Tuesday, June 09, 2009

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

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 rather 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.


Historiann said...

Brilliant. I too have been troubled by the inability of people and organizations supposedly on "my side" to utter the word "abortion." You're exactly right--bodily autonomy, as guaranteed by the 4th, 9th, and 13th amendments to the U.S. Constitution is exactly what's at stake. What is it *but* slavery to force a woman to bear a child she doesn't want and/or can't possibly care for? Do we really thing that men's "houses, papers, and effects" are more sacrosanct than women's "persons?"

(Don't answer that.)

moria said...

TR, I dig it as usual. Still, a few thoughts.

One argument in favor of retaining "pro-choice," despite its euphemistic status, might be something like defending a "seamless garment" of our leftist own. You suggest that lack of access to contraception, coupled with lack of access to information, is at the root of this country's reproductive problems. I agree with you. This is where "choice" is such a powerful term: the "right" to choose on its own is not enough without the infrastructure in place that gives people - not only, but especially, women - the tools with which to make an informed choice. AND, I contend, that choice has to include not only contraceptive methods but also a whole range of choices relating to sex and gender: whether or not to have sex, with whom, and when (abstinence education, as you point out, drives directly against empowering especially young women to make this choice); how to have sex (it's more than just penis-vagina penetration, kids!); that there's a range of options (so many flavors of queer!) for both sexual practice and gender identification; that there is an entire network of NGOs out there ready to help (no young woman's cell phone should be without the telephone numbers of a rape crisis center and a Planned Parenthood); what sexual abuse and assault are, how to protect oneself against them, and what to do in the event of their occurrence. Material tools, too: mandatory access to free safer sex supplies (not just condoms!) in public schools would be a fine start.

Our definition of "choice" has become too narrow. If we stand by "in favor of legal access to abortion," in the name of avoiding the weakness of euphemism, we risk losing the complexity and breadth of the problem at hand.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this.

Janice said...

I'm in complete agreement with you on this. We're letting down ourselves as well as the next generations when we don't ensure that women, everywhere, receive education about their bodies as well as the tools to properly care for themselves. (Moria, I love your comment and agree with so much of what you've written.)

I support a woman's right to an abortion without question. Furthermore, I support the mission of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, NARAL, Planned Parenthood and other groups to give women the information and tools to have safely sex when they're ready and to protect themselves from any problematic consequences. Anything less is just unacceptable in my book.

JackDanielsBlack said...

"And girls, by the way, are women too". I trust this means that in addition to supporting a minor's right to abortion even if her parents are opposed, you would also support, say, the decision of a 14 year old girl who was making straight A's in school if she got pregnant and decided to have the baby and raise it herself even if her parents disapproved. After all, autonomy is autonomy, right?

Tenured Radical said...


Natch: I'm not about terminating fetuses whenever possible. Legal, safe and accessible abortion for minors is not the equivalent of forcing abortion on minors.

delightw said...

So happy to have seen this.I have often wondered when people will understand,really understand ,that it is and has never been about the "life" of the fetus but rather about keeping women "in their place".Thank you!

Anonymous said...

During the 2004 election cycle, I got in repeated arguments with progressives over Dennis Kucinich, whose record on abortion rights was very bad. I found again and again that progressives didn't see abortion rights as integral to a progressive politics. What surprised me most, though, was the number of women my age and younger who had adopted that line of argumentation- that abortion is a secondary struggle. My argument was that without freedom of reproductive control, women's bodies and labor would always be prevented from enjoying the labor, environmental, and trade dreams of a left-ish politics.

It often fell on deaf ears. It was my feeling at the time and is my feeling now that this is due to the process you describe above-- to ceding rhetorical ground to the anti's, to a defensive politics.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, good answer. I personally think that more pregnant teenagers (particularly white middle-class teenagers) get talked into an abortion than get talked out of one, but that's just me. Anyway, I think we have two cultures struggling against each other in this country -- a culture of life and a culture of death -- and that we need to always try to embrace life as best we can. Very Manichaean, I know, but that's what happens when you pick up your ethics in the 1940s from Irish nuns. I gather that you picked up your ethics from another source.

What will be really funny is if future Supreme Court justice Sotomayor turns out to be pro-life (stranger things have happened in my lifetime). If this happens, I will be (as the kids say) ROFLMAO. Not likely, perhaps, but I can dream, can't I?

Anonymous said...

@jackdanielsblack-- I simply refuse to accept the label that there are contending cultures of life and death, and that supporters of abortion rights are part of a culture of death. Abortion is not killing. (And neither is the pill-- just wait for those signs this weekend.) For me, abortion is a life-affirming decision for people who are already living. I have spent a lot of time with people on both sides of this issue, and in my personal experience the life affirming people I know support abortion rights.

The denial of women's moral capacity that is both implicit and explicit in the anti-abortion movement is controlling, judgmental, and denying of the full humanity to women. That, to me, is a culture of death-- it is a culture that justifies murder in the case of Tiller, that justifies incredible harassment in an effort to deny women the basic equality of controlling not only reproduction, but who and what is welcome in an individual's body. It is an escape from freedom in the tradition of Fromm.

I know you've advocated a full life ethic from conception to death-- but between those moments, without the individual capacity to own and control one's person, I don't see a life ethic.

Susan said...

Thank you, TR. I'd only add to Moria's excellent comment that health insurance/decent health care comes into the mix too as part of an infrastructure.

I had an abortion when I was 20; I think one of the most pernicious things about the debate is how rarely women name the experience, even though somewhere (I think) between 1/4 and 1/3 of adult women have had abortions. If I had been 30 at the time, and more settled, grown up, etc., I would not have done so; I do know it was the death of a hope, but it was not a baby. I agree with Obama that the best we can do now is do our best to reduce the circumstances in which women have abortions -- and that means real sex education, funding for family planning, etc.

I also think that there is a level of fantasy going on, that if we get rid of legal abortion, we get rid of abortion. As a historian, I know that women have always found ways to have abortions, often without naming it. In the 17th C when taking the herbs that would "bring on my flowers" (induce a period) did not work, women often contrived to give birth alone and overlay the baby. This is not pretty. But it's history.

JackDanielsBlack said...

parezcoydigo, if you don't think that a fetus is a person, I know from experience that there is nothing I could say that would change your mind. Perhaps if you'd look closely at a few sonograms of unborn "nonpeople" you would change your mind--but I doubt it.

Abortion is not killing? I can see how you could believe that abortion is not murder, but I doubt that many folks would agree that abortion does not involve killing the fetus.

Historiann said...

Jack, you're of course entitled to your views, and yes, abortion entails the killing of something. But in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, it's not a baby, and much of the time it's not even recognizeably a human fetus.

I have seen ultrasound images--several of them, in fact, of a child who was and is very much wanted and very much loved. But, until the end of the first third of pregnancy, that "baby" looks a lot like a jellybean, and then maybe like a tadpole with a hugely disproportionate head. The idea that such a tiny, dependent creature who couldn't possibly survive outside the womb might have rights or interests that trump that of the womb owner is outrageous. The womb owner--even if she is a 14-year old girl, 20 year-old Susan, or 40 year old me--is a living, breathing citizen who is part of a community. She has people who depend on her--on her work, on her help, or just on her love and affection. Moreover, those girls and women have rights as citizens--and it's the erasure of women and girls and the worship of formless jellybeans and tadpoles that is profoundly offensive to me and to most feminists, whether they are mothers themselves or not.

To us, it seems like the same old song: our society prefers to recognize the rights of just about anything before they will recognize women's rights and the fact that women are citizens, too--citizens whose persons are in fact covered by the 4th, 9th, and 13th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can think whatever you want about fetuses and babies--but so can everyone else here, and it's much, much, much better for all concerned that women's rights as citizens and as creatures capable of moral reasoning that they make their own decisions about whether they bear children or not.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Historiann, I understand and respect your point of view, but I am haunted by the thought that we should judge our society based on how it treats its least powerful members. Is anyone less powerful than a "tiny, dependent" unborn baby. And speaking of "The work that euphemism does", I think that calling unborn babies "creatures" so that you don't have to feel guilty about doing away with them illustrates euphemism very well.

Knobby said...

It has long been a truism among the chattering classes that the dynamic of the abortion wars in the US can be explained by the fact that abortion rights were established through the courts, and not through political process. I'm not entirely convinced by this argument (I shudder to think of what such a process might have produced), but I wonder if there is not a grain of truth in it.

Instead of arguing the merits of abortion rights in a public forum, advocates have basically focused on preserving the legal status quo, by trying to make sure that there are at least 5 justices "more or less" of their side or who at the very least understand Roe v. Wade to be "established precedent." Basically, this is a *conservative*, based upon the premise that the termination of a pregnancy should be included among the time-honored rights according to all Americans. The problem is that: 1) a decent number of Americans have never perceived this right as legitimate; and 2) it means that the case for abortion rights is rarely argued on its merits, so much of the political vitality is on the other side of the debate.

Sisyphus said...

Don't forget that the 70s-era feminist manifestos calling for abortion on demand also insisted that free 24-hr public daycares be made available in the same sentence.

TR, I love that old-timey picture! Who's the chick in the burqua off to the side?

Tenured Radical said...


Right you are -- and I would say that family values conservatives might want to think about how many fetuses might be brought to term if they didn't insist that children be raised without any resources to care for them when their parents (or a single mom) is at work. Reducing abortions is not my issue, but affordable daycare might be one viable route to do that.

The woman on the left is, I think, a humiliated socialite who has come veiled to get an abortion. Gail Bederman would know the answer to that question!

timna said...

I think we need to skew the rhetoric a bit and call it "Pro (fetal) Life" to remind ourselves and others that so many of the folks who oppose abortion do not support childcare, etc.

Anonymous said...

@jackdanielsblack - Nice try, but I have a son, and my wife has miscarried- spontaneously aborted a wanted kiddo before. I've seen many sonograms-- even the nifty new 3d kind that show features I recognized after my son was born.

A fetus is not an independent person. We could go the contract theory route (you know contract theory, right- the basis of modern republics) and there is still no way one can argue that the fetus trumps the woman's rights. The fetus is an invader, who steals resources from the woman's womb. On the basis of contract theory, a woman's body is her possession, and she has every right to decide whether or not the invading "person" is a welcomed guest. If not, she has every right of self-defense to prevent the fetus from acquiring her property without consent.

I do believe a fetus is a potential person, of course, but potentialities do not accord, more-less supersede the rights of a flesh and blood living woman.

And yet, not of that answers to the reality that your rhetorical culture of life/culture of death breeds intolerance and violence in what is a legal medical procedure. I find dignity and respect as life affirming. The people I see on the street corners at clinics in my hometown lack dignity and respect at every turn.

So no, you won't change my mind with some sonograms

JackDanielsBlack said...

perezcoydigo, looks like we have gone from "abortion is not killing" to abortion is self-defense against an invading marauder. Looks to me like as your argument prgresses, the fetus is crawling (as it were) toward personhood! Perhaps we're making progress.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Sisyphus, I not only think we should have free daycare, I think we should do as France used to do (and maybe still does) and pay folks to bring kids to term. Maybe increase the tax deduction for children as well. I'm all for making life as good as possible for mothers and their kids -- in fact, I think society owes it to them.

Of course, now some grouch is going to come along and start talking about the need for population control -- as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

EC said...

two thoughts, related but not necessarily in response to the thread.

A wise pro-choice woman once pointed out that "There aren’t ‘women who have abortions’ and ‘women who have babies’. Those are the same women at different points in their lives." The data supports this point: over 60% of women seeking abortions already have children and many will go on to have more.

When I say I'm pro-choice I don't feel it is a euphemism for pro-abortion.

Like many have expressed here, I work for women's reproductive rights because I feel they are fundamental human rights.

I see abortion as a medical procedure that many women choose-- Susan was almost right-- more than 1/3 of US women will have had an abortion by age 45.

I work for abortion rights/access because there is a movement to eviscerate them. If any of the other pregnancy options (adoption, giving birth) were similarly under attack I would fight for those too, and consider myself to be fighting for choice and reproductive rights. but where I live abortion rights are what is in jeopardy.

For context: I work for an organization that provides abortions and other women's health care. I am under 30.

Anonymous said...

@jackdanielsblack - you saw the scare quotes around "person" right? The invading marauder is more akin to a parasite-- because that's what an unwanted fetus is, an entity that feeds off of its host.

Still, abortion is not killing a person. That's my stance and I'm sticking to it.

I am pro-abortion because it is my position that women will never be truly equal unless they have complete control over their own reproduction. Without that control, they are always potentially enslaved by their wombs. Of course the preferential method for stopping unwanted pregnancies is easy and affordable access to birth control.

And this coming weekend there is a national protest with the slogan "The Pill Kills." The pro-fetus contingent in this nation doesn't want to just stop abortion (which they will never do, though they may succeed in making it very dangerous again)-- they want to enslave women to their wombs, or re-inscribe sex as something only done for procreation.

Its bullshit, and its misogyny.

JackDanielsBlack said...

parezcoydego: "Its bullshit" What a stunning argument--if you're a third-grader on the playground. However, if you're an adult, I fear it leaves a little to be desired intellectually.

Serena said...

Wow - great post. I definitely gives me a lot to chew on. I have to agree with the comments from Moria, though. I think choice encompasses so much more than the right to have an abortion. But I do agree with what you said - abortion is a right. A woman has the right to control her own reproductive destiny - period.

Anonymous said...

I'm not pro-abortion any more than I am pro-divorce. They are both the best solution to an untenable situation.

Shall we go back to the old statistics about countries where abortion was safe and legal vs. countries where it wasn't? Similar rates of abortion -- all that differed was the rates of deaths of women. And the suffering of their already-born children, deprived of their mothers.

- Tenuous, so only quietly radical