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what’s in a name?

January 22, 2013

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood announced that it would stop using the term “pro-choice” to define their efforts towards creating and securing reproductive autonomy for women. Though this has led to lots of great discussion about how we should ourselves going forward, Planned Parenthood does not actually intend to replace the label with something else. Any label, they say, would discount the “complexity” of the issues.

As Ann Friedman points out at New York Magazine’s The Cut, the “pro-choice” label came into being in response to the use of “pro-life” by anti-choice activists: Somewhat ironically, it was not a word that the movement chose to define itself.  Over time “choice” has, in the general parlance, come to be too closely associated solely with abortion, and therefore does not convey that we are advocating for more than the choice to have an abortion or not. We are advocating for total reproductive autonomy for women, from access to birth control to abortion, IVF, and treatment for STDs to coverage for these things under insurance. The whole shebang.

But we shouldn’t forget that to a certain extent, this widening of the movement was also a reactive move: As anti-s have become more honest about their desire to eliminate not just access to abortion but also to birth control, advocates for reproductive autonomy have had to engage in a conversation connecting the dots between those things in order to debunk specific anti-choice arguments. When Personhood advocates started claiming that the morning after pill is an “abortion pill,” our response was to explain that though in theory the morning after pill could prevent implantation, that’s no reason to outlaw it. It was months before somebody clarified that no, in fact, even in theory, it probably can’t. By then, no one was listening.

We now have the opportunity to define, in our own words and as specifically as possible, the terms of the debate and to improve our branding. Though general terms like “freedom” and “liberty” do broaden the debate to include more than abortion, I am wary of generalizing too much. As cultural catchwords, these broader terms already have connotations, and the right to own a gun or believe in God is very different from the right to bodily autonomy. The prospect of trying to shift people’s thinking enough to where they also identify these terms with reproduction seems to me like rolling the wrong stone up a very steep mountain.

We should instead choose language that expresses what it is that these myriad complex issues that the movement is advocating for have in common. Yes, we are advocating for the right to be free from government intrusion in our private lives, but it’s not intrusion into our property or our speech with which this particular movement concerns itself. We’re arguing against government intrusion into our bodies.

I am also wary of being too wonky and movement-specific. While I can happily spend an afternoon studying the implications of Personhood laws on access to in-vitro fertilization, we cannot expect to win the larger public debate solely by painstakingly delineating the complicated relationships between a broad variety of issues. Nobody signs up for a movement that says, “You’re gonna have to work really hard to make any of the things I’m talking about come true.” They sign up for “Yes, we can.”

Though it’s still a bit clunky for branding purists, being multi-syllabic, I like “pro-reproductive justice.” It both specifies which rights we’re talking about, and–as do labels like social justice and economic justice–includes reference to the fact that simply having rights in law does not always mean having rights in practice.

Then again, if we have to go broad and catchy, I’ve never quite understood why we don’t just retake the higher ground and call ourselves “pro-living.” I am pro- women who want to have children having them. I am pro- women having the freedom to live their lives without children if they don’t want them. I am pro- women living life without fear and being able to have sex without contracting a disease or getting pregnant when they don’t want to. I am pro- living women taking their own health into account before that of an unborn fetus. I am pro- children who are born having a chance at living. I am pro- vaccinations that prevent women from getting STDs that might lead to deadly diseases. I am pro- these things for all living women regardless of their ability to pay for them. I am pro- defining our understandings of pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing according to real life instead of antiquated, patriarchal social values. I am pro-living.

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