The End of Pro-Choice: Will 'No Labels' Really Help the Abortion Debate?

Is Planned Parenthood's decision to abandon the decades-old term brilliant—or doomed?

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Some 2,500 people attend a Pro Choice rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women in1989. (Todd Essick/AP Images)

If someone told you that the director of the Washington office of Planned Parenthood had said that politicians should vote to keep abortion safe and legal, the news would not be particularly surprising. But if you heard that the same woman had referred to that brand of lawmaking as "pro-abortion," the shock factor might change. The phrase "pro-abortion" is taboo. But, in March 1975, when that Planned Parenthood higher-up, Jeannie I. Rosoff, spoke to the Wall Street Journal, her wording would not have seemed so odd—the alternative to "pro-abortion" was not in common usage yet. In fact, elsewhere that WSJ article, an edition of Alan L. Otten's "Politics & People" column, was the very first print appearance of the phrase "pro-choice."

Now, nearly 40 years later, Planned Parenthood is once again changing the way they talk about abortion. The '70s took the language from "pro-abortion" to "pro-choice"; the 2010s, if all goes according to the organization's plan, will take us from "pro-choice" to, well, nothing at all. In the days since Buzzfeed covered the shift, reaction has been mixed—at Slate, Amanda Marcotte was on the pro-pro-choice side, while Katie Roiphe put forward "pro-freedom" as an alternative label, arguing that "choice" is an elitist concept—but heated. Looking at what's happened since Otten's 1975 article, it becomes clear that those who mourn or celebrate the passing of that one particular phrase would perhaps better spend their energies worrying less about "choice" and its synonyms than about what Planned Parenthood has decided to put in its place. The danger to Planned Parenthood's aims is not in changing vocabulary but in failing to provide a clear step forward.

Here's Planned Parenthood explaining the move away from "pro-choice" in an ad, uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 15:

In short, armed with data saying that more Americans are pro-choice than want to be called "pro-choice," Planned Parenthood has concluded that its aims are better served by moving away from labels. It's not about being pro-choice; it's about realizing that every situation in which abortion is considered is unique. The decision should be made by a woman and her doctor, with the rest of the world acknowledging that we can't know what it's like "in her shoes." The top-rated YouTube comment on the video parses what's going on here: a big semantic shift accompanied by almost no change in what the words in question are trying to say. That commenter is opposed to the move and sees it as giving in to "anti-choice" political pressure.

Which is a pretty logical way to see it, but in a more literal way than that commenter probably means it. If it's true that there is overlap between "pro-life" people and those who believe abortion should be legal, the political pressure is anti "choice" but not anti-choice. And, as Otten's original usage shows, the phrase "pro-choice" didn't spring fully formed from the forehead of Jane Roe. In March of 1975, "pro-choice" passed a threshold into the public consciousness, but that was years into the legal battles over abortion, years during which commentators like Otten might have used Planned Parenthood's own phrase, "pro-abortion." Then "pro-abortion" came to be a liability, and "pro-choice" replaced it; as the Buzzfeed report makes clear, Planned Parenthood now sees "pro-choice" as a liability of the same kind.

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Lily Rothman is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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