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.

So if "pro-choice," chosen those 40 years ago, has been co-opted, why not get rid of it? To change the language about one organization's abortion-right advocacy shouldn't necessarily be a surprising or suspicious move, since it's happened before. It could very well be a genius move on Planned Parenthood's part. Any critiques of pro-choice ideas? Any praise of pro-life ones? Take them elsewhere, because Planned Parenthood is a women's health organization that is not involved in that fight. As the campaign ad explains, it's easier to have a real conversation when there aren't just labels being thrown back and forth. It's a conversation that's been going on for a long time and is bound to continue, probably using a whole slew of hand-picked phrases before the thing is done. The move away from "pro-choice" is just one inevitable step along the way. Plus ça change, plus la meme "choice."

The only problem is that, while language does matter—if words weren't important, Planned Parenthood wouldn't waste time and money on telling us which ones they plan to use—it's not only the words themselves that have power. It's the ability to choose those words. Planned Parenthood isn't swapping a word for a word; they're swapping a word for a lack thereof. So it might be a genius move—or it might create a vacuum. Maybe Planned Parenthood will get the ball rolling so that, in 2050, we'll talk about abortion without using labels, acknowledging that a woman's situation is something only she and her doctor can describe, and all of our conversations will be civil. That future, however, sounds a lot like one in which abortion isn't at all worth talking about in the public sphere, a situation very different from the one we face today and the one that existed in the 1970s. Before that future can arrive, activists and politicians and writers will still talk about abortion. Maybe they'll still say "pro-choice." But maybe—and this is the danger for Planned Parenthood—somebody else will come up with a new word for that idea. It might be somebody who defies labels, but who might be called pro-life if labels were used. Seizing the power to label means seizing the power, period.

And that power shift could be one that lasts for a long time. Even Alan Otten, in 1975, knew where the issue was headed—because some things haven't changed a bit. "It probably won't happen very soon, what with economy and energy worries, but eventually the White House and Congress must come to grips with the emotion-charged problem of abortion," he wrote, seeing the issue the same way it might be seen today. "Both right-to-life and pro-choice forces agree the abortion issue is going to be around for a long time."