Changing Language of Abortion Seen as Progress by Pro-Lifers
While the message of the pro-life cause has remained unchanged, the legal strategy has evolved over the past 40 years.
WASHINGTON — Amid changing abortion rhetoric and significant legislative advances, a group of legal experts in the nation’s capital said that they are confident in the future of the pro-life movement.
“In this epic struggle,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, “my money’s on the baby.”
Hosting a Jan. 24 symposium in Washington, Yoest and other speakers discussed changes in rhetoric surrounding the abortion debate, as well as growing legislative efforts in the 40 years since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions established a national “right” to abortion at any time, for any reason, during a woman’s pregnancy.
Much of the discussion focused on changes to tactics used by abortion advocates over the years.
Yoest explained that, while pro-life advocates have been consistent in delivering a message of “defending life,” the abortion movement has changed the way it frames its arguments numerous times.
In the 1970s, she said, abortion advocates relied upon the “right to privacy” and emphasized that banning the procedure would lead to an increase in “back-alley abortions” and dangerous illegal procedures.
Today, however, abortion is seen as “reproductive freedom” and the “irreducible minimum of feminine empowerment,” she continued. The procedure is now supported as necessary for “equality and opportunity for all women,” and some have even tried to rebrand it as a means by which women can feel connected to one another.
In a further push to make abortion appear “morally neutral” and universal, the idea of “choice” is now being abandoned as well, Yoest said, pointing out that, if abortion is necessary for women’s empowerment, it is logical to have every American pay for it, leaving behind any “choice” in the participation.
“What they could not win through choice they intend to impose through coercion,” she commented.
These rhetorical changes have also affected the debates around fetal personhood, said Laura Garcia, professor of philosophy at Boston College. From the 1970s through the 1990s, she observed, a large portion of the abortion debate centered upon whether or not a fetus was a person.
Now, because of advances in prenatal imaging, Garcia explained, “no one really denies” that a fetus is a human person. (Fetus is Latin for “offspring.”) Widespread use of 3-D sonogram pictures has helped establish the humanity of the unborn, particularly among young people, she said.
As a response, abortion is now promoted as an unfortunate but necessary reality, the panel speakers noted, adding that the word "abortion" is increasingly being abandoned altogether in favor of the term “reproductive rights.”
While the message of the pro-life cause has remained unchanged, symposium participants continued, the legal strategy has evolved over the past 40 years.
Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that, while “Roe constitutionalized abortion, it did not legalize it.” Therefore, he said, a reversal of Roe v. Wade would not ban abortion within the United States, but would allow each state to determine its own policy on the issue.
Therefore, state-level efforts are a critical part of the pro-life movement, Yoest explained. In recent years, Americans United for Life has worked to craft and promote state laws to limit abortion and defend life across the nation.
At the moment, Yoest noted, there is a “tremendous supply of legislation in the pipeline” at the state level. Such efforts have included bans on government and insurance funding for abortion, ultrasound requirements, abortion-facility regulations and informed-consent laws.
She said, “We have a very definite strategy that is gaining ground and gaining momentum.”