If Not Pro-Choice, What?

There’s been some buzz the last week or so about the announcement by Planned Parenthood that it’s dropping use of the term “pro-choice” to describe its position on abortion and related issues. I don’t know at this point if the leadership of that brave and besieged group shares the long-standing concerns of some advocates of reproductive rights that the term sounds like one better confined to consumer discretion or conservative education proposals–or is simply less powerful than the “pro-life” brand deployed by the anti-reproductive rights coalition. The Anna North Buzzfeed article reporting the change (via interviews with Planned Parenthood leaders) seems to indicate the main problem was that “pro-choice” doesn’t poll very well:

Polling conducted on Planned Parenthood’s behalf appears to show some dissatisfaction with the labels. In one 2012 poll, 35% of voters who identified as pro-life also believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned (7% of pro-choice voters, meanwhile, thought it should be). And in an online survey of recent voters, 12% said they were both pro-life and pro-choice, and another 12% said they wouldn’t use those terms. When asked for their moral opinions on abortion, 40% of those voters said “it depends on the situation” — far more than called the procedure either acceptable or unacceptable.

At Slate Amanda Marcotte argues that however it polls, “pro-choice” is the most accurate term for the issues dividing supporters and opponents of reproductive rights. Besides, it’s an emblem worth fighting for:

The only real choice you have is to label yourself or let others do it for you, and of those two options, smart folks will pick the former every time.

Also at Slate, Katie Roiphe cheers Planned Parenthood decision to abandon a “bourgeois” term that over-simplifies attitudes towards abortion policy (she prefers “pro-freedom,” though it’s even less precise, and there would be a mighty big fight with the Tea Folk over that one). But even she acknowledges that abandoning “anti-choice” for the opposition would be a shame.

A big part of the problem with Planned Parenthood’s poll-driven approach to this subject is that the group may be missing a big opportunity for educating people about what “choice” means. The “depends on the circumstances” answer that keeps showing up in polls on abortion should be very troubling to reproductive rights advocates, since it implies there are subjective motives (i.e., reasons for abortions that are and aren’t “acceptable”) that if properly identified should govern actual policies backed by state compulsion. Marcotte nails it:

The correct term for people who want abortion to be decided on a case-by-case basis is pro-choice, unless, of course, these focus-group participants imagine a panel to which each woman has to make her case in order to determine if she’s a good enough girl to avoid punishment by forced childbirth.

Yes, public opinion on abortion is often “nuanced.” But the question of who decides really isn’t.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.