Wednesday, February 03, 2016

What Terms to Use in Discussing Abortion?

by Michael Dorf

Whenever I write something for or appear in the general-purpose media, as opposed to the self-selecting group of people who read DoL, Verdict, or, even more self-selectingly, my academic work, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have such terrific readers. Even when readers disagree strongly with my views, comments on this blog are of high quality and on the merits. As for the broader truck (not a series of tubes) that is our mediaverse, let's just say that the principle of charity--whereby one reads others' statements in their best light--is not universally observed.

Accordingly, after my most recent 15 seconds--in which I expressed concern about the potential chilling effect of the indictment of the makers of the anti-Planned Parenthood videos--I expected to take some heat from people who are pro-choice on abortion. And as I noted on Monday, I did. But I've also gotten some blowback in the other direction.

For example, one line of criticism arose in the comments section of a conservative blog that excerpted a couple of paragraphs from the CNN op-ed, in which Prof. Colb and I repeated a point I made last summer in a Verdict column: that the pro-life Center for Medical Progress (CMP) could potentially face civil liability for defamation for misleading editing of the videos. The commenters angrily pointed out that the CMP released the unedited videos alongside of the edited ones, so, they asked rhetorically, how could that possibly be defamatory?

I addressed just that question in the Verdict column, where I argued that simultaneously releasing a non-defamatory statement alongside of a defamatory one does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of defamation liability. That's clearly true with respect to words. To use the example I gave in the column, if Deirdre falsely accuses Peter of murder, the fact that she also makes statements saying that Peter is not a murderer might mitigate damages but does not eliminate the possibility of liability for the defamatory statement. There's no reason in principle to treat video differently.

Now it turns out that my column may have been too generous to CMP in characterizing the longer videos as "unedited." Planned Parenthood hired independent analysts to look at the longer videos, and they concluded that the supposedly unedited videos were in fact edited significantly. Some of these cuts were hardly subtle, as when the counter shown in the video jumps forward by 30 minutes. Because of this analysis, Prof. Colb and I thought it fair in the CNN op-ed to refer to misleading editing as a possible basis for civil liability, without including a disclaimer about the simultaneous release of ostensibly "unedited" video.

Meanwhile, an article on a pro-life website discussing our CNN op-ed appeared under the headline "Why Prosecuting the Center for Medical Progress Leaves Even Pro-Abortion Activists Worried." Although the attention is flattering, the "pro-abortion" characterization rankles, because we have written an entire book in which we take care to note the moral seriousness of the abortion of sentient fetuses and also respectfully examine the argument that abortion of pre-sentient fetuses is morally problematic. Moreover, even less reflective supporters of abortion rights cannot fairly be characterized as "pro-abortion." I do not know anyone who is pro-choice who thinks that women ought to be coerced or even encouraged to have abortions they don't want.

More generally, the "pro-abortion" language provides an opportunity to think about the inadequacy of the terms we have for talking about social and political movements with respect to abortion.

There is a sense in which both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are carefully crafted terms like "death tax"--designed to appeal to listeners at a subconscious level that biases the conversation. Indeed, "pro-life" is practically the mirror image of "death tax," in suggesting that those who are not pro-life must be pro-death. "Pro-choice" is also loaded, because, in our generally libertarian society, choice is almost always seen as a good thing. By omitting what one chooses when one exercises the right to choose, pro-choicers seek to bypass discomfort about abortion.

In our book, we nonetheless generally use the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" to refer to the respective positions. After all, that is what the groups themselves want to be called. There is clearly less at stake here than there is in referring to historically disadvantaged groups by terms that many of their members now deem offensive (as I discussed here), but some of the same logic applies. Other things being even close to equal, members of a group, rather than outsiders, should be the ones to say what their group is called. Thus, our desire to be even-handed led us to use the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice." No doubt members of the pro-life movement would prefer that the pro-choice movement be described as "pro-abortion," just as members of the pro-choice movement would prefer that the pro-life movement be described as "anti-choice."

Our terminological decision is not entirely satisfying, however, because, as noted above, both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are somewhat tendentious. "Anti-abortion" is sometimes used to describe the pro-life movement, but that is not entirely accurate either, insofar as it suggests that people who are not anti-abortion are--as Prof. Colb and I were described--"pro-abortion." Perhaps the closest we can come to a neutral description of the two movements would be to describe them, respectively, as "anti-abortion-rights" and "pro-abortion-rights." But each of those terms is a mouthful, and if they were to enter into common usage, I suspect they would be shortened to "anti-abortion" and "pro-abortion," leaving us back where I started.

Finally, I am aware of a certain (postmodernist) view that says that the quest for a neutral description is in vain. Just as there is no "view from nowhere," there is no non-perspectival language. Words have embedded assumptions, including ideological ones. I think this critique is technically correct but generally unhelpful, because we do need to have conversations. My bottom line is that we ought to have those conversations in ways that minimize the use of rhetorical dice-loading as a substitute for argument. I just haven't been able to land on a way to do that very well when talking about views about abortion, and so, by default, I have adopted the terms of the contesting positions.


David Ricardo said...

Mr. Dorf may be more charitable to conservative groups than is warranted in his discussion of ‘creative terminology’. All of us tend to adopt non-neutral descriptive phrases, phrases whose very nature tilt the listener towards the position of the speaker. But conservatives seem to do this far more than the rest of us.

The reason for changing or creating terminology favorable to a position is in many cases sheer laziness. By using a prejudicial term to describe a position a speaker takes away the need for measured discussion and replaces it with a self supporting argument. The best example as Mr. Dorf has noted is the use of the term ‘death tax’ in place of the correct term, the ‘estate tax’.

The reason that opponents of the estate tax have adopted this terminology is that the term estate tax is in itself relatively neutral and that to argue against an estate tax one must not only be familiar with its provisions but must also present those provisions to the audience along with a somewhat technical discussion of economic principles of taxation and in the context of a balanced budget how the lost revenues would be replaced. If one simply uses the term ‘death tax’ then that is all that is needed. How can anyone be in favor of a tax on death particularly when its opponents imply that everyone has to pay a death tax when they die? A death tax means the government takes all of your wealth when you die, and destroys family farms and small businesses. Wow what a terrible thing to happen.

In the abortion rights argument the two sides seems to have agreed upon a truce that gives each side inaccurate descriptions. The pro-abortion rights side is given the term ‘pro choice’ which leaves out the loaded term, ‘abortion’ and the anti-abortion rights side is allowed the totally misleading and incorrect term ‘pro life’. In fact the pro life side gets the better of the deal since the anti-abortions rights position of most of the pro life proponents are anything but pro life (against regulating firearms, against health programs which support the lives of children, against anti-pollution laws that prevent pre-mature disease and death, against government subsidies of nutrition etc).

Finally, there needs to be a term for persons who are both pro-choice and pro-life. That seemingly contradictory position is held by those of us who are adamant that the decision to abort prior to viability absolutely belongs to the woman and not the government but that government and NGO’s should adopt programs such as family planning education, easy access to contraception, easing adoption rules, pre-natal child care, expanded child care for working women etc which if fully implemented would reduce the desire for a non-therapeutic abortion to near zero. We are pro abortion rights, but not pro abortion. What do you want to call us?

T Jones said...

Don't really have a more euphonious term than "pro choice," but how about "forced pregnancy" to describe the anti-abortion position? No reason the two positions have to be "pro" something.

Joseph said...

I agree about the use of "pro-life" and pro-choice," as people have become inured to whatever insult they might suggest. I've always seen them as affirmative declarations.

David Ricardo, Prof. Dorf's point is that pro-choice does not mean anti-life, and thus no contradiction. That you are as activist about reducing abortion as you are about preserving its availability is something more rare. From a pro-choice perspective, it would be better to make that your view the broadly recognized position of the pro-choice side rather than to carve out a new category.

Joe said...

Labels are tricky here and just using an arguably misleading label of the camp in question is at best an imperfect approach.

I think in fact many people who are "pro-choice" (surely to the degree they don't want to make abortion illegal) are not big fans of abortion and support alternatives. The average person self-labeled as "pro-choice" supports "family planning education, easy access to contraception, easing adoption rules, pre-natal child care, expanded child care for working women."

I don't think this "fully implemented would reduce the desire for a non-therapeutic abortion to near zero" unless "near zero" is larger that what that term normally means. A few percentage points will remain for rapes, serious health issues etc. And, then some will simply not be ready to give birth. A sizable number of abortions are done, e.g., by teens and no amount of easing adoption rules etc. is going to reduce their desire not to have full term pregnancies at let's say 14. The same applies to others -- a woman will still have to be pregnant for nine months.

The policies are positive goods so I'd support them strongly myself. But, to me a "pro-life" and "pro-choice" person, except in a way that let's be honest resists the labels, would be like a Catholic strongly against divorce, thinking it very immoral, but thinking it is a person's choice. You might fit into that too but supporting those programs alone wouldn't do it.

Greg said...

Ultimately, I'm okay with the labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice" applied to their respective groups, despite the terms' problems.

Pro-choice people focus on the need for choices or rights of pregnant women to have an abortion. Where this terms over-states is that the choice they refer to is only in the abortion context, and they may be against choice in other contexts.

Pro-life similarly refers to a focus on the life of the embryo or fetus and their right to life that they believe over-weighs the woman's right to end that life. This term is similarly over-stating in that it only refers to a favoring of life in the abortion context, but not other contexts.

The reason these names are inadequate is for the reason Prof. Dorf refers to at the end of his post, the need for the names to be short.

I'm not sure we could do much better than these terms to accurately reflect the view of the two groups and still fit the brevity requirement. Most importantly, they are not symmetric because the views aren't symmetric. Even when members of each group are sympathetic to the views of the other, they disagree on what considerations are more important.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

I was going to respond Greg, but could do that all day -- basically a major thing here is that words are being used in a certain way, and this includes the "pro-abortion" label that miffed Prof. Dorf.