Abortion shouldn’t be a dirty word

January 23, 2013

Abortion rights supporters should worry not about labels, but the state of the struggle.

"MOST THINGS in life aren't simple. And that includes abortion...Pro-choice? Pro-life? The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don't reflect how people actually feel about abortion."

So says the video for "Not in her shoes," a new ad campaign by Planned Parenthood to explain why the group is abandoning the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" (but, let's be honest, especially "pro-choice").

Planned Parenthood's decision is supposed to help the organization respond to public opinion, which shows a minority of people support women being allowed to choose abortion without restriction. The move is also meant to insulate Planned Parenthood from attacks by the right wing. Across the country, Republican lawmakers are hell-bent on cutting the organization's funding and driving it out of business altogether--as part of a wider assault on abortion rights.

Given such an onslaught, it's understandable that Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice advocates would feel embattled. But the decision to drop the "pro-choice" label won't stop the attacks. What it will do is give up more ground to the right, at the same time that a slew of new laws and restrictions threaten to close more of the remaining abortion providers in the U.S.

Planned Parenthood says it's giving up the "pro-choice" label

Abortion must be every woman's right--without restriction and without apology. Concessions by organizations like Planned Parenthood, whether on ideological questions or specific proposals, only allow the right to get further in its drive to make abortion inaccessible, if not outright illegal.

We have an opportunity now to rebuild the fight for abortion rights. Opinion polls show that the right-wing assault on choice, coupled with the misogynist ranting of Republican rape apologists during last year's election campaign, has horrified large numbers of people--and reversed the steady decline in the number of people who say they favor Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision granting women the right to abortion.

That's a positive sign. But our side won't get anywhere in the effort to turn the tide if those who support the right to choose can't bring themselves to defend abortion rights without apologizing for them.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD'S new ad campaign and its decision to jettison the "pro-choice" label comes amid a ramped-up right-wing assault on the group.

In states around the country, lawmakers are trying to eliminate funding for contraception and to block Planned Parenthood's participation in public health programs. Texas is a prime example: State lawmakers, led by Gov. Rick Perry, are attempting to defund the group--and any others that might simply refer women to abortion providers--by preventing it from receiving Medicare funds.

Other state laws, known as "targeted regulations of abortion providers" (the appropriate acronym is TRAPs), would put clinics out of business by retroactively legislating, for example, the size of clinic doorways and halls, and imposing various requirements on doctors to prevent them from providing abortions. In Mississippi, one TRAP law is about to shut down the state's only remaining abortion clinic.

Together, 2011 and 2012 saw the highest number of state-level abortion restrictions since Roe was decided 40 years ago this month. More than half of all U.S. women of reproductive age now live in a state that is considered "hostile" to abortion rights

Planned Parenthood is justifying its decision by pointing to recent polls showing that people are dissatisfied with the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels. But as Slate.com's Amanada Marcotte wrote, dropping labels won't solve the larger issue--how to win back the ideological and legislative ground that the right wing has clawed away from us over four decades:

What's irritating about this decision is that, in Planned Parenthood's focus groups, people who are, in fact, pro-choice run away from the term: "I'm neither pro-choice nor pro-life," said one woman in a focus group commissioned by Planned Parenthood. "I'm pro-whatever-the-situation is." Said another, "there should be three: pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances...It's not just black or white, there's grey."

The correct term for people who want abortion to be decided on a case-by-case basis is pro-choice, unless, of course, these focus-group participants imagine a panel to which each woman has to make her case in order to determine if she's a good enough girl to avoid punishment by forced childbirth.

The larger problem, of course, is that if so many people reject "traditional labels," it's because there hasn't been an unapologetic defense of the right to abortion coming from liberals and the left for several decades.

Planned Parenthood's video asks: "[W]hen it comes to abortion, who decides? [A woman's] congressman? Her governor? Her president?" But the problem is that far too many people are perfectly fine with a woman's congressman or governor or her parents or boyfriend or husband should have a say in that decision. That's not only because of the right-wing assault--it's in part because of the failed strategies of the mainstream pro-choice movement.

As author William Saletan details in Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, it was precisely that question--"Who decides?"--that pro-choice groups like NARAL and others adopted as part of a more conservative strategy around abortion rights in the 1980s. In many ways, the label "pro-choice," as opposed to "pro-abortion," was itself a retreat--a step back from the militancy of the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s that pressured the Supreme Court to decide Roe v. Wade and that demanded free abortion on demand.

Saletan, who is by no means a left-winger, explains that framing the debate over abortion rights as a matter of "choice"--rather than an assertion of an individual woman's fundamental right to control her own body--was seen as the "pragmatic" strategy. But this ceded ground to a right wing that made no such concessions to "pragmatism"--and the mainstream movement was pulled along with it.

Thus, in 1989, as the Supreme Court was hearing the key abortion rights case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, NARAL warned its members not to talk about issues like feminism, civil rights or labor issues. "AVOID LOADED RHETORIC--You may actually believe it, just don't say it," read one memo to NARAL staffers. "Using phrases such as 'don't put women back in their places,' 'a woman's body is her own to control,' 'having a child limits a woman's choices,' etc., just triggers the hostility so many people feel about women's issues."

FAILING TO make a full-throated defense of the right to abortion--without disclaimers about wanting to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies or qualifications about what a "sad, even tragic choice" abortion is, as Hillary Clinton once said--has allowed the backsliding to continue. Even on the left, support for a women's right to choose abortion can no longer be taken for granted.

What Planned Parenthood's new campaign misses is that, for many women, abortion is not "complicated." It is a simple medical procedure that is, more than anything else, a relief.

What's not "simple" today, however, is trying to obtain an abortion. That means jumping through the increasingly restrictive hoops mandated by state and local politicians--waiting periods, ultrasounds, inaccurate medical information, parental consent forms, prohibitive costs and much more--to have an abortion.

And it isn't just abortion rights, but reproductive rights overall that are under attack today. Conservatives are leading a charge against birth control, and pregnant women are being subjected to arrest, jail and detention in mental institutions based solely on their pregnancy status.

Meanwhile, victims of state sterilization programs that continued through the 1970s--mainly Black and Latino women sterilized without their consent after being deemed "promiscuous" or "feeble-minded"--are still fighting for some measure of justice for the crimes committed against them.

In this context, Planned Parenthood's retreat on defending a woman's "choice" in favor of a vague idea of having a "conversation" about reproductive rights based on "mutual respect and empathy" will fail. The right wing might have empathy and respect for fetuses, but not for actually existing women.

Shifting mainstream opinion and public policy will only happen if we rebuild the kind of fighting movement that won abortion rights in the first place--by signaling to politicians and the courts that women won't tolerate the back alleys.

Now is the perfect time for such a movement. Polls show that support for Roe v. Wade grew last year for the first time in many years. Seven out of ten Americans now believe Roe should stand--the highest level of support since 1989.

No doubt this is due in some part to the parade of misogyny we witnessed during election season, with right-wing politicians pontificating about "legitimate rape" and about when it was or wasn't okay for a woman to have an abortion.

Outrage was also key to building the bottom-up struggles that won abortion rights in the 1970s--and that changed attitudes about what a woman should be able to do with her own body. Plus, the fight for abortion rights was also connected to a larger movement organizing for women's rights in all areas: for child care and maternity leave; for rights in the workplace, including equal pay; for laws against domestic violence and rape.

Thousands of women protested, marched and spoke out--about their own experiences with back-alley abortions and their desire for a world where the need for them no longer existed. They didn't talk about abortion by using euphemisms or "not letting labels box them in." Their struggle was for fundamental rights and dignity.

"Abortion" shouldn't be a dirty word. It's health care, and health care should be a right. Only an unapologetic defense can change people's minds and start to win back the ground lost since legal abortion was won 40 years ago.

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