregnancies have gone awry as well, because medicine does NOT have two different sets of vocabulary depending on the motivations of the patient.

  • colleen

    My main question is that by not associating abortion as a positive term in and of itself, and using other words than abortion, are we, in fact, ceding some ground on this issue?

    The one thing that listening to the ‘pro-life’ folks who post here has convinced me of is that the ability to access safe and legal abortion is a major social justice issue, as pivotal as access to contraception.

  • educated-rants

    Because pro-abortion is not accurate. Pro-choice, literally being in favor of a women’s right to make medical decisions regarding her own body and everyone’s right to privacy. There are a lot of women (Republican women even) who are against abortions but support the decision of Roe v. Wade as it pertains to a women’s right to choose. It’s not the same thing as taking back the term “liberal”.  Having an abortion is not an easy decision for most women to make, nor is it taken lightly.


    What I want to know is, why did anyone stop using the accurate term ANTI-abortion? Literally, that is what opponents of abortion are.

  • rachel-larris

    EducatedRants as far as I know it’s the pro-choice side that typically doesn’t use the term anti-abortion (and hence the media doesn’t use it). It was determined that anti-abortion didn’t work best for a couple of reasons A) Didn’t fit with the anti-contraception issues, emergency contraception, etc, that pro-lifers also push and B)”anti-abortion” implies we’re “pro-abortion” clearly the term pro-choice side doesn’t want to use. It’s more of a semantic issue, if they are anti-abortion many people would agree, because they think abortion is “icky” (even though its a separate question if they would outlaw it.) 


  • pegjohnston

    A correction and a comment: There are at least two other organizations that proudly have the word “abortion” in their name: the Abortion Care Network, an organization of independent abortion providers and allies who care for women in other ways (clergy, talkline, funding volunteers, escortes, activists etc) and the Abortion Conversation Project, now a foundation dedicated to promoting open and honest conversation about abortion.

    We have advocated the use of the word Choices which is more realistic word for our position, rather than “choice” which is a euphemism for abortion.

  • queenyasmeen

    Thanks, crowepps, for making those distinctions.  Something that often drives me nuts during discussions of abortion is that so many people have no idea about the actual, medical nature of the procedures.  I’ve heard many educated, otherwise well-informed people tell me that they’re pro-choice except for “partial birth abortion,” which doesn’t exist except as a political hot-button, and certainly not as a medical procedure.  I’ve also been appalled to hear that women I know to have needed the procedures you describe above due to unviable pregnancies don’t identify themselves as fully pro-choice.  It further baffles me when people say they believe in allowing abortion only in cases of medical necessity, when “medical necessity” is often a hurried, life-or-death situation in which an anti-choice doctor could decide to deny a woman lifesaving care because there’s a mere chance that she might live if the pregnancy isn’t terminated.  Or, more likely, in a world where abortions are only performed in limited circumstances, the likelihood would be frighteningly small that a woman needing an emergency abortion out of medical necessity would come across a doctor who would actually have learned how to perform abortions safely in school, internships, or residency.  I’m a woman of childbearing age with a chronic medical condition in which pregnancy could easily become life-threatening for me, and so this issue is close to my heart.


    For the record, I am staunchly pro-choice no matter the circumstances and give kudos to the author here for encouraging us all to shed our shame about supporting access to abortion on demand and without apology.

  • choice-joyce

    If you want to count Canada, there’s us: the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. We deliberately made sure to put the word in our name.

    I would say “anti-abortion” is not clear because pro-choice people can be personally anti-abortion. “Pro-abortion rights” would be good except it’s a bit long.

  • clydweb

    There is also the National Network of Abortion Funds (many of whose member funds use the word abortion in their names).

    Thank you for this post! This is such an important conversation. I agree that I am pro-abortion, just as I am pro-birth, pro-child, and pro-adoption. I think that we have let the rhetoric of the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement reinforce the shame and stigma of abortion. Abortions save women’s lives and I think we should be unapologetic about women needing abortions. If more of us would just say yes, I’m pro-abortion and what of it? I support a woman’s right to choose abortion. It’s a shame we can’t call ourselves the pro-life movement: because we are pro-women’s lives. Hell, if Sarah Palin can call herself a feminist, we should be able to call ourselves pro-life. (And shouldn’t we call our opposition anti-abortion? Because obviously some factions of that movement are willing to kill to stop women from having abortions and there’s nothing pro-life about that).

  • arekushieru

    100% agreed, bt.  I don’t like the idea of medical procedures (and that inCLUdes pregnancy) nor do I like anything with risk.  But that has nothing to do with abortion, itself.  So, it’s rather difficult to explain the nuances with all the rhetoric we get from so many PLers sometimes.

  • ederlore

    So why don’t we call the anti-choicers “Pregnancy enforcers” instead?  I’ve had two legal abortions with no regrets.  I’ve also had an ectopic pregnancy and a spontaneous abortion.  So does that make my body a killer of babies as well?  Being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily make one pro-abortion.  It simply means you believe that what women do is their choice and they have a right to privacy.  Don’t forget that Roe was decided on the person’s right to privacy.  If women lose it then men are going to lose theirs. 

    If the anti-choice crowd really cared about all those ‘innocent’ babies they would be advocating for child care, medical care, education, and housing.  Unfortunately they are the same ones who whine about having their taxes going for ‘some woman’s mistake’.  If women could make a living wage, have access to affordable medical care which would include birth control, and affordable child care I can assure you the rate of abortions would drop dramatically.  The majority of women have abortions because they simply can’t afford to support another child and we don’t have enough families who can adopt 1.2 million babies every year.  It’s just not reality folks.  Plus the anti-choice crowd are usually the same ones fighting against gays adopting so that limits the pool.  Some states have even make it illegal for single people to adopt because they might be in a gay relationship.  Stupidity reigns as usual.  Deny women access to birth control and then deny them access to safe, legal abortions as well.  Yep, the fascists will have their masses of wage slaves folks should they manage to overturn Roe.  It’s not about babies, it’s about controlling women and making sure there will be plenty of marginally employed people who will be grateful to work for less than minimum wage.

  • eternalskeptic

    “Pro-abortion rights” would be good except it’s a bit long.


    That and . . . given the limited attention span of countless Internet users, somebody will snap at you for calling them “pro-abortion” even after you’ve painstakingly typed out “pro-abortion rights.”   Ask any number of this site’s bloggers; there will always be those who don’t read carefully.

    I still use the term PAR, however.  “Pro-choice” is overly broad–to the point of being disingenuous–in that it does not specify the choice that is in question.  Generalizations are the refuge of the damned.  (Even the school voucher people refer to their opponents as “anti-choice.”)  And for those pro-abortion rights posters with trigger-happy fingers lingering over the “reply” tab, I’ll save you some keystrokes; I don’t object to being called “anti-abortion.”