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May 18, 2009

Is The Meaning Of "Pro-Life" Changing?

Mark Silk - who has managed to insinuate himself into my list of essential blogs, no mean feat - has an interesting post on the latest Gallup poll on the abortion issue.  Much has been made of how the poll shows a majority of respondents self-identifying as "pro-life."  Mark, however, notes that when one gets away from the labeling portion of the survey, support for keeping abortion legal is pretty much in line with what it has been for some time now.  What's really interesting is,  "if Gallup is to be believed, "pro-life" is now a term that 20 percent or so of pro-choicers now use to describe themsleves."

The question before us is whether this is a positive development for choice or not.  It's possible that having people with pro-choice attitudes beginning to identify themselves as "pro-life" indicates a willingness to be influenced away from their support of abortion's current legal status.  Or, it's possible that the anti-choice movement has become so extreme - opposing contraception, excommunicating doctors that save a 9-year-old girl's life - that they're losing the rhetoric war, allowing people to inform terms like "pro-life" with meanings that Randall Terry never intended.

Clearly the best course of action for those of us who support the basic human right of women's reproductive autonomy is to hope for the latter while acting according to the former.


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Based on anecdotal and totally unscientific evidence, I think it's closer to the latter. I've spoken to a lot of people who think abortion is wrong, but are not interested in criminalizing women who practice it. They understand "pro-choice" as "pro-abortion" (which perhaps represents a victory of anti-choice rhetoric), so they won't use that label, but their position is substantively the same as yours or mine.

The poll just has to be an outlier. There's no way our country could see a swing that hard that fast towards favoring the appellation "pro-life" during the same time we elect a pro-choice politician as President by an overwhelming margin.

On the other hand, in terms of anecdotes, I remember someone who is pro-choice and Catholic telling about a girl in her Catholic study group describing herself as pro-life but thinking it should still be legal. Perhaps the legalized status of abortion has become so entrenched that a portion of the population has now taken using the terms in a behavioral, as opposed to a political, context. "Pro-life" means you won't have an abortion, "Pro-choice" means you won't. I guess in terms of messaging and framing, that's a win for the Pro-life movement, but that's the kind of win that losses the war.

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