The Work That Euphemism Does: A Few Thoughts on the Recent History of Abortion

June 9, 2009, 1:05 pm

As I composed yesterday’s immoderate post on abortion, one of the things on my mind was that the various factions that loosely make up what we call conservatism’s “right wing” have won at least one battle in the culture war. Over the last twenty five years, anti-abortion lobbyists have succeeded in altering how we speak about abortion; in turn pro-abortion lobbyists have altered their political speech. Both strategies have had negative consequences for women’s right to terminate a pregnancy and have shaped the history of abortion through language. For example, I favor, unequivocally, the right of all women to choose whether or not they wish to bring a fetus to term. And yet the ideological space, and the language to speak in that space, has become severely limited since Roe v. Wade voided state restrictions on abortion in 1973.

In cruising websites yesterday to write my post, I became specifically interested in the various derivations of the words “choice,” “abortion,” and “life” as they described political stances and strategies. The abuse, or misuse, of the word “life” receives the most attention from the left, particularly in the wake of tragedies like the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, although many in the pro-life camp have hastened to condemn the taking of all lives. But many who oppose abortion are single issue folks, who are enthusiastic about capital punishment, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so on. These people have been schooled to call themselves “pro-life”: and yet, what they are is anti-abortion. Their politics do not encompass, as one of my faithful conservative readers, JackDanielsBlack noted in his dissent, an overall philosophy that supports all lives, unequivocally. “I think the real problem with many pro-lifers,” Jack writes, “is that they fail to embrace the ‘seamless garment’ or ‘consistent life’ ethic expounded by the late Cardinal Bernardin — if you’re against abortion, you should also be against capital punishment, euthenasia, most (if not all) warfare, etc.”

A similar criticism might be leveled at the pro-choice lobby, which has not successfully linked the right to abortion to other critical legal and social issues that have been affected by neo-liberal and family values legislation. Not since the Carter administration have pro-choice groups supported the absolute availability of reproductive choice, much less abortion, for all women and girls. Many women who get pregnant do not have access to good birth control, either because they are too young to receive it in states that require parental consent; because, thanks to abstinence education, they do not know how conception occurs and how to prevent it; or because they do not have access to health care of any kind. Feminist organizations have failed to link all of these issues in a way that makes the idea of “choice” meaningful for all women.

And girls, by the way, are women too. Girls are fully capable of deciding whether they do, or do not, wish to have a baby, regardless of what their parents or boyfriends think. A girl who is old enough to care for and nurture a baby is old enough to decide not to have one, and for a parent to force a child to have a baby against her will is child abuse. If those parents want another baby, they should have one.

In fact, the question of whether we actually mean access to abortion when we say “choice” is important. People like me are schooled by the powerful NARAL Pro-Choice America not to call ourselves “pro-abortion,” but rather, to use the euphemism “pro-choice.” In deference to those who find abortion abhorrent, we are asked to focus a lot of our energy on the equally euphemistic “alternatives” that will “limit unnecessary abortions.” This means birth control, in case you don’t know what I am talking about, and this particular euphemism does the additional work of asserting that “abortion” is different from “birth control” (i.e., we who are “pro-choice” don’t support the use of abortion as birth control — even though it actually is, in the end, a form of birth control, if not a convenient or painless one like the Pill.)

We who are “pro-choice” rarely say, as I did above, that we believe abortion is a right, and that a woman’s bodily integrity should be inviolate. Rather, we support the right to a much more universal concept, “reproductive freedom.” I can’t help but think that these linguistic changes have had an effect on younger generations of men and women, who must find it harder and harder to think clearly about actual abortions and their impact on real lives from a feminist perspective. The language is simply no longer there and frankly, we almost never talk about abortion as a good thing at all: the expectation is that if you have one, you will regret it; regret is what allows you to recapture your morality, as Juno’s grief about giving her baby up for adoption in the 2007 movie of the same name licenses her return to the last few years of her “innocent” childhood. Back in 2006, Ms. Magazine tried to replicate its historic pre-Roe petition, published in the inaugural issue, in which 53 prominent American women (including Billie Jean King) came out as having had an abortion and not regretting it. It didn’t make much of a splash. What I suspect is that using the actual word “abortion” puts you out of the liberal mainstream nowadays, and being glad that you had an abortion is unspeakable.

Half the time NARAL’s message may just pass over people’s heads, since there is no pro-abortion equivalent for the iconic posters of second trimester fetuses that anti-abortion foes are so fond of. What kind of poster would effectively show a woman who has just received a second chance to own her body and live her life unencumbered by a baby? Or a teenager getting to be a kid instead of a mother at sixteen? Furthermore, if it is a war of words, the anti-abortion folks have won by laying claim to a set of qualities that many among them actually possess. Being “pro-life” as a generic concept is hard to quarrel with. Despite the factions in that group who support the death penalty and war “to save our freedoms,” pro-life reads as loving, caring, nurturing, sensitive and community-oriented. Being pro-choice, however, is easy to ready as liberal in the worst, market-oriented sense of the word. Only privileged people really have choices, in the grand scheme of things, and to reserve your right to make choices by yourself, come hell or high water, is selfish, mean and individualistic. One way to fight back, in my book, would be to change the language of choice to better reflect the fact that the qualities ascribed to both groups are pretty evenly spread across society, regardless of one’s position on abortion.

As Donald Critchlow’s excellent book The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective points out, NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights League, now NARAL-Pro Choice America) has practiced a politics of retreat for the last quarter century. They have preferred to participate in shaping the limits on abortion ra
ther than fighting for open access, on the theory that this might mollify those who wish to void Roe altogether. This means they have backed off on nearly every critical legislative issue related to abortion (parental consent, paternal notification, funding for women in the military, access of women on public assistance to abortion.) Not only have they failed to establish a stable status quo with those who oppose any and all abortions, they have managed to preserve a “right” that is, practically speaking, available to fewer and fewer women because of the tangle of legal obstacles and false science (such as the notion that preventing conception, or knocking out a bunch of cells that have divided a couple times with a morning after pill, is actually abortion) that have been put in the way.

Language points us in another important direction that supplements Critchlow’s analysis: NARAL’s website (which, by the way, for its web address, has dropped the NARAL in favor of ProChoice alone, perhaps a harbinger of a name change that will drop all references to abortion.) Look at the first page of the website, and you will see the word “abortion” exactly once, and that in a link to a headline news story. But the word choice appears nine times (in contrast, National Right to Life uses some version of the word “abortion” nineteen times on its opening page.) This tells us something about the politics of NARAL: what it is fighting for is in code and open to interpretation. It is something we are embarrassed to talk about, and the real meaning of our politics is only available to insiders. This linguistic strategy may reflect a desire to bring as many people as possible who support abortion in any way in under the same tent, but I’ll tell you right now that it isn’t working. Worse, this language makes accommodating to limiting women’s bodily autonomy the only strategy. It obscures and deflects the fundamental feminist issue at stake: the point of abortion rights is a woman’s right to own and govern her own body, and to make her own decision as to whether she will become a mother. This right ought not to be abrogated by family, age, economic condition, marital status or the state. Once you compromise that right, you have missed the point.

The picture above depicts Ann Lohman, a.k.a. Madame Restell, the famous Manhattan abortionist, being arrested by the authorities in 1878. The nineteenth century press used the word “Restellism” as a euphemism for abortion. Hat tip. Cross posted at Cliopatria.

This entry was posted in abortion, feminism, NARAL ProChoice America, National Right to Life, politics, the Radical testifies. Bookmark the permalink.