Abortion-Rights Advocates Tell Democrats to Stop Saying 'Choice,' Because Reasons
Abortion can be a winning issue for Democrats but they have to make it one, instead of playing language games
Last Thursday, Politico congressional reporter Sarah Ferris reported on a memo circulated by staff from the House Pro-Choice Caucus, with guidance on “harmful” and “helpful” language to use when talking about abortion. One part of the Pro-Choice Caucus guidance was not to say “choice” — it’s harmful. (I assume they’re ordering new letterhead as we speak.) Instead, you’re supposed to say “decision.”
Two obvious questions here are “What? Why?” And the answers to those questions are very stupid.
A “helpful” staffer for my congressman, Jerry Nadler, informed me on Twitter that the change “came out of the Black Lives Matter movement,” which isn’t quite correct, though it has been advocated by certain black-led activist organizations and adopted by Planned Parenthood and various other organs of the progressive nonprofit-industrial complex, otherwise known as “The Groups.”1
Here, according to Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, is the problem with saying “choice”:
“Choice” assumes that everyone can get an abortion, and someone just has to choose whether or not they want one. Not everyone can get an abortion when they want one. Black feminists and feminists of color have pointed out that this isn’t the case: the legal right to choose to have an abortion does not always mean someone can actually get an abortion. “Choice” ignores the lived realities of people, especially Black people and people of color, who face barriers that are often compounded by racist and classist policies that keep them from the care they need.
There are several problems with this logic as applied by the Pro-Choice Caucus, the most obvious one being that this concern about “choice” applies equally to the new recommended term, “decision.” You can just paste it right in: “‘Decision’ assumes that everyone can get an abortion, and someone just has to decide whether or not they want one…”
It also inverts the obviously aspirational aspect of arguing for “choice”: being “pro-choice” does not at all involve assuming that everyone can just choose abortion — the reason we are even talking about the issue of choice is because there is concern about whether everyone has the ability to choose.
Finally, this argument about all the Broader Oppression One Must Consider is a variant of the everything-is-everything framing that’s so popular with progressive activists: “We can’t fight climate change without dismantling capitalism,” “student debt cancellation is a racial justice issue,” and so on. x is y and y is z and we can never talk about one particular issue in isolation, it’s all just a huge morass of intersecting oppression, blah blah blah. When you say this, what voters hear is that no individual problems will be fixed, that revolutionary change is the only option — which is not coming because, remember, here on earth, left-wing revolutionary change is unpopular, Democrats have the barest majority in Congress (which they are very likely about to lose) and we need to talk about things that are actually on the menu.
This language is dumb when it comes from activist groups that are supposed to be pushing the envelope; it’s malpractice when it comes from an organ of the Democratic majority caucus of an actual legislative body trying to get laws enacted, precisely at the time that abortion is under the greatest legal threat it’s been under in decades.
And while the “choice” vs. “decision” fight is mostly a sideshow — another opportunity for progressive activists to pointlessly and arbitrarily lecture people about their language choices — some of the other guidance going around encourages Democrats to adopt the most maximizing, alienating rhetoric possible on the issue.
Planned Parenthood’s own advice about eschewing the word “choice” is to simply call yourself “pro-abortion,” and to aver that abortion should be “affirmed, without social judgments.” To put it lightly, this is not where the median voter sits, and this is tantamount to advice to Democrats to adopt unpopular messaging and lose elections and legislative fights. If Republicans sent moles into the abortion rights movement to come up with messaging in response to the likely end of Roe, their actions would be indistinguishable from what the actual communications staffers there are doing.
And yet it’s all justified, by staffers who are mostly not black women, on the grounds that black women somehow asked for this. Here’s a communications staffer for Planned Parenthood, who does this for a living:
It’s an example of the most cynical uses of “racial justice” language in progressive spaces — find one (1) black woman to use as a stand-in for your argument, and you get to use her like a shield, availing yourself of the deference norm that your colleagues must “listen to black women,” even if you’re a man. It’s a farce.
And then you have the copypastas. Here’s the ACLU saying abortion bans disproportionately harm the LGBTQ community. This is just boilerplate: if you’re talking about any problem, you say it disproportionately harms the LGBTQ community — never mind that abortion is the archetypal example of an issue that is of disproportionate importance for heterosexuals. (Note also that the demographic facing the most obviously disproportionate harm from abortion bans — women — goes unmentioned in the ACLU tweet.)
I could go on: the Pro-Choice Caucus (Wow, problematic! How are you still calling yourself that??) says not to say “unwanted” pregnancy and instead say “unexpected” pregnancy, even though these are entirely different concepts, you idiots.
Who is any of this language supposed to be for? If it’s for attracting progressive activists of the sort who came up with these language changes, sure, abandoning “choice” is the right move, that’s what they want. Planned Parenthood’s advice to call yourself “pro-abortion” will surely appeal to professional abortion-rights activists. It’s all great within the circle-jerk that is The Groups. But I’m pretty sure all the people we’re talking about here were going to vote Democratic this November anyway.
If you are actually trying to win more votes, you have to deal with the fact that a majority of voters do not view abortion as a wholly morally uncomplicated act. These messaging tweaks range from useless to harmful in trying to appeal to those voters at the margin.
In this light, it’s fortunate that the switch from “choice” to “decision” is so transparently pointless — it entails throwing 50 years of branding in the toilet for no reason, but at least the terms mean the same goddamn thing. Urging politicians to say “decision” is better than urging them to call themselves “pro-abortion.” But the switch doesn’t do anything to stop abortion bans — and more broadly, an obsession with language games of the sort that interest people who spent a lot of time arguing about language in graduate school is one factor making it harder for Democratic politicians to talk in a normal way to the normal people they need to appeal to if they want to win elections. It’s just reinforcing the party’s transformation into a loser coalition for people with ill-advised masters degrees.
So stop telling people to stop saying “choice” and start talking about abortion in a way that might actually appeal to the marginal voter whom you desperately need right now! For example, how about bringing up some pieces of legislation in Congress that would prohibit specific and especially unpopular state-level abortion restrictions — bills that would prohibit states from banning abortion in the first trimester, or from banning abortion in cases of rape and incest, or from imposing criminal penalties on women who seek abortions? The point of show votes is to make the other party take hard votes. A catch-all bill that goes well beyond Roe and Casey like the one the Senate defeated last week is not a hard vote for Republicans — even Susan Collins can comfortably vote against it — but these narrower bills would be.
Republicans are clearly uncomfortable about the prospect of having to discuss the specifics of regimes of total or near-total abortion prohibition. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson waved the issue off last week, suggesting women can just go to Illinois for abortions if they become illegal in Wisconsin. Democrats have the material they need to show voters how extreme Republican policy on this issue is likely to be — so why are professional activists (and their staff allies on Capitol Hill, like whoever wrote this Pro-Choice Caucus memo) instead fixated on making Democratic talking points on the issue as weird and unappealing as possible?
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Though not all of The Groups: NARAL is still located on the web at “prochoiceamerica.org”