This is a guest post by Marcella Kocolatos. Marcella is a second-year student at NYU School of Law and a member of the law school’s inaugural Reproductive Justice Clinic. A version of this post originally appeared on NYU Review of Law & Social Change.
“No one is pro-abortion.”
This is a common refrain in the reproductive justice movement. It is uttered in response to opponents of reproductive choice who suggest that those who advocate for universal access to safe and legal abortion are somehow intent on maximizing the number of pregnancies terminated. It is uttered in response to the accusation that abortion is a profit-driven industry akin to the “$8 billion Abortionplex” satirically imagined by The Onion. And it is clear why people use this response: when not only laypersons but elected lawmakers perpetuate outlandish myths about the goals of the reproductive justice movement, choice proponents naturally seek to dispel such offensive misrepresentations of their beliefs.
I do not consider myself “pro-abortion” because such an ideological position seems flatly inconsistent with the notion of choice. I understand the term “pro-abortion” to signify a general preference for abortion over childbirth, without regard to how any individual woman wishes to proceed with her pregnancy. For me the term evokes support for forced abortions, such as the one Chinese family planning officials forced 23-year-old Feng Jianmei to undergo in 2012, seven months into her pregnancy. To say that I am “not pro-abortion” means that I would not value an individual’s choice to terminate her pregnancy any more than I would value her choice to give birth.
For others who support legalized abortion, the statement “I am not pro-abortion” might carry an implicit value judgment, a suggestion that abortion is an ethically undesirable—even if sometimes justified—procedure. These individuals might morally disapprove of abortion but recognize that their personal disapproval should not dictate whether others may legally access abortion. This sentiment is reflected in statements made by politicians such as Hillary Clinton, who has emphasized her belief that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
The acknowledgment that one’s own moral compass should not impose upon the decisions of others undoubtedly comports with the reproductive justice movement, which seeks to secure reproductive autonomy for all individuals. However, the simultaneous suggestion that abortion is a morally objectionable procedure—even if this suggestion is unintentional—arguably conflicts with the movement’s goals.
It should be of concern to those of us working in the area of reproductive justice that the declaration “no one is pro-abortion” might easily be misinterpreted by our opponents—willfully or not—as a concession of moral high ground, as an admission that abortion is in fact a “bad” thing and that all women who choose it must necessarily view it as such, rather than as a morally neutral medical procedure.
Even more worrisome is the stigma that rhetoric of this sort might confer on women who obtain abortions. Evidence suggests that stigma around abortion—unlike abortion itself—can negatively impact the mental health of women who have had abortions. A 2008 report issued by the American Psychological Association found that “interpersonal concerns, including feelings of stigma, perceived need for secrecy . . . and low perceived or anticipated social support for the abortion decision, negatively affected women’s . . . psychological experiences” following an abortion.
At the same time, we cannot avoid all rhetoric that may be read to implicitly condemn abortion. If we did so, we would risk alienating important reproductive justice allies by appearing flippant about the procedure. This is liable to hurt our cause. We do not want to lose opportunities for potential collaboration with those who do not feel comfortable aligning themselves fully with the reproductive justice movement.
There are inevitably going to be certain trade-offs involved in the language choices we make as activists, and there is no single “right” way to talk about reproductive justice. Yet it is essential that we remain conscientious of the words we use when we do. Those of us who advocate for universal access to safe and legal abortion do so because we believe that complete reproductive freedom is necessary to a moral and just society. We must be wary of using language that might inadvertently convey to our adversaries, as well as the women and men we advocate for, that we believe otherwise.