Let’s call the whole thing off
Nancy Cohen’s op-ed in the LA Times about the slipping popularity of the term “pro-choice” bothered me, and it wasn’t just my usual annoyance at the superficial understanding of what the term “reframe” means. It’s easy to think you’re reframing something when you’re really just rebranding it, which is basically giving it a shiny new name in hopes people don’t realize that it’s the same old thing. That rarely works, though. Think of how the Tea Partiers thought they could fool people into thinking they weren’t the same old wingnuts. And they got the mainstream media to play along, but that’s because the media is addicted to newness. But the shine has come off, and people aren’t really pretending they aren’t the same old wingnuts anymore. However, they were successful in expanding our vocabulary—people use the term “teabagger” now interchangeably with “wingnut” now. I think it’s because Cohen’s solution—change out “choice” and replace it with “freedom”—is not only going to be ineffective, but it might make things worse.
“Choice” used to be a powerful word before it became a euphemism for “abortion”. I think its declining popularity is strictly due to the fact that it’s a euphemism for abortion in most people’s minds. Outside of liberal political junkies, “abortion” is a word that has a very strong, very negative connotation for most people—it invokes sluttiness. If you doubt me, look at how abortion is understood in every context that isn’t talking about policy and politics. Believe me; for my podcast at RH Reality Check, I spend a lot of time looking through clips where abortion is mentioned on TV, and I’ve found that it comes up in three separate ways:
1) Journalists talking about it as a political matter, in which case it’s mostly neutral. Unless you’re watching Fox News, most journalists you’ll see are highly sensitive to maintaining the veneer of objectivity about this subject.
2) Dramatic representations where the choice to abort is considered. Female characters get pregnant on accident on TV, and they may think about abortion, but they basically never get one. They either miscarry or embrace motherhood. You never, ever see the most common kind of abortion—where someone who is already a mother has one. Even if the writers means well, these storylines reinforce the idea that abortion is something that slutty women do because they’re bad women, which is interchangeable in the public imagination with promiscuity. There are a couple of exceptions where abortion is shown in a genuinely positive light, but these are rare. And even then—like on “Sex and the City”—they avoid having storylines where female characters choose to abort in the present day.
3) Jokes about abortion. 100% of these are jokes about promiscuous women. Promiscuous women are stereotyped as either predators, or more commonly, as idiots.
And that’s it. In other words, the main association that abortion has in our society is with female promiscuity. How you feel about unrestrained female sexuality predicts your feels on abortion better than any other factor. If you’re the sort of person who thinks that women can sleep with whoever they like, and the world will not end because of it, you’re going to be pro-choice 95% of the time. If you’re the sort of person who is appalled by “Sex and the City” because you’re scared of what will happen if more women get it in their heads that having a job and a bunch of free-wheeling single years won’t stop you from getting marriage and babies one day? You’re going to support restricting abortion dramatically. If you’re a dude who’s a pornhead who thinks that it’s great that he can sleep with a lot of women, but he doesn’t think much of sexually active women, you’re probably going to be pro-choice, but imagine that women who have abortions are bimbos, and thus you’ll never lift a finger to support abortion rights. And women who are tolerant of different women making different choices, but see themselves as the sort who want to settle down and have kids without having a wild youth beforehand, you’re way more likely to be the sort who says, “I’m pro-choice, but could never have an abortion.” And so on.
Realistically speaking, we need to take two simultaneous approaches to this problem. One, is disassociating abortion from promiscuity—pointing out Madonnas and whores alike find themselves seeking abortion, that getting pregnant without meaning to is something that happens to women who follow all chastity and monogamy rules and women who don’t. Second is destigmatizing sexual choices that fall outside the strict bonds of heterosexual monogamy.
The first is the reason that I think replacing “choice” with “freedom”—and risking that “freedom” simply becomes another euphemism for “abortion”—is a bad idea. “Free” is already in the lexicon as a negative term for a woman who has a lot of sex partners. It’s also a term that invokes escaping responsibility. For instance, when 5 o’clock comes around, a lot of people say that they’re “free” from work. Already, the stereotype is that getting an abortion is irresponsible behavior, and we don’t want to reinforce that. We want people to realize that having an abortion is taking responsibility for your life, if that’s the best choice for you. It’s true that people will initially feel warmly towards the pro-choice view if the word “freedom” becomes the preferred term, but it won’t be hard to attach these other meanings to it.
So what term/framing/whatthefuckever would I use instead? Well, the word “instead” is where all the trouble begins. People get it in their heads that one frame one phrase, one branding will be the key to winning over some huge audience, and I don’t think it works like that. Different audiences need different arguments. For some audiences, framing abortion rights as freedom will resonate, but we’ve already got those people. For others, I think emphasizing how abortion is a responsible choice would be smarter. Some people respond better when abortion is put in a social justice framework. We need to tailor our arguments, not worry so much about escaping euphemism drift by putting down the word “choice”. At this point, “choice” is so associated with abortion that if you try to distance yourself from it, people think you’re ashamed about supporting abortion rights.