Should we refer to ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ movements?


Over at Politics Now, our David Lauter has a fascinating deconstruction of a Gallup poll showing that the share of Americans who call themselves “pro-choice” on abortion has hit a record low of 41% while 50% now call themselves “pro-life.” Lauter explains why that factoid (resultoid?) is not a sure guide to Americans’ views about whether abortion should be legal in certain circumstances:

“On the issue of when abortions should be legal, Americans’ views have moved very little, Gallup’s numbers show. The share of Americans who believe that women should be able to legally obtain an abortion under at least some circumstances now is 77%. That figure has bounced more or less randomly between 76% and 84% over the past 12 years. Similarly, the percentage who believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has fluctuated between 15% and 22% in Gallup polls since 2001. It now stands at 20%.”

Now for the next question: Should people continue to refer to the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” movements? Over the years journalists have struggled over whether these terms are neutral placeholders for wordier formulations such as “pro-abortion rights” and “antiabortion.” But in political discourse generally I think they have established themselves as pseudo-proper names, rather like Democrat or Republican.


Mention the “pro-life movement” and most everyone visualizes someone carrying a sign calling for life to be protected from the moment of conception, maybe even in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. Likewise, the term “pro-choice movement” conjures up a spokeswoman for NARAL or Planned Parenthood, not someone who reluctantly endorses abortion in rare and extreme circumstances.

One reason I think these terms will survive as movement descriptors is that activists on both sides of the abortion issue tend to be purists (or extremists, if you prefer). It’s hard to rally a crowd on behalf of a finely textured position such as “legal in the first trimester, illegal after that except for rape or incest or the likelihood of this birth defect but not that one.”

The full Gallup poll results will be spun by both “pro-” groups as proof that one unnuanced view or the other is closer to majority status. No surprise there. The abortion wars have always included a war of words.


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