What's In A Name? How Proponents of Compulsory Pregnancy Have Distorted Our Thinking

 by Sherry F. Colb

For a long time, I have used the phrase pro-life to refer to people who believe that the government ought to be able to force women to remain pregnant and give birth against their will. My reason for this usage was to show respect for people who in good faith disagreed with me on a difficult and painful issue. I now believe that I made a mistake. The phrase "pro-life" is now and always has been little more than propaganda that distorts the nature of the abortion debate. 

Another bit of propaganda, more subtle than "pro-life," is "unborn child" or "the unborn." Language matters, and these two phrases together contribute to an overall picture that bears almost no relation to reality. Since the oral argument on Wednesday betrayed little of the reticence that once characterized the folks who want to force women to remain pregnant against their will, I will henceforth speak in accurate terms about the stakes in the abortion contest. If accuracy results in disrespect, then I will regard the double effect as amply justified by the need to illuminate an issue that has been shrouded in doublespeak.


To say that one is pro-life is to imply that others who disagree are either not pro-life or, more succinctly, pro-death. The whole idea of some being pro-life and others being pro-death is vacuous. The question is always contextual. To be fair, pro-choice is hardly an illuminating phrase either. Everyone believes that people should be free to make some choices but not others. For instance, I don't believe people should be free to kill animals, but I do think they should be free to terminate a pregnancy. So am I pro-life or pro-death? Am I pro-choice or anti-choice? Answers to these questions will tell us nothing useful.

Part of what makes the phrase "pro-life" empty is the fact that so many of the people who take this particular position are generally indifferent to the needs of men and women whose lives are in jeopardy. But wait, you say, such people give charity. I don't care how much charity they give. They oppose laws that would require support for poor people, whether the support would enable people to eat regularly or whether it would allow people to get free medical care. And we learned recently that their great leader, who refused to lift a finger to stop the deadly insurrection on January 6th, turns out to have tested positive for COVID-19 before the presidential debate, a debate at which Trump waved a mask around but refused to wear one. I have said that anti-maskers are like men who refuse to wear condoms, but Trump managed to take the analogy to the next level. 

I would say that by overturning prohibitions on church gatherings during COVID-19, the Leonard-Leo-selected Justices showed a profound disregard for life. But perhaps "life" refers only to lives that interfere with women's bodily integrity. Given how often the "pro-life" community is anti-life, we could perhaps describe its position on abortion as primarily about controlling women and only as a "double effect" about preserving the lives of embryos. Anyone who actually cared about "life"--including the life of the typical embryo or fetus--would insist on ensuring that families had enough healthy food and access to prenatal care. But then most people who seek prenatal care want to be pregnant, and why would someone whose goal is to control women care about them?

Unborn Child/"the Unborn"

Why don't I like the phrase "the unborn"? Because, to put it bluntly, an embryo is a lot more than unborn. When people describe themselves as ABD (all but dissertation), they mean that they have done everything there is to do for a Ph.D. other than their dissertation. Though unborn is slightly more ambiguous, the strong implication is that the entity in question is everything but born. If we are talking about someone who wants to get an abortion at forty weeks gestation, then I am more than happy to refer to the target of the intended abortion as an unborn baby. The only thing that distinguishes them from a newborn baby is quite literally birth. 

Those who would force women to carry their pregnancies to term and then give birth do not, however, limit themselves to 40-week-old fetuses that just need to come out to join the community of newborns. On the contrary, the people whose religious beliefs lead them to want to force women to carry pregnancies to term and then give birth believe that a one-celled zygote is a baby who is "unborn." I am sorry, but that is just insane, and insisting that other people show respect for the view that a human cell is a baby is not all that different from the Ryan Gosling character in Lars and the Real Girl insisting that everyone act as though his sex doll is actually a live woman that he is dating. A cell is not a baby, an embryo is not a baby, and even a fetus--more formed than either a zygote or an embryo--is not a baby.

Folks who want to force women to stay pregnant and give birth against their will have a gaslighting habit of insisting that "science" tells us that a zygote or embryo is a person. I wrote about that claim here. For brevity, I will note that the question of who and what "counts" as a "human being" or "person" with rights is not a scientific question, so no scientist can tell us that a one-celled human organism qualifies as such a person. What a scientist can and will tell us is that in its early stages, an embryo lacks any of the qualities that lead us to endow a living creature with rights. It cannot feel pain. It cannot feel pleasure. It cannot feel anxiety. It cannot feel serenity. It is, in other words, something rather than someone. The fact that it has human DNA is really irrelevant. As my colleague, Professor Deborah Dinner, noted at a debate with a Federalist who supported forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and give birth, cheek cells have human DNA as well. A brain-dead body has human DNA and yet we can harvest its heart with its relatives' permission. If you want to harvest my heart, by contrast, you cannot do so, even if my relatives give you their consent. Why? Because I am a live, sentient being, unlike a brain-dead body and unlike an embryo.

The way we figure out who and what should have rights is by analogy to those who already have them. For example, some people have always believed that women were entitled to the vote, even before the Nineteenth Amendment became law. In the past, the number of people who shared this view was relatively small. The argument for suffrage included the fact that women have a lot of the same attributes that men have, and the attributes that women lack seem largely irrelevant to the entitlement to vote. Having a beard and lots of body hair, for example, really shouldn't "bear" on the franchise. On the other hand, if people had argued that sofas or glasses should be allowed to vote, then it would have been easy to refute the argument. Though such arguments are normative, they can still be powerful.

A zygote is not a person in any morally relevant sense. An embryo is not a person in any morally relevant sense. If one is religious, one might take issue with my claim, but that is a problem for religion or at least it would be if our Supreme Court had not morphed in five years into a satellite campus of Opus Dei. If your religion tells you that a cell with the potential to later become a human being is currently a person, then so much the worse for your religion. The fact that you believe it means that you will not have an abortion. It should not mean that you have anything whatsoever to say about whether I or any other woman does. 

Women make babies inside their bodies. They do not simply shelter babies that are already fully present at conception. The "unborn child" talk deliberately obscures the fact that women play an active role in reproduction and do not simply provide a half-way house for 40 weeks.

What the people on the Supreme Court who would force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and then give birth do not understand is that if something happens in your body, you really do have the last word on it. If I am pregnant and I don't want to be, I will find out what sort of poison I need to take to make me stop being pregnant. Maybe I will flop onto my belly or urge one of my friends to kick me in the stomach. These are things that girls and women have done in the past and will do in the future if the law and the Justices on the Supreme Court refuse to protect their right to bodily integrity (even as the same Justices can barely contain their enthusiasm for protecting the right to carry around an assault rifle--bro's before ho's).

The five or six theocrats on the Court acted differently on Wednesday. They (other than the Chief Justice) openly said the quiet part out loud. They compared a reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey to Brown v. Board of Education, implying that Roe and Casey resemble Plessy v. Ferguson. How disgusting and arrogant this claim when we consider that women were here seeking the right to equality and an entitlement to the same bodily integrity that men enjoy. The irony of such Plessy invocations was only that much more gag-worthy coming out of the mouth of Samuel Alito, a proponent of voter suppression laws that help fight imaginary voter fraud and in reality keep African American votes from being counted. Had Justice Alito been on the Court in the 19th century, he would have happily joined the Plessy majority. 

Why do I sound so angry? Is the right to abortion really that important? Yes, it is. It is important not because the only way to succeed in the world is to have an abortion. It is important because the right to an abortion amounts to a recognition that women's bodies belong to them, not to men, not to zygotes and embryos, and not to a majority of the populace. Carrying a pregnancy to term is extremely intrusive and physiologically and emotionally very burdensome. The failure of the highest court in the land to acknowledge this straightforward fact in 2021 is maddening. 

It is important that those of us who feel rage at this assault on women's entitlement to bodily integrity  remain angry and do not repress the rage and become passive. We are not helpless. We can delegitimate this Court (though it is doing a fantastic job all on its own), and one day, we can look back on Wednesday's oral argument as the beginning of a countermovement. Let us tell the truth about forced pregnancy from now on. There are no "pro-life" advocates or "unborn children." There are only feminists and misogynists. Which are you?