Debunking the “Pro-Choice” Euphemism

To no great surprise, it turns out “pro-choice” just means the choice to abort your kid, not the choice to, say, have an incandescent light bulb or drink a large soda. This reality was highlighted by a recent Reason TV video in which Democratic delegates and supporters were interviewed about “choice” at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte:

In other words, most of the people claiming to be “pro-choice” are pledging fealty to a set of principles (about individual bodily autonomy and the like) that they don’t actually hold outside of the realm of abortion. It’s inaccurate to refer to this as “pro-choice,” and far more accurate to refer to it as “pro-abortion,” or (to use the AP style guide) being an “abortion rights supporter.”

Perhaps this is semantics, but I think not. I would suggest that there are two reasons that this is important. First, because the use of euphemism tells us something about the reality of abortion. I’ve been reading D. Q. McInery’s book Being Logical, in which he says:

The user shapes language, but language shapes the user as well. If we consistently use language that serves to distort reality, we can eventually come to believe our own twisted rhetoric. Such is the power of language. At first hearing, terms like “cultural revolution” and “reeducation” might sound quite harmless. Then one learns that they masked totalitarian brutality at its worst. 

It is juvenile to use language simply to shock. But shocking language is preferable to evasive language, if it can disabuse people of hazy ideas and acquaint them with the truth.

I think that this power of language was visible in the above video. The people being interviewed were not, as far as I can tell, trying to deceive the interviewer. They almost certainly thought of themselves as “pro-choice,” of having a live-and-let-live attitude towards what other people do with their bodies. They had, in other words, been fooled by their own language.

So the question that this video should raise (in my opinion) is: what sort of a thing is “intentional abortion” that it has to be referred to by its supporters in overly-technical or euphemistic language? This linguistic practice alone should be sending up all sorts of red flags to listeners. And yes, the exact same point can be made about those who advocate for torture under euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation.” If you’re re-defining what a term means, or refusing to use the ordinary term for the act in question, chances are good that you’re advocating for something pernicious.

The second reason is the obvious hypocrisy. Supporters of legalized abortion use a set of essentially-libertarian arguments that they reject in almost every other context. It really is hypocrisy at its rankest.  There are essentially three principled ways out:

  1. Stop supporting abortion, and take the positive principles of liberalism (like a belief that we’re all in this together, and a concern for the weakest among us), and apply those to the unborn; 
  2. Stop supporting liberalism, and become libertarians across the board, or 
  3. Find some non-hypocritical defense for abortion. 

As a pro-life Catholic, I’d advocate (1), while I suspect that the producers of the Reason TV video would advocate (2), and principled abortion supporters would advocate (3). But I think all three groups should concede that the standard positions being used to defend abortion now are embarrassingly contradictory.  The Reason video just demonstrated this reality in a particularly effective way.

P.S.  So what’s the answer to the response that pro-lifers are also equally guilty of intellectual inconsistency, and are really pro-fetus, not pro-life? Even if it were correct, this argument is guilty of the tu quoque fallacy. That is, it doesn’t actually make it okay to use disingenuous arguments, just because you think your opponents use them, and that mentality is a race to the bottom.

But even as a tu quoque, it fails. Pro-lifers really do hold to a consistent set of intellectual principles. As a “lowest common denominator” principle, I’d point to the principle that innocent human life should never be intentionally taken. Given any public policy issue, if it involves the intentional taking of innocent human life (whether we’re talking about abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, targeting civilians in war, or some other form of murder), the views of pro-lifers can be determined from applying this principle.

But this principle doesn’t dictate (although it may inform) how pro-lifers feel about issues like the minimum wage, universal health care, or the size of government. I agree that it would be better if all pro-lifers also had a high view of the dignity of, say, workers or immigrants. But that’s a separate issue, related to “quality of life” rather than the basic issue of life and death.  Someone could, therefore, take an absolutely libertarian, no-government-assistance view of the role of government, and still acknowledge an intrinsic right to life, and the duty of the government to protect that basic right.  But even here, pro-lifers are probably a lot more self-giving than you imagine.


  1. Another way to put it is that I think euphemisms help as a coping mechanism of sorts. It’s easier to say “I’m pro-choice.” Rather than: “I’m supporting the greatest mass-murdering bonanza in human history…”

    The numbers really are something to behold: Over 40 million dead since 1973. And counting. At about 1 million deaths each each. Without ever firing a shot. And that’s in just the USA alone.

    More abortions happen in the USA in two weeks, than murders in one year.

    These people could give Hitler, or Stalin pointers.

    If nothing else, us Catholics, Christians in general, and lovers of life in general, need to respect that kind of body-count. If you don’t at least respect your enemy, you might as well pack up your bags, and go home, you’ve lost.

    I fear that many of the people who make up the “March For Life” rallies and marches don’t have any serious comprehension of what they’re actually facing down or even respect for the other side… When you’re in a staring contest with the devil, Don’t Blink.

    One of two things is going to happen in my opinion:

    The Church/Christianity will be laid waste, and abortion will go on unchallenged. Or, abortion will come to a complete halt, the culture of America/Humanity will do a 180, and the Church, battered and bruised, will go on.

    For the same reason one couldn’t have the culture of acceptance of mass infanticide in the Ancient Roman Empire, and the Church, you likewise can’t have mass abortions on demand and the Church on the same planet. One is going to have to go.

    Sooner or later, something is going to break, and I don’t see abortion (Much like slavery in the 19th century) going away except through massive bloodshed I’m sorry to say.

    1. Rob, you state that sooner or later, either mass infanticide or the church “is going to have to go.” If you mean the Catholic Church, whose members go to weekly or daily mass and fight for the life of these massacred infants, then you need to wake up from your self delusion. THAT church, if it is not already dead, is certainly on life support. Witness the “Catholics” who do not attend weekly mass, who voted for the most pro-abortion president in history, and who do not follow the teachings of the Church on key issues with which they happen to disagree. Sorry to be so pessimistic but this is the reality.

    2. Interesting point, yet the Church has been declared “if not already dead then on life support” many times over the last 2000 years and is nowhere NEAR that state now. In the US and Europe? Closer than not. But in the rest of the world? Hardly!

  2. “I’m supporting the greatest mass-murdering bonanza in human history…” – Rob

    Abortions are legal so there is no murder.

    The period of time that human prenatal development occurs isn’t considered childhood, not by euphemism but by definition. Your position on this issue would be better served if you understood the terms that you used to define that position. Also, if you choose to use a “Hitler analogy” make sure you understand that he was a Catholic.

    1. Mr. Patton,

      Let’s address your comment line-by-line.
      1) Claiming that Rob said “I’m supporting the greatest mass-murdering bonanza in human history…” because he suggested that those he disagreed with could characterize their own position that way is dishonest.

      I could just as easily write, “‘I’m supporting the greatest mass-murdering bonanza in human history…’ – Mr. Patton,” since, like Rob, you literally used that phrase in your comments. But as neither of you endorses it as a statement of your own position, it would be sophistry to ascribe it to either of you.

      2) “Abortions are legal so there is no murder.” This argument is pedantic. Yes, there is the crime of murder, which something legal couldn’t fit by definition. You could similarly argue that no one was murdered in the Holocaust, since it was legal under the Nazi regime. But murder has another meaning, one which everyone knows: the intentional killing of an innocent person. That’s the sense that Rob and nearly everyone used/uses the term.

      3) “The period of time that human prenatal development occurs isn’t considered childhood, not by euphemism but by definition. Your position on this issue would be better served if you understood the terms that you used to define that position.” This is pedantic again. Yes, “childhood” is used, in a technical sense, to refer to the age of a person’s life between birth and adolescence. But “child” is also used to refer to a person’s offspring (hence the phrase “adult children,” for example). And since Rob didn’t (as far as I can tell) use either the word “child” or “childhood” at all, you’re tilting against linguistic windmills.

      4) Hitler was baptized Catholic, but rejected Catholicism, and made it pretty clear that he was an agnostic, if not an outright atheist (although certainly, he used religious imagery when he felt it benefitted him politically). Would you honestly characterize this as being “a Catholic”? If so, I know plenty of atheists you would think are Catholics.



    2. Note to Mr. Patton:
      Just because you and others who think like you (e.g. US Supreme Court) think that abortion is not murder, does not mean the abortion is not murder. Killing of innocent humans is still murder whether you and everyone else admits it or not. Just because you have your conscience formed like a four-year old, does not take away the fact that abortion is murder, a fact that you will come to realize either in this life, if you care to awake from your self-imposed intellectual slumber, or the next (a word of advice: you might want to shake yourself out of your self-delusion before you come face to face with God). You state that “human prenatal development isn’t considered…” How nice of you to defer to the expert opinion of others like you who have their consciences turned off. Pathetic, really.

  3. I’m Catholic and what is known as “pro-life” – so the following comments are not because I’m OK with abortion.

    However, I think even Reason.TV is missing the reason for the term “pro-choice”.

    “Choice” is a big part of the Roe v Wade legal opinion. And it’s not about a right to do what you want with your body. It’s about a woman’s choosing to have an abortion coming under so-called “privacy” rights. [This is why many legal scholars who don’t have a problem with abortion still think the case was wrongly-decided or very poorly explained]

    The court also was careful to say that women have a right to “choose” an abortion and that “choice” can’t be blocked (with a few exceptions), to distinguish from a non-recognized right to “have” an abortion. In other words, the govt doesn’t have to make sure she actually gets one – so no mandating that doctors and hospitals have to perform them or that government has to provide the funds to obtain one.

    People need to read the Roe v Wade opinion and also the companion Doe v Bolton to understand the terminology. We are so far past Roe, that even abortion rights supporters no longer remember why the word “choice” became their mantra.

    In my Constitutional law class, students were guessing that Roe meant a woman had a right to get an abortion. Finally, the professor said Roe only recognized a right of privacy to “choose” an abortion. It was later Supreme Court cases that started saying you cannot “unduly burden” the carrying out of that right to “choose”. The argument about having the right to autonomously decide what to do with your body does not appear in any S Ct case that I know of.

    Roe v Wade

    Doe v Bolton

    1. Julia,

      I understand that Roe arises out of the Griswold line of “privacy” cases, but I’m not sure exactly why that matters in this context. In his dissent from Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Justice Blackmun (the author of the Roe opinion) claimed that overturning Roe would “return to the States virtually unfettered authority to control the quintessentially intimate, personal, and life-directing decision whether to carry a fetus to term.”

      What, then, about all of the other “intimate, personal, and life-directing” decisions we make in our everyday lives… including dietary choices, employment choices (whether to join a union, e.g.), etc.? What is it, exactly, that makes abortion unique from everything else? How does one justify the “abortion distortion” in American jurisprudence, the tendency to have one set of Constitutional rules for abortion, and another set of rules for virtually everything else?

      In any case, the people being interviewed aren’t using “choice” in the same manner. As you said, “even abortion rights supporters no longer remember why the word ‘choice’ became their mantra.” So whatever may have originally been meant by “choice,” what’s meant now is exactly what Reason exposed: the notion that the government should have no say in private actions in regards to abortion, but can regulate basically everything other private action to their heart’s content.



      P.S. You mentioned a ConLaw class. Are you a law student, a lawyer, or something else entirely?

  4. I’m a 67 yr old retired attorney. My point was that the word “choice” was specifically linked to the Roe opinion. So it’s not really a euphemism; it’s shorthand for what the court decided. “Pro-choice” meant that you supported the Roe decision.

    I don’t agree with Roe; so I’m not “pro-choice”, although I’m aware we should have a choice about many other things.

    There’s lots of things in life we don’t have a choice about, and lots of things the S Ct says are mandatory. Before Roe, if somebody supported legal abortion they did not say they were “pro-choice” – that language came from Blackmun and how the case was described by the press and the talking heads on TV when it was first decided. Some of the interviewed people’s confusion is they don’t realize that “pro-choice” is directly connected to the Roe decision rationale. Of course there are issues where we don’t have a choice.

    If anybody was/is abusing the word “choice”, it was the S. Court.

    Anyhow, that’s how I see it. It’s like the phrase “fair trial” means a lot of specific things found in the Constitution, court decisions and statutes. It’s shorthand people use that means a constellation of particular things. Many people on the street wouldn’t get that, either.

  5. Very concise breakdown of the reasoning. I’d more request the logic for (3) than expect (1). Of course, liberalism (in the classical sense) completely allows for multiple competing values in which it is possible to hold a position that furthers a cause while simultaneously holding another which hinders it. Such a practice is permissible if it can be logically explained. If it can’t be, then it is almost surely a self indulgence in bias or whim. For some reason I suspect that the latter is the most popular reason for most opinions.. :-/

  6. As a non lawyer, I appreciate the description of the legal niceties. Ever since Roe vs Wade I have always declared myself to be anti-abortion, but not necessarily pro-life. In the broad moral sense, as Catholic, I know that I am pro-choice because that is how God makes us. That does not mean that I agree that it is morally correct to choose abortion but it does mean that I am dedicated by faith to know that choice should always be ordained to the good not to the countervaling evil. For that reason, I too think that the legal language has slipped into the foggy netherworld and the “euphemisms” or “Talk-arounds” contribute to warping our consciences and making it more difficult to choose the good, as we should. So, for me, I am an anti-abortionist because I refuse to give up my human status as necessarily pro-choice and not necessarily pro-life.

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