How Anti-Abortion Rhetoric Shapes Pro-Choice Advocacy
Historians and advocates for reproductive justice say our understanding of abortion has been influenced by the anti-abortion movement's "pro-life" arguments against it.
For several weeks stretching from early-February well into March, President Donald Trump couldn’t stop talking about abortion.
During his State of the Union Address, Trump criticized a law that lifted a longstanding criminal ban on abortion after 24 weeks in New York, saying it allowed fetuses to be “ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” The following week, Trump held a rally in El Paso, Texas, where he told the crowd that comments Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made days before—in response to a question about a bill to ease restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy—amounted to an endorsement of infanticide. “Democrats are also pushing extreme late-term abortion,” Trump said from the stage to his booing supporters.
“Late-term abortion” isn’t a medical term, Anuj Khattar, an abortion provider based in Washington, explained to Broadly last month. He described it as a rhetorical tactic anti-choice individuals use to “create more emotion around the process of abortion and make people feel empathy for the fetus.” Neither is “partial-birth abortion,” a term that has been used over decades to talk about a common second-trimester abortion procedure. "First of all, one can’t be partially born," Jennifer Gunter, a California-based OB/GYN, explained in a 2016 HuffPost column on what she sees as the absurdity of the “partial-birth abortion” term.
If we accept that language shapes our reality, then it’s not just possible but likely that the way we think about abortion, the way it’s legislated and regulated, and the polarized debate that swirls around it, has been influenced by terms like these. In many cases, it’s the anti-abortion camp that has either created the words we use to talk about abortion or redefined existing ones to suit its agenda—a phenomenon pro-choice advocates, abortion providers, and scholars say has resulted in our understanding of abortion care being shaped by an inherent bias against it. Some argue the implicit message these words and phrases carry—that abortion is morally wrong and shameful—has managed to infiltrate the pro-choice side of the debate as well, meaning even the most ardent feminist activists might find themselves inadvertently apologizing for abortion even as they fight for the universal right to access it.
As federal abortion rights continue to face grave threats from a newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court, the stakes have gotten higher for those against more restrictions. Under these circumstances, thinking carefully about how we discuss abortion isn’t a petty semantic concern, Nathan Stormer, a University of Maine professor of rhetoric, explained: It’s a matter of women’s lives, and their ability to lead the lives they want.
“The secret rhetorical value of abortion is how it allows people to promote different ways of living over others—and that comes on the backs of women,” Stormer said. “And that’s what’s repugnant."
The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” frame contemporary debates around abortion. The former, which has come to represent the anti-abortion position, dates back to a 1960 text from the famous Scottish educator A.S. Neill, who used it to promote a progressive, “pro-life” approach to parenting. In the later half of the ‘60s, however, anti-abortion activists adapted the term for their slogan “right to life,” later changing it to “pro-life” after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973.
When Katha Pollitt, the author of the 2014 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, reflects on pivotal moments for the abortion rights movement, she counts this—the moment the anti-abortion side of the debate decided to identify itself as “pro-life”—as its biggest loss. “The anti-abortion movement managed to colonize the word ‘life,’ which is a very big and resonant and powerful word,” Pollitt said in a phone interview. “One thing that’s great about it is that it casts the other side as ‘pro-death.’”
The anti-abortion movement has also found success in that endeavor by making fetal personhood, the notion that a fetus has the same rights as a human being, its linchpin. This hadn’t always been the movement’s focus: Early arguments against abortion largely focused on the moral and social imperative for women to have children as well as maternal safety, according to Stormer, who studies medical literature on abortion from the 1800s to 1960s. In the mid-19th century, he explained, abortion did in fact pose a significant risk to maternal health, simply because knowledge about how to perform one safely and effectively wasn’t widespread. “People [opposed to abortion] would say, ‘Women are bleeding and dying’—and it was true,” Stormer said.
Over time, medicine became more sophisticated, abortion became safe, and, in 1973, it became legal. Rather than focusing on women’s lives, the anti-abortion camp found a stronger foothold in rhetoric emphasizing fetal life, which provided the basis for its new “pro-life” designation. Advancements in science also presented anti-abortion activists with the opportunity to further their cause, often by distorting scientific facts to fit their narrative.
Of these advancements, the development of ultrasound technology has been the biggest boon for the anti-abortion movement: Ultrasound machines became commonplace in clinical settings in the early 1960s, the availability of which led to a now-famous LIFE magazine photo essay of a 28-week fetus, “The Drama of Life Before Birth.” In 1976, medical ultrasonics became advanced enough that doctors could pick up the electrical pulses cardiac cells make as they develop—a phenomenon anti-abortion activists have come to refer to as a “fetal heartbeat."
“The anti-abortion movement managed to colonize the word ‘life,’ which is a very big and resonant and powerful word."
Anti-abortion politicians and activists continue to try to make science cohere to arguments against abortion. The typical anti-abortion protest in 2019 might include blown-up sonograms of fetuses developed past the point at which most women terminate pregnancies, or photos of infant children. “Fetal heartbeat” bills, which use the point at which doctors can first detect a “heartbeat”—around six weeks—as the threshold for banning abortion, have become increasingly popular among conservatives, as have legislative proposals concerning “fetal pain,” which seek to ban abortion at 20 weeks based on the scientifically debunked idea that fetuses begin to feel pain at that time.
When Iowa Republican Steve King introduced his version of a “fetal heartbeat” ban in 2017, he used an ultrasound machine to drive home his message. As the sound of a heartbeat thrummed over the speakers, King told attendees of the House committee meeting: “He can’t wait to be born.”And leaders in the anti-abortion movement also made a broader effort to invoke scientific consensus when they themed this year’s March for Life “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” arguing in a mission statement that “life begins at fertilization, or day one, when egg meets sperm and a new, unique, human embryo is created."
“Technology, science, and medical developments provide the means to shape persuasive rhetoric to protect human life,” Clarke Forsythe, the senior counsel at Americans United for Life, the country’s first pro-life public interest law firm, wrote in an email.
That the pro-abortion rights camp would settle on “choice” to counter the anti-abortion discourse wasn’t always a given. In the early 1970s, Jimmye Kimmey, the executive director of a now-defunct group known as the Association for the Study of Abortion, wrote a memo arguing “choice” was the best way to counter the weightiness of “life.”
“‘Right to life’ is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words—an important consideration in English,” she wrote at the time. “We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And...choice has to do with action, and it's action that we're concerned with.’”
But even as abortion rights activists began to coalesce around the term “pro-choice,” discussions concerning the merits of the label sprung up in women’s organizations across the country. Years after Kimmey’s memo, a young woman who would go on to lead the National Organization for Women was attending one of her first meetings with the organization, where board members were debating the use of the term.
“We had a big discussion about whether we would say ‘pro-abortion’ or ‘pro-choice,’” Toni Van Pelt, who has served as NOW’s president since August 2017, said on the phone earlier this month. “We determined that we would go with ‘pro-choice’ because our goal was women’s self-autonomy. We didn’t want it to seem like we were pushing abortion on people.”
Van Pelt said she was “agnostic” at the time of the discussion—1989—and NOW ultimately decided to take the mainstream feminist line of using “pro-choice,” thought it has since adopted messaging referring to abortion as a human right. Considering the current threats to abortion rights on the local, state, and federal level, Van Pelt says she sympathizes with the early arguments in favor of taking a stronger rhetorical stance.
“What we’re seeing today is probably why people wanted to use the term ‘pro-abortion,’” Van Pelt continued. “And that’s because there’s nothing wrong with abortion and there’s nothing wrong with using the term ‘abortion.’ It shouldn’t be stigmatized.”
In the fetal personhood discourse, abortion constitutes murder, a crime for which society reserves its harshest moral judgements. And it’s in this context that nearly 1 in 4 women will obtain an abortion in her lifetime, according to Guttmacher Institute. Some say even those who reject the anti-abortion movement’s central premise—that a fetus is a person—can easily internalize its pro-life messaging.
Amid recently reignited debates over abortions later in pregnancy (again, widely discussed using the medically inaccurate term “late-term abortion”), a woman named Dana Weinstein told Broadly about the shame she’d experienced terminating a pregnancy around the 31-week mark, about a decade ago. At 29 weeks, her doctor had showed her an MRI scan of the fetus’ brain, showing gaping parts of it missing. The doctor told her the missing parts of the fetus’ brain meant that either the baby would seize to death moments after delivery, or that it would spend the rest of its life experiencing seizures 70 percent of the time. As Weinstein sought second and third opinions from genetic counselors and specialists, she says there was no point at which anyone present terminating the pregnancy as an option. When she finally asked if having an abortion was a possibility, she was overcome by tremendous guilt.
"I kept telling my husband, 'Please don't think I'm a horrible person,'" Weinstein said. "Of course he didn't—but it was so frustrating that I had this stigma in my face when I was in this devastating situation."
Anti-abortion activists circulate misinformation about abortion all of the time—common claims that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, or feelings of depression, for example, have all been disproven—and that misinformation can impact women’s choices. But so too can the intent behind spreading it, said Diane Horvath-Cosper, an OB/GYN and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Horvath-Cosper hears traces of this stigma all the time in her work as a Maryland abortion provider. “People come in and ask questions about the procedure that makes it very clear to me that the info they’ve received has been misrepresented by anti-abortion groups,” she said. “Because the messaging is so negative and vile, people come in with an extra layer of guilt and sadness.”
It’s one of the pro-choice movement’s foremost objectives to get rid of that guilt and sadness. But even so, abortion rights activists see a slow creep of anti-abortion ideology influencing their own messaging and approach to advocacy.
“When I started at NOW, we started with: ‘Abortion on Demand, Without Apology,’” Van Pelt, the president of NOW, said. “But the movement as a whole stopped emphasizing that because of the blowback.”
The slogan had been popular in the pre- Roe 1970s, when the pro-life movement was still working to become more unified and organized. And though there are sects of the feminist movement that continue to use it, the rallying cry softened over time, partly in response to the still-pervasive anti-choice narrative that women were getting abortions on a whim. “They would say, ‘Oh, she needed to get her nails done and the pregnancy was an inconvenience to her, so she got an abortion,” Van Pelt recalled, thinking back to the discourse of the late 80s, when she first joined NOW.
The Democratic Party under President Bill Clinton pushed the left to reframe the abortion debate when, in 1996, he used the slogan “safe, legal, and rare” to describe the party’s position. This moment helped precipitate what Pollitt calls the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, a central feature of which involves pro-choice advocates unwittingly implying that abortion is something regrettable and unfortunate.
At times, Pollitt says this internalized stigma seems to have penetrated even the highest reaches of abortion rights advocacy. When the Susan G. Komen Foundation withdrew funding from Planned Parenthood in 2012 amid a congressional investigation many thought to be fueled by anti-abortion activism, spokespeople from Planned Parenthood responded by reassuring the foundation that preventative care made up 90 percent of its services. And for years after, Planned Parenthood emphasized that abortion represented just 3 percent of what it provides to patients, the sort of statement Pollitt sees as a missed opportunity to say instead: “Yes, we provide abortions, a legal and necessary service, and we’re proud to do that.” Planned Parenthood did not respond to Broadly’s requests for comment, but on its website the organization states it is “proud to provide safe, legal abortion at health centers around the country.”
Pollitt says she understands what would move pro-choice advocates to make these appeals to the opposition: Planned Parenthood is under constant threat from the Trump administration. And, more broadly, as supporters of choice consider a country without federally guaranteed abortion rights, they’re forced to discuss some of the terrible positions women find themselves in that may necessitate abortion.
“I think pro-choicers are in a terrible bind,” Pollitt said. “You have to talk about rape victims, fatal fetal anomalies, and the risk to women’s lives when abortion becomes unavailable. … I understand all of this softened language, but I wish there were more people out there who used the stronger, prouder language.”
Much of this bolder language can be found in abortion storytelling, which most pro-choice advocates have come to see as the movement’s most effective strategy.
The origins of abortion storytelling trace back at least as far as 1971, when, led by French feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir, 343 women published a manifesto, declaring: “One million women have abortions each year in France.” The year after, abortion storytelling gained a prominent platform in the US when Ms. magazine published its inaugural issue, featuring a story titled “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions.” The names of 53 women who had obtained abortions appeared beneath the article, including the likes of Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem.
One of the contemporary iterations of this phenomenon is Shout Your Abortion, an abortion storytelling platform a woman named Amelia Bonow started by accident in 2015. Following a congressional vote to defund Planned Parenthood, Bonow wrote a Facebook post about the positive experience she had getting an abortion at Planned Parenthood the year before. Days later, she took her story to Twitter, this time tagging it #ShoutYourAbortion; in just two weeks, more than 150,000 other posts cropped up using the same tag. “There’s something about talking about your life on your own terms that’s just unassailable,” Bonow said.
Four years later, the hashtag is still widely used, and pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood have launched their own storytelling campaigns to speak out against abortion restrictions on the state and federal level.
“There’s something about talking about your life on your own terms that’s just unassailable."
In the face of pro-choice apologetics, other abortion rights advocates have pushed more to identify as “pro-abortion,” that daunting label NOW and other women’s groups opted to avoid in the 80s. In an August 2018 piece for The Outline, writer Kathi Valeii asserts that “plenty of people are pro-abortion”—so more of them should say so.
“At its core, ‘no one is pro-abortion’ is a message of concession,” Valeii wrote. “It is this kind of rhetorical ceding that makes room for the anti-choice agenda to flourish, which has resulted in the consistent whittling away of people’s ability to access abortion.”
When Stormer considers the possibilities for how shifting language can change the abortion debate, he becomes pessimistic. Even being a rhetorical scholar, an area of study that relies on a belief in the power of words and how we employ them, he doesn’t see how using different ones could ever bridge the divide between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. The slogans, the messaging, the individual words and phrases we use to discuss abortion have changed dramatically since the 19th century, he said, yet the underlying arguments and values have remained the same.
But for Stormer, the goal of recasting the language surrounding abortion isn’t to reach a point of reconciliation—it’s to find a way to put up the best defense possible for the women whose lives depend on access to abortion.
“After all of this time, after all of the people who’ve died over this—why would we be able to resolve the debate?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that we would come to a quick resolution. The short-term thing makes the most sense: Next year, women need to have more access.”
How can pro-choice advocates achieve this? Stormer has thought through many of the possibilities: He can see the pros and cons of framing abortion as a human right, or framing abortion as a form of health care, discourses that have emerged more forcefully in the Trump era. But at the basis of all these, he says, is the overarching idea that abortion is good, which is the most vital part of any argument in favor of it.
“If you frame abortion as a social good, it shifts things a bit,” Stormer said. “And the terrain will shift.”
Bonow can already feel the terrain shifting under her feet. As women continue to use #ShoutYourAbortion to talk about their experiences terminating pregnancies, she says she can see the fetters of shame falling away—one of the most powerful tools anti-choice activists have at their disposal.
“We’re chipping away at stigma and it’s working; it just is,” Bonow said. “One day we’ll get to a place where someone’s saying, ‘I’ve had five abortions; deal with it.’ We’re just not quite there yet. But it’ll happen.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify NOW's current messaging on abortion rights.