While Texas has been making headlines for officially banning Planned Parenthood from being included in the Texas Women’s Health Program, another Planned Parenthood story has been drifting in the background. Planned Parenthood has recently dropped the term “pro-choice” to describe its support for abortion rights. It is attempting to reframe the abortion debate by encouraging conversations without divisive labels and continues to support women’s access to safe abortions. Texas’s actions are disappointing, if not so surprising, but Planned Parenthood’s new choice (no pun intended) is a little more complicated, and rightly so.
The abortion debate has been divided into two camps, in the political world and among many individuals: pro-choice — emphasizing the right of a woman to choose to bring a fetus to full term — and pro-life — emphasizing the right of the unborn child to live. These terms are politically charged ways of framing the issue in order to influence opinions. It suggests that the opposition must be anti-choice (or pro-coercion) or anti-life (or pro-death). Basically, it works for the turmoil of politics, but not necessarily so much for the women who are fighting for their rights.
In one of the 2008 Presidential Debates between John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain repeatedly referred to pro-choicers as being “pro-abortion,” despite Obama’s repeated assertions that there is no such thing as being pro-abortion, only the right of a women to make decisions about her body without control from a government where laws are made mostly by white men. Politically, terminology is necessary because it allows politicians and lawmakers, as well as constituents, to understand the scope and range of decisions that are being made regarding various issues. Labels are, unfortunately, an incredibly important part of language, and a lack of conclusive and defining labels can prevent the type of definitions that encourage laws to be made. And yet, it is also incredibly dividing, often in a way which prevents any meaningful progress from being made.
But the current methods aren’t working. The abortion debate spins around and around the same circles, despite the passage of Roe v. Wade forty years ago this January, and women are still being denied access to safe and legal abortions. Women are still shamed for making autonomous decisions regarding their bodies, especially when it comes to child-bearing. One-quarter of voters do not identify with traditional abortion labels, and over 40% say their personal views on abortion depend on the situation. Many women find it difficult to define themselves as simply pro-choice or pro-life. They use terms like “pro-whatever-the-situation-is” and emphasize that the abortion debate is much more grey than the black and white portrayal of the pro-choicers vs. pro-lifers.
The term pro-choice has the tendency to trivialize the incredibly complex and difficult decision of whether or not to have an abortion and ignores the economic resources, social support and capacity to provide care to a child that many women may factor into their decisions. Many, though not all, women who have abortions do want children in their lives, but they also want to be able to provide them with the best life that they can. It is binary terminology used to describe a completely non-binary situation, much as with the traditional terminology regarding sexualities and gender.
As someone who loves the idea of a label-free world, there are many levels on which Planned Parenthood’s action to stop defining the debate by such labels that speaks to me. Why do we need labels and boxes that cannot possibly describe the complexity of our individual or collective humanities? Their informational video about their decision, put out by their advocacy group Planned Parenthood Action, is actually one of the most comprehensive and uplifting definitions of what pro-choice really means. It even ends with inspirational lines about not “letting the labels box you in” and about having conversations that are based on “mutual respect and empathy.” If only we could attach a two-minute video to every label and have it play every time someone used it, my inner free-spirit would be gleeful.
But there is also a level of this decision to throw out a label without replacing it with a new, more accurate one, that makes me very uncomfortable. From a realistic standpoint, we will never be able to remove labels from our lives. People choose labels so that others don’t create definitions for them, and increasingly we have been creating labels (gender neutral, pansexual, androgynous) that for the most part function outside of boxes. By opting for this no-labels route, Planned Parenthood is emphasizing the complexity of the issue, but is also ignoring the need for comprehensive standpoints on abortion in order for change to take place.
As an example, there has been a shift in the gun-control debate towards using “gun-safety” as the terminology to stand for restrictions on access to certain guns and the ability of average civilians to obtain them. Gun-control was a very divisive term as it suggested restricting rights and the expansion of government, something many Americans do not resonate with. By moving to gun-safety as the official label in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the subtle, psychological suggestion to society is that certain restrictions surrounding gun ownership and use are a natural step toward the safety of Americans rather than an infringement on their rights.
It is too early to tell if Planned Parenthood’s move will be a successful first step toward opening up the dialogue about abortion. Will it help foster honest and persuasive conversations about the ways in which access to safe and legal abortions can improve quality of life for women and children? Time shall tell. It certainly has the capacity to create confusion and derail the discussion, but it also has the capacity to be the spearhead of an incredible movement, one that brings people together despite their differences rather than dividing them. For all of our sakes, especially for the women in Texas who have lost their easy access to health care because of lawmakers dislike for Planned Parenthood, I hope it works.
How do you feel about the pro-choice, pro-life labels? Is there a different way you define your views on abortion rights? Do you think a no-label move will be successful? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Written by Ariela Schnyer