Observing and Integrating Different Moral Perspectives

by Sherry F. Colb

My Verdict column this week discusses the CDC's (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's) recent report that abortion rates dropped dramatically between 2006 and 2015. I offer competing accounts of this drop and explain how each fares vis-a-vis the political objectives of the various perspectives. The primary competing perspectives are the pro-life and pro-choice perspectives. In this post, I will speak in more general terms about how people who hale from these two perspectives communicate about abortion. I believe we can learn something important from observing some of the destructive ways in which each side uses language.

I am pro-choice. When I identify myself in this way, I mean to say that I believe women ought to be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without having to confront legal obstacles. I mean as well that doctors and other medical professionals who perform abortions should be able to do so without confronting legal requirements that aim at frustrating providers' ability to provide their service. I believe that late abortions have moral implications that early ones lack, and I think that abortion opponents should be able to express their views freely, so long as they do not cross the line into harassment and intimidation of providers and their patients.

I am telling you something about my views on the issue, because (a) I want other pro-choice folks to understand that when I criticize the pro-choice movement, I do so from the standpoint of an ally, not an opponent, and (b) I want pro-life folks to understand that I am making an effort, as I have tried to do in the past, to show them and their position respect, even though I have a different position. Everyone on either side of this issue can summon a recollection of someone on the other side acting in bad faith. My goal is to try to encourage people, myself included, to act in good faith and to assume the best rather than the worst about the people who deviate from our/their vision of how one ought to live one's life and what principles one ought to embrace.


I have spent quite a bit of time listening to people on the right, people who are pro-life, talk about both abortion and the views of people who take a pro-choice perspective on abortion. Here are some of the terms that I have read and heard: Abortionists = medical providers who perform abortions. Pro-abortion = people who are pro-choice. Pro-abort. = a kind of shorthand for "pro-abortion." Abortion-on-Demand = the right to have an abortion. Abortion factories = Abortion clinics. Unborn child = a fertilized egg or embryo or fetus. Baby-killing = Abortion. Interchangeable with the "slaughter of babies" as in "those who advocate the slaughter of babies." Pro-life = the position that a fertilized egg, embryo, and fetus have the right to live such that the criminal law should prohibit abortion. The position ordinarily goes together with opposition to a right of adults to assistance in ending in their lives.  People in this group sometimes favor policies that support women who care for young children and that support adoption as well.


Clump of cells = embryo or fetus. Products of conception = embryo or fetus, umbilical cord, and whatever else exits a woman's body after an abortion. Anti-abortion = people who believe that a child exists from the moment of conception and who accordingly believe that abortion should be illegal. Anti-choice = people who oppose the right to abortion. Pro-choice = people who support the right to abortion. Reproductive rights = rights that include access to abortion. Every child a wanted child = a right to abortion.

I apologize that I have listed fewer of these terms and phrases for the pro-choice side of the balance than I have for the pro-life side. Why am I listing these words and phrases? Because every one of them is irritating, to a greater or lesser extent, to people on the other side of the issue. I will not say they "trigger" people, because I find that "trigger warnings" advocacy has kind of ruined the utility of the term. But the words and phrases do alienate people on the other side of the issue and make them feel unheard at best and mischaracterized at worst. Each of the phrases communicates the idea that "my perspective is the only perspective," that "I can use propaganda and pretend I have been factual," and that "I have not been listening to anything my adversaries have said, other than to ridicule it." Perhaps more importantly, some of the phrases characterize anyone who disagrees (or acts on that disagreement) as evil or demonic.

Pro-Life Terms

Let us take a few of the words listed above as exemplary of the phenomena I describe. Calling medical professionals who perform abortions "abortionists" demonizes them. One can believe that abortion is a horrible thing without name-calling professionals who perform abortions. To give you an example from another area, I can believe and assert that slaughtering and eating an animal is deeply immoral violence against an innocent without referring to someone who eats a roast beef sandwich as a "corpse muncher" or a chicken's egg that someone has boiled as a "chicken period."

No one who performs abortions refers to himself or herself as an "abortionist." We can thus infer that the term is one of derision for the provider rather than a factual description of anyone. Calling clinics "abortion factories" is similarly demonizing; it makes abortion seem like an activity that doctors do thoughtlessly for the financial rewards. Given how potentially dangerous abortion provision can be, the people involved--whatever one might think of their activities--pursue it out of a genuine belief that they are doing the right thing, not out of greed. An honest characterization of them would recognize this reality.

"Pro-abortion" is simply inaccurate as a description of people who believe that women should have access to abortion services. To be "pro-abortion" is to favor abortion as an absolute matter. To support abortion choice is to defer to the wishes of the pregnant woman, whatever they may be. No one who sincerely supports abortion choice would tell a woman who wants to keep her baby that she has an obligation to abort.

Even without rules requiring providers to check and make sure that women are choosing abortion voluntarily, providers would want to inquire about the choice. The father of a pregnancy might be pressuring his wife or girlfriend (or hookup) to terminate, and a provider wants to detect such pressure and remind the pregnant woman that she can decide to remain pregnant no matter what other people want her to do. Some members of the men's movement might be truly pro-abortion, but the pro-choice position is not. "Pro-abort." sounds ugly and dismissive, even worse than the inaccurate "pro-abortion" of which it is a diminutive.

"Abortion on demand" characterizes the pregnant woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy as a sort of spoiled brat who wants to just be able to get rid of her pregnancy on her say-so, no muss no fuss, as though she is royalty. Opponents of the right to abortion sometimes use this phrase to characterize situations in which a woman has jumped through numerous hoops and prefers to avoid having to jump through even more, when the point of the hoops is to frustrate her ability to terminate her pregnancy. Justice Kavanaugh as a judge used the phrase "abortion on demand" in connection with the case of a teenager in immigration detention who had already obtained a judicial bypass and whose guardian ad litem was willing to take her to the clinic and pay for her abortion. All she wanted was for the detention facility to release her so that she could finally go to the clinic. To call such a delayed and unsupported exercise of her constitutional right an "abortion on demand" bears so little connection to the truth as to fall into the category of propaganda.

"Baby-killers" or "the slaughter of babies" demonizes people who perform, undergo, or advocate for the right to, abortion. One may oppose abortion and even consider it a form of murder. But speaking of abortion in this unmodified way manifests an unwillingness to think about what might lead adversaries to come at the question differently. They announce, in effect, that the babies' presence  inside a woman's body, making massive demands on her body systems, has no significance whatsoever. To be this dismissive is to confirm for people on the other side that the speaker is not interested in engaging them.

The phrases "pro-life" and "unborn child" might seem unobjectionable because we have become so used to them. But they too are arguably deceptive. The phrase "pro-life" necessarily implies that those who disagree with their position on abortion are "pro-death." The positive connotation of "pro-life," moreover, stems from our positive associations with the continuing lives of those who have already been born and therefore engages in a kind of "bait and switch." "Unborn child" implies that the only distinction between a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus, on the one hand, and a newborn baby, on the other, is birth. In reality, however, virtually no one is interested in "aborting" a fetus that is physically indistinguishable from a newborn baby. In fact, most abortions happen in the first trimester, when the embryo and fetus are very different from a newborn baby in various respects that people might consider morally relevant.

Pro-Choice Terms

What about the pro-choice community? I begin with "clump of cells" or the equivalent phrase. When pro-choice advocates speak of the embryo or fetus in that way, they indicate a disrespect for the value that pro-life advocates place on the developing life. Though it might seem bizarre to many people to call a one-celled organism a "baby" or a "child," most (or all) abortions happen after the embryo has begun to take on the human form. One can nonetheless view the fetus as "something" rather than "someone" prior to sentience, as I do, but there is no more reason to call it a clump of cells than it would be call a doctoral dissertation "a pile of wood covered in spilled ink."

The phrase "products of conception" is different from some of the pro-life phrasing in that it seems less self-consciously directed at the pro-life movement. It is a euphemism for the embryo or fetus rather than an effort to show contempt or anger for people who oppose abortion. Yet in a climate of political war, a euphemism is likely to hit one's adversaries the wrong way. How is a baby a "product of conception," some may ask, rather than a human being? Though "embryo" and "fetus" may not satisfy the pro-life contingent, they at least leave in place the reality that what comes out of a woman during an abortion may have a head, a brain, arms, and legs. "Products of conception" obscures more than it illuminates.

The title "anti-abortion" may sound to pro-choice advocates like a neutral description of their opponents, but it is not. People who oppose abortion often place that opposition into the same category as their opposition to the death penalty, to euthanasia and physician assistance in dying, and more generally to "playing God" and deciding who shall live and who shall die (at least among humans). They might, for that reason, oppose assisted reproduction--including via in vitro fertilization. "Anti-abortion" makes the group sound instead like it holds a position with no connection to the other values that its members hold dear.

Why would I fault the use of the term "pro-choice"? Well, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a propaganda term. That is, it sounds like something that anyone reasonable would certainly support. Everyone wants to have choices, right? If I go to the store and find both soy milk and almond milk, I am in a  better position to acquire what I want than if the store carries only soy milk or only almond milk. And if my school teaches courses in both environmental law and the First Amendment, then I am better off than if it teaches only one or the other.

Yet even a person who is very supportive of people having choice in many domains of life will oppose the right to choose some actions. Few Americans would support the right to choose to murder one's neighbor or the right to choose to blow up a kindergarten or the right to choose to hijack an airplane and fly it into a skyscraper. Pro-choice individuals, like pro-life individuals, would argue that such choices ought to be off-limits. We may choose what happens in our own lives, but we may not choose to inflict pain and death upon others.

You may be thinking that I do not sound very pro-choice. But I am, truly. I can make (and have made) arguments about abortion and why it should be a right because the embryo or fetus occupies the inside of the woman's body and therefore requires the woman's consent. But I do need to defend my basis for supporting what sounds like the right to kill a human embryo or fetus. I cannot simply invoke "choice" and imagine that I have in any way justified my position.

The "pro-choice" language is therefore sloppy at best and misleading at worst. It invokes a vision of a free society in which people make their own choices as a premise for allowing people to kill what are arguably other people. I am happy to explain why (a) embryos and most fetuses do not qualify as "other people" in the ways that rights-bearing individuals do, and (b) the unique status of pregnancy gives rise to a right to self-defense that only looks like but is not actually a right to kill. "Choice" has little to do with any of it but sounds like an unambiguous positive.

The term "anti-choice" is objectionable for the same reasons as "pro-choice" is. People who oppose a right to abortion are not consistently against giving people choices. They oppose the particular choice that a woman might make to end her pregnancy, and they oppose it because they view it as unjustified homicide. They might say that no one should have the right to choose to do violence to innocents. Feminists would invoke (and have invoked) the same principle in response to a claim that a husband should have the right to choose to do violence to his wife and that he should have privacy in the marital home. People who oppose abortion are not ipso facto anti-choice any more than people who support the right to abortion therefore distinguish themselves as pro-choice.

References to reproductive rights can be misleading, though they do not target people on the other side for disrespect. They mislead by obscuring the right to abortion as just one more way in which people are able to control their own reproduction, like a condom or an IUD. But once a woman has become pregnant, the conflict between proponents and opponents intensifies. Consequently, it may be clearer if we talk about contraception and abortion separately from each other, even if they are connected to each other in some ways.

And finally, there is the slogan "every child a wanted child." This slogan misleads. It seems to be saying that we should be loving and accepting to every single child, like "want every child." That message, which sounds nurturing and kind, is in fact--in some ways--the opposite of the abortion rights message, through which people can decide to reject their developing children on the basis of unwanted characteristics like Down syndrome. What the saying truly means is that only the wanted children should come into the world, with the others dying in abortions.

Why pick apart the ways in which pro-life and pro-choice advocates use language? And why do I continue to say "pro-life" and "pro-choice" despite my critiques of these terms? To answer the second question first, I use the terms because each group has long used the terms, so perhaps it evens out. I pick apart these ways of talking because they make it extremely difficult for people on opposite sides of the abortion issue to have productive conversations with one another. Each side becomes increasingly self-righteous about the correctness of its position and the outrageousness of the other position until each side can barely tolerate the existence of the other, persuasion is impossible, and some outlier individuals feel so much hatred for the others that intergroup violence can erupt. People who in fact have many shared values can lose sight of what they have in common.

As I was working on this post, I heard a radio interview with a pro-life and right-wing pastor. He repeatedly referred to people who promote "the slaughter of babies." I had a few reactions. My first was that I intensely disliked this man whom I had never met. The second was that the man was not actually talking to me at all (by which I mean that his speech completely ignored the possibility that people with my point of view about abortion might be part of his audience). He was instead demonizing me and the likes of me as blood-thirsty monsters. (He also made the interesting choice, while interviewing with a Jewish host, to highlight the importance of believing in Christ and to not-so-subtly accuse the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus of being Christ-killers).

When a person has effectively converted those with whom he disagrees into demons and monsters, he becomes someone with little capacity for humility. He then turns off his opponents so much that they may do as he has done and demonize him right back. Directing aggression at people who disagree will reliably backfire by feeding the flame of hatred.

Call-out culture strikes me as very similar to the demonization I heard on the radio. It may seem that callout culture is exclusively a project of the left. But it is not. People on either side of hotly contested issues in our society today will routinely comb the news for misstatements or momentary lapses in judgment to highlight and mock. "Straw man arguments" are effectively all about catching one's opponents in an inarticulate moment and then debating with that moment instead of with the strongest form of what his opponents have to say. It is no wonder that these tactics bring us no closer to solving the problems that we must solve together.

I wrote a version of the following on FaceBook and received an interesting mix of responses. I said that as an exercise, people could imagine someone with whom they strongly disagree on an issue of importance to them. Then people could ask themselves whether demonizing that person has improved their lives. Most of the friends who responded had a positive reaction. But two expressed outrage, suggesting that I was expecting one of them to be "okay with my oppressors." I quoted from Nelson Mandela, who confirmed that turning one's adversaries into hated enemies impedes progress. One of the two this time said that Mandela could say that, as a man of color who had lived through apartheid, but I, as a privileged woman, could not say that.

Some of these FaceBook "friends" are not people I know. I assume I had some reason for accepting their friend requests. But calling me "privileged" as a way of suggesting that I shut up is its own kind of demonization. Had I taken the opposite position, my "privilege" would presumably have receded into the background because I would have been agreeing with what my detractor said, so the attribution of privilege operates as a means of disciplining dissent rather than an as effort to favor voices of the oppressed.

Because of this person's comments, I lost my appetite for posting my thoughts on FaceBook (a loss that is probably a good thing, much in the way that losing an appetite for Swedish Fish would be positive). It is noteworthy, however, that a few comments calling me out for taking the wrong position, in the view of the self-appointed arbiters of justice, discouraged me from speaking again. I suspect that I am not alone in finding such behavior discouraging. It does not persuade me of the justice of their point of view. On the contrary, I find myself much more inclined now to listen to conservative voices than I was before the exchange. If people on "my side" cannot refrain from directing unveiled aggression in my direction, then perhaps people on the "other side" are worth a listen.

Reciprocal demonization and callout culture are apples of the same poisonous tree. They make dialogue difficult and undesirable for all concerned. And they drive some of their own heretofore allies to reconsider the alliance. I feel like I have learned some of these lessons in the imaginary world of the Internet, a place where people often have a hard time feeling empathy for the targets of their rage and self-righteousness. I believe that it applies IRL as well.