Is Abortion "Freedom" a More Powerful Slogan than "Choice"?

Happy new year. Various friends and relatives have appended to their new year's wishes the thought that 2024 can't be worse than 2023. That's a nice idea but clearly wishful thinking. Just as failure is always an option, so things can always get worse. Indeed, there is reason to think they will. But we do what we can and hope for the best.

Where should we look with hope? Surely not the Supreme Court. Although I have said that the legal arguments in support of disqualifying Donald Trump from the ballot that the Colorado Supreme Court (and, since I wrote, the Maine Secretary of State) accepted are sound, I mostly agree with what is shaping up to be the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court of the United States will latch onto one of Trump's arguments for reversal either on the merits or on some procedural ground that allows Trump to be on the ballot in all fifty states. Looking to SCOTUS for salvation in this respect seems like a vain hope.

We thus appear likely to face a Presidential election rematch in November. A great deal can happen between now and then, but, incredibly, the prospect of a Trump victory is all too real. Democrats' best strategy for averting it will likely include running on abortion rights just about everywhere, including running ads that remind voters that Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe. Doing so will be necessary because Trump has already signaled his intention to try to portray himself as a moderate on the issue.

2024 will be the first post-Dobbs Presidential election but the third post-Dobbs election overall. Will the issue continue to have staying power? Democrats can keep the issue front and center for voters by placing abortion referenda on the ballot where that is possible. Even where there is no referendum on abortion, expect Democratic candidates up and down the ballot to try to turn the election into an abortion referendum.

What should their messaging look like? According to a recent Wall Street Journal story (behind a paywall, alas), abortion rights proponents started winning over voters--including unlikely supporters--when they "changed their messaging" and started emphasizing "freedom" and "values." Here's the critical claim:

Abortion-rights activists rarely use the term “pro-choice” anymore, preferring to talk about people’s “freedom to decide.” In September, the abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice America, founded in 1969, changed its name to Reproductive Freedom for All. Grounded in research that predates the Dobbs ruling, these new buzzwords have helped the abortion-rights side resonate across partisan lines.

Color me extremely dubious about the causal claim here, notwithstanding the invocation of "research that predates the Dobbs ruling." Why? Well, for one thing, the reporter does not offer any evidence at all that the different messaging of "freedom" rather than "choice" made a difference post-Dobbs. The obvious--indeed, blindingly obvious--explanation for the greater resonance of the abortion-rights message now is Dobbs itself.

Nor is there a readily apparent reason to think that the change in messaging should have had much if any impact. After all, "choice" and "freedom" are rough synonyms. Here's a sentence from the WSJ article that makes little sense to a competent speaker of English: "Abortion-rights activists rarely use the term 'pro-choice' anymore, preferring to talk about people’s 'freedom to decide.'" The author of the article lays out that claim--that there's a meaningful difference between "choice" and "freedom to decide"--without puzzling over it at all. If she discovered that the medical community rarely uses the term "doctor" anymore, preferring to talk about "physicians," surely it would have occurred to her to wonder why. Not to worry: I'll do the wondering on her behalf.

First, it's quite possible that the terms "freedom" and "choice" are understood by the public to be the synonyms they are and that the pre-Dobbs "research" to which the WSJ article alludes is junk.

Second, there's some possibility that people do respond more favorably to "freedom" than to "choice"--not because of the difference in the words' meanings but because the terms "pro-choice" and "choice" had come to be associated with the abortion rights movement, which, in turn, had a negative political valence for some number of voters. In an essay on this blog back in 2010, I explained how some terms that begin as and remain literally neutral come to be seen as offensive because they take on a meaning associated with negative stereotypes and attitudes that are prevalent when those terms are in wide use. The same thing could happen with political causes.

If that's what's going on, however, then "pro-choice" language could be effective at mobilizing voters now, even if it was a turnoff just a couple of years ago. With people awakened to the horrible reality of a post-Roe legal landscape, they would view abortion rights and terms associated with abortion rights more favorably. If so, then there would be no reason to abandon "choice" in favor of "freedom."

To my mind, the downside of both the "choice" and "freedom" slogans is that they connect abortion rights to a strain of American libertarianism that is generally unhealthy for our law and politics--one that goes well beyond ensuring basic civil liberties and freedom from extreme personal invasions but treats virtually all governmental programs as suspect. (Recall how the anti-vax movement borrowed abortion rights rhetoric.) I understand why abortion rights advocates would want to leverage libertarian attitudes. I don't think they're making a tactical error by doing so. I just wish we had a legal/political culture in which appeals to "choice" and "freedom" were not so powerful regardless of context.