What’s the Best Language: Choice, Freedom, Human Rights, or???

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:

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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.


  1. SereneBabe on May 31, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    This isn’t about rhetoric or just changing language. This is about how our morality is formed, through metaphors. It’s about reframing the debate, not just some superficial language change.

    Rarely are people “pro-abortion,” but the radical right has take the term “pro-choice” and all of us (progressive included) have allowed the meaning to be reframed to equal “pro-killing-babies.”

    Reframing the debate is what we must do if we ever want to make serious change. The issue *is* about freedom. Freedom to take care of our own bodies as we see fit. The radical right has also taken over “freedom” but we can take it back.

    I hope you reconsider your position. It’s truly not rhetoric or shallow word changes, it’s a movement of massive proportions.

    To better understand what I’m trying to say so briefly, I’d suggest (if you haven’t already read it) stuff by George Lakoff and/or Drew Westin. The brain science information shows us how our morality is formed… oh, I could go on and on, but I won’t. I have blogged about it quite a bit, though, if you’re interested.

  2. Sue Katz on May 31, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I like this tremendously – it reads as if it were written on a gallop and by a seasoned activist still able to speaks the abcs with passion. We’ll never sort out those who want to control us between “the navel and the knee” until we sort out this society in which they operate. And no one can sort out this society as long as women are, as it were, cut off at the knees. You call for moral certitude – I call for righteous fury. Perhaps we’re related.

  3. Gloria Feldt on May 31, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I would actually like to have some new Nike’s because my old New Balance shoes are really getting worn down. Oh, but that’s not the question here, is it?

    SerenaBabe, thanks for your comment. I have been a student of Lakoff’s work for years. And I agree with him that the #1 power we have in our activist arsenal is to frame the debate, to define the terms and to define them first before someone else defines them for us. The choice of language is important, and metaphor is as you say a big part of what binds people to an idea.

    Also I am a practical activist. I’ve had to actually get a movement to move and to win some political battles where real women’s lives are at stake. i do know whereof I speak when I say that almost always the difference between winning and losing is the degree of moral certitude, the guts, the strength of conviction of the team that prevails. On that score, it always takes two of us to every one on the other side because they are true believers, fired with the passion of their cause.

    I am not defending the use of “choice”. I often use “freedom” and always have. And I tried very hard to persuade my publishers to use another word in the title of my book that became “The War on Choice.” Because I feel we are talking in much more profound moral terms than the superficial meaning of the word choice. Yet “choice” has been the stickier word for those who support women’s reproductive rights–for whatever reason. I suspect because it is short and simple and anyone can see her/himself in the story, choice becomes a stand-in for the worldview I describe above. And I came to realize that because the ability to choose is what makes us human, choice is actually the basis of morality. No a bad metaphor for us.

    Personally, I use human rights language because I think that’s where the hockey puck needs to go, to tweak Wayne Gretsky’s phrase just a bit. If we don’t make this a debate about women’s human rights to make their own childbearing decisions, then we are always going to be playing defense. Which is exactly where Lakoff tells us we should not be if we want to prevail.

    Sue you are right, I’m moving fast tonight, and I suspect our perspectives at least are very related 🙂

  4. Aletha on June 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Heart and I put the right to abortion in the context of “procreative and sexual autonomy,” as part of our respective versions of the Bill of Missing Rights. I think autonomy is more descriptive, less vague, than choice or freedom, but it goes without saying there are always many ways of saying the same thing. Heart and I see the scope of procreative and sexual autonomy slightly differently. The original language posted at freesoil.org says,

    The right to procreative and sexual autonomy; birth control, abortion, child care, and assistance to escape abuse should be readily available, at least as high quality public health services, and household work should be fairly compensated.

    Heart posted on her Bill of Missing Rights on her campaign blog,

    The right to procreative and sexual autonomy, to birth control, abortion, prenatal care, gynecological, midwifery and obstetrical services, and sex education and information;

    Heart is more of a professional and disciplined writer than me, and has been a homeschooling mother. I never had children, though when I was younger, I thought I would someday. Some of the details she included I would think are clear by implication, but I have since learned that is a dangerous assumption. Sometimes my writing goes all over the map trying to link things that are connected in subtle ways. The Bill of Missing Rights posted at freesoil.org is almost unchanged from the language my friends and I worked out in 1977, so I could appreciate Heart rewriting it for her campaign. We both have an intense interest in reclaiming language.

    I think autonomy goes to the crux of the abortion controversy; nobody should have the right to interfere with the decisions a woman makes about reproduction. It is not a minor choice, right, or freedom; without that autonomy, the agency of a woman to decide what she wants to do with her life is so severely compromised, it becomes virtually meaningless. Is it not basically the position of the opponents of this right that women cannot be trusted to make the correct moral choice, so the state should make it for us? Aside from blatantly violating the principle of separation of church and state, that is the same old line of reasoning men have used for millennia to justify treating women as second-class citizens; our sexuality is a dark force that must be controlled for the good of society, and heaven forbid tax dollars should allow a woman to interfere with the will of God! I am not saying that Obama went that far when he enshrined the Hyde Amendment, but in effect, he might as well have.

  5. Gloria Feldt on June 4, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Aletha, I too think that autonomy is at the core of the words we keep searching for. That is a bigger, more complex idea than “life.” There is life and there is LIFE in the fully human sense of the moral capacity to make decisions autonomously–which to most of us is what gives our lives meaning in the first place. We aren’t talking about life as merely living cells. So perhaps that one of the areas of disconnect in the language around these issues.

    I personally think the Hyde debacle was a blow from which the movement–pro-choice or whatever you want to call it—will not recover in the next decade.

  6. Aletha on June 5, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Yes, it certainly was a blow, coming from President Obama, who was supposed to be an ally. I imagine mainstream feminist organizations will feel they have no choice but to go back on defense. State legislatures have been emboldened, passing all sorts of new laws restricting abortion, to test the limits of how far they can go to chip away at Roe v. Wade. Since Obama will not make abortion a litmus test for his appointments to the Supreme Court, and the positions of his nominees are hard to decipher at best, it is conceivable that Roe will fall, or be substantially weakened, if the Court weighs in on any of these new laws. One of the first things to surface about the position of Elena Kagan on abortion was this story

    As a White House adviser in 1997, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan urged then-President Bill Clinton to support a ban on late-term abortions, a political compromise that put the administration at odds with abortion rights groups.

    Documents reviewed Monday by The Associated Press show Kagan encouraging Clinton to support a bill that would have banned all abortions of viable fetuses except when the physical health of the mother was at risk.

    That sounds much like the position of the President during the campaign, when he cast aspersions on women seeking late-term abortions for mental health reasons.

    I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

    That quote, which I posted in my monster post A Case Against Obama Nation, was one thing among many that troubled me about the Obama candidacy, perhaps foreshadowing his action to enshrine the Hyde Amendment.

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