Bioethics

New Pro-Choice Tactic Equivocates on “Life”

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Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/06/2013

As a follow-up to last week’s post on the article arguing that the unborn are human lives “worth sacrificing,” it’s important to note that the latest tactic being used by pro-choicers is to equivocate on the word “life”—using it to refer to both the mother’s life situation and the unborn child’s life—in order to make it appear as if the moral claim of the unborn (to live) is equal to the moral claim of the mother (to have the life she wants).

I’ve noticed people making this move lately—for example, this man from MSNBC: “In some ways that choice [to abort my child] saved my life.” Well, no, it didn’t save his life, he merely thinks it gave him a better life situation. But the same word “life” is used so that we’re left with the impression that it was his life vs. his child’s life—that the moral claims of both human beings were equally strong.

And more explicitly in last week's article:

Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life”….

[Abortion] saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families. And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.

She says she puts “the life of a mother over the life of a fetus,” but she doesn’t mean that both the mother's and the child's literal lives are at stake, she simply uses the same word “life” to compare actual life to “quality of life” in an attempt to equalize their moral claims in the mind of the reader. What she’s actually saying is that she puts the mother’s option to save money, or prevent difficulties, or simply to live the life she prefers, over the literal life of another human being.

At first I thought it was just a coincidence that a few people happened to be using language that obscures the moral claims of the two parties (mother and child), but then I came across another article about how Planned Parenthood is leaving behind the term “pro-choice” and trying to come up with something new:

It may be that a change in language frees those who believe in an absolute right to abortion to a more honest wrestling with the issue. Let’s imagine a scenario in which we admit that abortions may involve an obliteration of something that could legitimately be called life but that they are done to protect something that could also be called life. Planned Parenthood is, after all, in the business of protecting women’s lives, their futures, their ability to pursue education, to establish security, to have homes filled with future children, and their freedom to decide how best to use their short time on earth [emphasis mine].

So it’s deliberate.

What this shows is that we’ve made good progress convincing people that unborn children are live human beings, and that pro-choicers realize that our moral intuition, once we understand that the unborn are live human beings, goes in favor of the unborn child. We know the moral claims to “life” and “the life situation I want” aren’t equal, but if pro-choicers consistently use the same word enough for both, maybe they can reshape our intuition.

Expect to see this rhetorical trick more often, and challenge it when you hear it. Ask the person to define explicitly what he or she means by “life” in the case of the mother and in the case of the child, then examine whether or not those two rights claims are truly morally equal.