Is Being Pro-Choice Also Being Pro-Abortion?

LifeSiteNews has announced that it is being sued for $500,000 by a Catholic priest, Father Raymond Gravel. One of the items in the suit contends that the news service has referred to the aggrieved priest as being “pro-abortion,” whereas he has affirmed, on the contrary, that he is “pro-choice.”

This is a most significant legal case, and little can be said about it at the moment. However, it does raise the question concerning the relationship between being “pro-abortion” and being “pro-choice.” Can a person be “pro-choice” without being “pro-abortion”?

First of all, it must be understood that expressions such as “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice,” as well as “pro-life,” are not exactly terms that have specific, dictionary meanings, but group identifications in shorthand form that must be understood in a broad context that embraces history, politics, philosophy, and even, as we shall see, theology.

Being “pro-abortion” surely does not mean favoring or promoting abortion in every instance. Rather, it means advocating abortion under certain conditions. These conditions may be medical, psychological or personal. Some people who identify themselves as “pro-abortion” do not approve of abortion on the basis of the sex of the unborn, for instance. Pro-abortion people are not anti-life, at least in the sense that they are not completely opposed to all live births.

Being “pro-choice” is a less conditional approval of abortion. In general, “pro-choice” advocates are willing to leave the decision to abort to the pregnant mother (usually in consultation with her doctor). However, “pro-choice” people are opposed to using coercion to obtain an abortion against the pregnant woman’s will.

Being “pro-choice” does not cover everyone’s freedom to choose, even the father of the unborn child.

The expressions “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice” do overlap, although they do not coincide. It is possible to be “pro-abortion” only where medical reasons “require” it, or “pro-choice” for a broader spectrum of reasons. But if one is “pro-choice” on abortion, one certainly favors abortion in certain instances, especially when a woman chooses abortion. Therefore, to be “pro-choice” on abortion includes, though on a limited basis, favoring some abortions.

It is disingenuous for a person to think that by declaring himself to be “pro-choice” he has taken a position of neutrality concerning abortion and is therefore indemnified against the charge of being “pro-abortion.” Such disingenuousness has moved author Frank Schaeffer to outrage. In his book A Time for Anger: The Myth of Neutrality, Schaeffer makes the following comment: “Deceit and evil always go hand in hand, and our own age finds them wedded once more. For example, think of the abuse of language today. ‘Choice’ has come to mean ‘death.’ ‘Choice’ may seem to be a position of neutrality, but its application to abortion can be lethal.”

The term “pro-life” must also be understood in context. It does not mean favoring life by any means, including in vitro fertilization, cloning or any other technological form of reproduction.

Ultimately, being “pro-life” carries a rich theological implication. The Book of Deuteronomy is helpful here: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). In a 2003 essay published in his book On the Way to Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI maintains that “‘Choose life’ means ‘choose God.’ For he is life.” In choosing God, then, life is protected and tempered by love and acceptance. Being “pro-life” in this sense is not to take a mere political position or to assume a reckless regard for as much life as possible. It is understood in a specific context in which all life is properly respected and appropriately cared for.

“Pro-life” advocates rightly oppose being referred to as merely being against abortion. Hence, they reject being labeled “anti-abortion.” Nor do they accept being identified as “anti-choice,” since they urge people to choose life. The “pro-life” position is essentially positive inasmuch as it recognizes both the value of life and the need to provide it with continuing care.

It should not be offensive to a “pro-choice” person to indicate that his position subsumes the acceptance of some abortions. However, it is offensive to caricature the “pro-life” position, as is commonly done, in a negative and reductive form as being “anti-choice.”

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.