Red Blue Dictionary | Abortion
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16 Apr Abortion

While the basic definition of abortion–the termination of a pregnancy–is widely accepted, the term’s connotations and associated language are anything but. In their preferred language, people in favor of keeping abortion legal focus on the mother, particularly her choice and her rights: hence pro-choice, a woman’s right to choose, reproductive rights, and similar terms. The vocabulary of opponents, in contrast, center more on the fate and rights of the party in utero, with terms like pro-life and assertions that abortion is murder.

So stark is the disagreement that the two sides cannot even agree on what to call the “party in utero.” Opponents of legal abortion, believing that human life begins at conception, use the term baby; advocates tend toward fetus or embryo, depending on the stage of development. 

Curiously, while the terms pro-choice and pro-life reflect these emphases, they are also problematic on several fronts. Most basically, they misrepresent the position of people on the other side of the term in use. Pro-choice advocates may imply, or state outright, that their opponents are anti-choice;  those pro-life opponents may label their adversaries anti-life.  Neither group, however, would identify itself with these anti- terms.

As many are quick to point out, each term is overly broad and imprecise. Opponents of legal abortion question the label pro-choice by noting that the fetus gets no choice; advocates of legal abortion deem pro-life as unrepresentative of people who, in many cases, do not take other “pro-life positions”–for instance, opposing capital punishment.

As a 2012 poll confirmed, this discussion is more complex than the aforementioned framing often admits. Many Americans identify as both pro-choice and pro-life, with attitudes often dependent on individual circumstances–a large gray area not reflected in the larger discourse.

For instance, the definition of abortion depends, for some, on when and how it happens. In this view, if the pregnancy has just started, only a tiny ball of cells is being destroyed; but if the pregnancy is into its second or third trimester, and the “ball of cells” has developed a face, abortion becomes a different proposition altogether. From another perspective, if the woman was impregnated against her will, lives in an abusive situation, or is a child herself, abortion takes on different moral dimensions from when the woman is older, consented to sex, and has the support of people around her.









Efforts to engage these differences have sparked some fruitful conversations.  In the 1990s, the Governor of Massachusetts and the Archdiocese of Boston called for dialogues between leaders of both sides following two fatal shootings at women’s health clinics in the state. Co-sponsored by Public Conversations Project and Podziba Policy Mediation, these conversations, which were originally planned for a month’s time, lasted six years, and led to a changed tone of exchange and authentic friendship (see 2001 Boston Globe report, “Talking with the Enemy”  a video from local news coverage and Mary Jacksteit’s 2009 Huffington Post summary, “Pro-life and Pro-choice Can Work Together. In 2013, David P. Gushee and Frances Kissling also were guests on Krista Tippet’s NPR’s On Being program, in a conversation called Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue.

  • How do your views of abortion vary from the “typical” positions on the left or right?
  • Do the circumstances surrounding pregnancy matter when it comes to abortion? If so, which circumstances would or would not matter?

See Also:

Choice, Planned Parenthood.

Dialogue Tips:

Conversation Catalysts:


John Backman, Joan Blades, Jacob Hess, Cynthia Kurtz

  • jzhess
    Posted at 02:23h, 01 May Reply

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I think you’re missing something another perspective about the word abortion…

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