Language Matters: Anti-Life or Pro-Choice?

In the United States, we live in an increasingly divisive political climate, and whichever side we are on, we use language to steer others to our side.  Creationism vs intelligent design.  Marriage equality vs family values.  Pro-life vs pro-choice.

Abortion Language: Politically Correct or Politically Bomb-Throwing? (NPR, 19 Sept 2011)

The topic of abortion is a delicate one at best and an explosive one at worst.

For some, it is a deeply personal choice that the government has no right to prohibit For others, it is literally a matter of life and death, and laws against it are as necessary as laws prohibiting murder.

The preferred terminology of the opposing groups on this issue is far from subtle in its attempt to sway the undecided.  Pro-choice sounds like a good thing to be — I like having choices, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be anti-choice.  But pro-life also has a definitively positive ring to it — I like life, in general, so the idea of labeling myself “anti-life” isn’t appealing either.

These choices are deliberate, chosen carefully to make one group the obviously “right” one while removing all nuance and complexity from the issue.  These terms attempt to make simple a debate which is anything but.

But what about “abortion doctor” or “abortion clinic”?

At first glance, the phrases seem apt, pithy, describing what they mean without mincing words or making attempts at euphemism.  Simple and effective.

Looking again, however, it’s easy to see how reducing a doctor or a clinic to the one morally problematic act they perform could demonize those doctors and clinics, making them easier to criticize and condemn.

So-called “abortion clinics” usually also provide OB-GYN services, birth control, STD testing, safer sex supplies, and other services.  So-called “abortion doctors” generally perform a wide range of women’s health services, not just abortions.  Referring to them based on only one of the many beneficial services they provide not only makes them into easier targets for those who oppose abortion, it also ignores the importance of their place in society.

So what’s the answer?  Should we continue to use these terms — pro-life, pro-choice, abortion clinic — even knowing their manipulative emotional nature?

NPR’s solution is to go with what they think are more neutral phrases — “abortion-rights advocate,” “abortion-rights opponent,” “OB-GYN doctor,” and “family planning clinic.”

What do you think?  Are the phrases used in the abortion debate too incendiary Can you think of better language to use when talking about this issue?

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