What Should We Say Instead of ‘Pro-Choice’?

Photo: Photo by Joseph Sohm/Corbis

A few weeks ago, Planned Parenthood quietly announced it would be distancing itself from the term pro-choice. And not replacing it with, well, anything. “Planned Parenthood hopes to move beyond such terms entirely,” reported Anna North at BuzzFeed, “and present abortion as something too complicated to be divided into two sides.” 

The very appeal of the term pro-choice was that it encompassed all decisions — not just whether or not to keep a pregnancy. For ardent supporters of the movement, it connotes not just access to abortion and contraception, but also comprehensive sex ed and prenatal care and routine gynecological checkups. The core idea, any feminist will tell you, is that when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, women have the right to choose what happens in their own bodies, and we should collectively do what we can to protect and support those choices. We’ve all heard the talking points a million times.

In more common usage, however, pro-life is pro-birth and pro-choice means pro-abortion. This comes through in quotes like this one, from a Planned Parenthood focus group on the terminology: “There should be three: pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances […] It’s not just black or white, there’s gray.” The implication? Pro-choice clearly fails to convey the grayness that feminists say it represents.

The term pro-choice wasn’t born of a need to describe the pantheon of issues encompassed by the feminist movement. It was reactive. When the anti-abortion movement began organizing under the “pro-life” banner after 1973, abortion-rights activists scrambled to find a similarly morally hefty term to describe their beliefs about reproductive rights. Pro-choice was born.

But not all feminists were quick to embrace the label, arguing it was “a euphemistic and reactive response to the anti-abortion term pro-life,” wrote sociologist Suzanne Staggenborg in The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict. In more recent years, the opposite critique has emerged. Choice has become synonymous with abortion, obscuring its literal appeal. In 2004, the organizers of the March for Choice rebranded it the March for Women’s Lives after expanding their coalition to include more groups advocating for women of color, who argued choice merely signified access to abortion rather than a broad spectrum of issues — like immigration, incarceration, poverty, and racism — that also affect women’s reproductive health and decision-making.

This is the thinking behind Planned Parenthood’s linguistic shift. It’s not that choice is inaccurate, it’s just become ineffective — a shorthand for one side in a seemingly intractable battle. News organizations moved away from pro-choice and pro-life years ago, with everyone from the Associated Press to NPR to the New York Times opting for “abortion-rights supporters” and “abortion-rights opponents.”

While this works for journalists, it won’t rally a crowd. So if pro-choice is off the table, how would those “abortion-rights supporters” prefer to replace it? I took a quick straw poll of the feminist writers and activists I know. Many argued for something focused on the ideas of health and freedom. One friend nominated “pro-logic,” and another took it further: “pro-sanity.”

“Liberte! Egalite! Sororite!” journalist Rebecca Traister wrote me in an e-mail. She continued to list options: “Pro-woman. Pro-liberty. Pro-medicine. Pro-family.”

Amanda Marcotte, who argued in Slate that we should keep choice around, also e-mailed me a few alternatives: “Pro-health or maybe woman-centered. Something that puts the focus where it needs to be, which is on how this is a decision focused on women’s health care needs made by her and her doctor, and should no more be limited than your access to diabetes treatment should to punish you for eating.”

But most feminists confessed they liked the status quo. “I think pro-choice is solid, because it’s really about choice and I guess perhaps murking it up to rebrand it is the Obama-era thing to do,” says the feminist music writer Jessica Hopper. Others threw up their hands: “It’s hard to trump ‘life,’” says Jessica Stites, an editor at In These Times.

My unsolicited branding advice for Planned Parenthood? There’s certainly something appealing about the concepts of privacy and freedom — the legal and intellectual building blocks of the reproductive-rights movement. Both are concepts so broad, so commonly used by people on all sides of the political spectrum, that they can’t help but exist in an ideological gray area. Who’s anti-freedom? Who wants their privacy invaded? Freedom has the moral heft and ambiguity that could potentially compete with life.

“I believe in women’s reproductive rights and health, and also take care to point out that limiting a woman’s ability to control her reproduction isn’t just an issue of sex or religion — it restricts her ability to equally participate — economically, professionally, socially, sexually, and familially — within the democracy,” Traister says. “Can you put that on a T-shirt?”

I think you can. Maybe it just seems difficult because we haven’t seen the “freedom” framing on rally posters yet. In long-term fights over ideology, taking creative risks is difficult because there are years of polling data and millions of dollars and entrenched political apparatuses invested in maintaining the existing framework. But I, for one, would totally wear a political button depicting a screeching bald eagle clutching a birth-control packet in its talons. Freedom!