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Word Choice Matters

Word Choice Matters
November 15th, 2017

Abortion, its a ghastly thing, and surely a great evil, performed en masse by us enlightened and civilized folk. See, in former days, people were too sexist or otherwise bigoted to recognize a woman's right to have an abortion. In fact, we might be even more enlightened than those early pro-choice folk. How so? Let my pro-choice friend, anti-me, explain:

Early pro-choice advocates propagated the obviously true (and in no way false doctrine) that a woman has a bodily right to abortion. This was upset somewhat by the unscientific claim that a fetus is a human person. To this claim, some responded (as some still do) that the embryo or fetus just is a clump of cells, like a bacteria culture or something. However, ultrasounds were invented, and the fact that this isn't true became obvious. So we compromised: the fetus and embryo are human beings, but not persons.

Since it isn't a person, it doesn't have rights, so the matter came down to, again, a woman's body, her right to chose. No need to maintain that the fetus is part of the woman or just a clump of cells. However, some objected, and said that the unborn are persons, or neither they, the recently born, the reversibly comatose, or certain ones with dementia are.

Fine, we said; you might as well consider them persons. But guess what, you still lose. Judith Jarvis Thompson showed that much, or something. A woman still has a right to bodily autonomy, that is, a right to not have to gestate an unborn child. And therefore, (at least) most abortions performed today are justified. Maybe viability is the cut off mark (more or less), and partial-birth abortion is probably wrong, but these are a minor concessions, at least in practice.

And yet, this matter concerning viability seemed concerning. Viability is a reason why even some pro-choicers are against late-term abortions. And yet, viability has already been pushed back earlier and earlier into pregnancy, and future advances might push it back further. What if viability occurred at two weeks, or one? Why abortion as performed today would be immoral!

However, then it dawned on us, that abortion is pretty much like contraception - and who objects to contraception save those loony Catholics? At least we can make it seem that way by calling both "birth control". Now, why does a woman have a right to birth control? Ah, because she has a right to reproductive autonomy; that is, access to birth control is a reproductive right. Her right thereto is like a man's recourse to condoms or to have a vasectomy performed on him if he wants. No one should have to reproduce if they don't want to, and it is unthinkable to suggest that, just maybe, if one doesn't want to have children then one shouldn't have sex! Sex is a right, or something like that.

Yes, how fortunate we were to discover that a woman's right to abortion isn't really the same kind of thing as her right to contraception. In each case she has a right not to be a biologic (or social) mother. Using contraception secures this right by preventing a parasitic child from coming into existence. Abortion secured this right by ending any children who accidentally come into being.

Few sane folks would be so sexist as to think that the Government should pay for a woman's contraception (with your tax dollars), so it is reasonable to think that the Government should also subsidize abortions, at least for the poor - but probably everyone. In any event, what is without question is that the Government has no place in actively limiting a woman's reproductive right, including their recourse to abortion, even if it doesn't actively subsidize it or become an active participant in her exercise of that right. Therefore, even if a woman could rather easily give birth to a child that could be kept alive externally, she has a right to kill that child.

Thanks, anti-me!

The point of this is to show that "birth control" is a stupid term to use, and that abortion qua reproductive right is worse and more insidious than abortion qua bodily autonomy right. Indeed, the idea of abortion as a reproductive right is a bit of a foolish euphemism as well. If we're talking about abortion, then conception and hence reproduction must have already taken place.

Now, some might object to my characterization that abortion considered as birth control is in any way a slight of hand. Perhaps this will be claimed, because 'I don't use the term that way' or 'I recognize the two as different' or something like that. This won't work. I suspect that those who spearheaded this word choice intended the conflation of abortion and contraception, as I described above. And I think that they've had some success in this regard. And certainly calling both the same name isn't going to make it easier to recognize the difference between the two.

What about "reproductive right" vs. "bodily autonomy right"? Don't many people use the two terms in the same way, interchangeably? Don't these just mean the same thing? I suspect that to some people they do. However, I suspect that those who promote abortion primarily as a reproductive right do so in the sense I described above, as opposed to being 'merely' a bodily autonomy right. The difference I see is this: Abortion qua bodily autonomy right says that a woman has a right to be free of pregnancy, and if the child should die this is justifiable given impossibility of preserving the child alive in the withdrawal procedure or externally (should it be removed alive). Abortion qua reproductive right says that a woman has a right to be free of a child, that is, to a dead child. If the child should die, oh well, it was a woman's right. In practice each view might produce near identical results, but the latter is more insidious.

I suspect that groups like NARAL that view abortion as a reproductive right think in terms as I've described, and their choice of wording helps people who view abortion as only a bodily autonomy right come to their side. I mean something like this: 'Oh, NARAL, considers abortion a reproductive right. I think women have a bodily autonomy right to abortion, so I guess that is the same thing.' They start thinking in terms of reproductive right, so when it is explained what this means they are more apt to accept the conclusion that a woman just has a right to a dead child, than if it was called that explicitly.[1]

So what's should we do? Not refer to either contraception or abortion as birth control. And if someone talks about abortion as a reproductive right, ask them what they mean. If they are fuzzy on it, perhaps explaining what it entails might shock them away from it. If they already are for a woman's purported right to a dead child, it will suffice to show them as being to that extent depraved (certainly the view they hold to is depraved); perhaps it will shock others away from it.[2] We can only hope.

[1] That this is what many or most abortions amount to anyway, helps. Indeed, I think it is the motivation to to start talking about abortion this was, even if euphemistically. Bodily autonomy right talk won't cut it anymore, since viability might be pushed back further, and so this won't be justification for abortions that kill the unborn much longer. But a right to a dead child, cheerfully called a reproductive right might, at least in the eyes of some.

[2] Indeed, before more and more people buy the logic of abortion as a reproductive right, it might be possible to show them how evil that notion is, and then point out that this is what abortion is in practice. Perhaps in this way public opinion will turn against abortion (however the purported right thereto is conceived).

P.S. I should say something about pro-choice vs. pro-abortion, but not here. In a future post, perhaps.
Written in San Dimas, California, published while I was in Spokane Valley, Washington.

This post first appeared on Witness Seeking Orthodoxy, please read the originial post: here

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