Really, really, I wasn’t going to write about this. It was a conversation on Twitter with @lynncorrine, @kcecilia, and @jendeaderick that made me do it.
You see, after 35 years, I’m tired of arguing about what is the most persuasive language to bring the most people into what we have for some decades now been referring to as the pro-choice fold. And frankly, I have moved on–or outward, as I prefer to say–to the bigger canvas of women’s equality and power, not just between the navel and the knees but also in politics, at work, and at home.
However, thanks to the perpetual obsession about women and sex by those who want to outlaw abortion, I find myself drawn in once more to the fray over the rhetoric of–well, whatever you want to call it. Historian Nancy L. Cohen started the latest public discussion of the terminology in her Los Angeles Times op ed proposing that we switch from “choice” to “freedom.”
Seems to me a historian would have taken a longer view and realized that the language has morphed many times since the turn of the 20th century, from family limitation to birth control to family planning to reproductive health and rights to reproductive justice, with “pro-choice” becoming the short code word for a worldview predicated on the notion that women deserve to be able to make love without making babies: the right to choose whether, when, and with whom to have children.
Lynn Harris aka @lynncorrinne wrote this excellent, sassy piece in Salon expanding on the questions Cohen raised. Well, OK, she quoted me, so i will brazenly self-aggrandize by quoting her quoting me responding to Cohen’s theory that “freedom” would be the silver bullet to end so-called abortion wars:
Ooh, good one? Right? “Freedom”? That’s better than “choice,” right? (As we’ve learned, it’s also better than “French.”) Speaking of which, it kind of sticks it to ‘em, stealing “freedom” back from those who invoke and champion it with their fingers crossed behind their backs. (And who attach it to the prefix “hates.”) Shades of Roosevelt, Bill of Rights; nice. Right?
Well, Gloria Feldt, for one, isn’t quite ready to start rewriting our signs. “I like ‘freedom’ fine,” says the activist, writer, former Planned Parenthood prez, and author of the forthcoming “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power.” “But I’m a realist from experience, both with using the rhetoric and studying public opinion polls. Freedom is a strong American value but it doesn’t move the dial of public opinion because in the rhetorical wars, ‘life’ still trumps ‘freedom.'” (Goddammit!) “Anti-choicers easily turn ‘freedom’ into ‘license.’ Especially when it pertains to women and sex. There are limits to freedom, legally and ethically,” she continues. “Frankly, if choice weren’t a good word, the anti-choice people wouldn’t be co-opting it at every turn. I agree that it has become so diffuse as to lose its meaning. Still, in the end what is morality but choosing?”
Where does that leave us? “I think the only answer is to turn the tables and put the spotlight back on women,” Feldt says. “Our right to life, our human rights.” Well, OK. That doesn’t give us a new catchword, but — more importantly — it reaffirms the moral core of our fight. (Perhaps especially as the forced-pregnancy establishment has shifted strategies from pretending they don’t hate women to telling the truth.) Certain words are potent weapons, yes, but they’re not the war itself. And, as the polls suggest, we can win the war without them. Perhaps we should choose other battles after all.
“Choosing other battles” is a good way to put it. Because the biggest challenge for what in the interest of brevity i will call the pro-choice movement isn’t with those who oppose women’s human right to decide about childbearing, it’s with ourselves.
More than new language, we need a new surge of moral certitude about the rightness of our cause. That, much more than changing the rhetoric based on the latest poll, would solidify the amazing gains we have made for women during the last century and enable us to continue forging ahead to a more just and infinitely healthier future for women, men, and children.
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