Pro-Choice? Pro-Life? What's in a Name?

There are three options when a woman finds out she is pregnant: she can raise the baby herself; she can place her baby with adoptive parents, or she can have an abortion. The third option is the cause of heated debate. Yet there is also a companion debate over what terms should be used to describe the people on either side of the issue.

People who support keeping abortion as a legal option prefer to be called Pro-Choice. Their opposition would rather call them Pro-Abortion or Anti-Life.

People who want to take away the legal right to have an abortion call themselves Pro-Life. Their opposition would prefer to define them as Anti-Abortion or Anti-Choice.

What's in a name? 

Shakespeare aside, the words we choose to use when defining the world around us are important. Particularly when we are classifying items or people into a common group. The term we use becomes a sort of shorthand to sum up the characteristics of that group.

Considering the terms that people on each side of the abortion debate prefer to use goes back to the options of a pregnant woman:
  1. Parenting -- A woman can continue her pregnancy and raise the baby herself.
  2. Adoption -- A woman can continue her pregnancy and place her baby with adoptive parents. 
  3. Abortion -- A woman can terminate her pregnancy through an abortion procedure. 

People who call themselves Pro-Choice do so because they believe every woman has a legal right to decide any of these three options for herself. The term Anti-Life is clearly inaccurate because the people in this group support parenting and adoption as well as legal abortion.

The term Pro-Abortion may or may not be accurate. Many people who support legal abortion do so even when they do not think they would ever choose to have an abortion themselves.

The Pro-Choice argument is about letting women make decisions based on their own situations. The argument does not say that abortion is a "good" or easy decision. It acknowledges that there are hard decisions in life, and that they can only be made by the people directly involved.


People who call themselves Pro-Life support the options of parenting and adoption, but do not support abortion. It's not entirely accurate to call them Anti-Choice because they do support two out of the three options. But there are problems with the term Pro-Life as well.

By limiting the options of all pregnant women, those who call themselves Pro-Life assume a heavier burden of proof. Instead of letting women (and their doctors) weigh the options in their own situations, this group must make a blanket argument that abortion is always wrong--no matter the reasons.

If their argument is that all life is precious, it is illogical to also support capital punishment; yet many do. It would also be illogical to take away programs which support those who have been born, such as WIC or Welfare; yet many do.

When a high-risk pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant women, those who call themselves Pro-Life are in a difficult position. How is it "pro-life" to risk a woman's life for a fetus that is not yet viable outside of the womb?

Not all pregnancies naturally result in a live birth. Genetic abnormalities and other problems can cause a fetus to not be viable outside of the womb. Sometimes this causes a miscarriage (natural abortion), but in other cases the fetus dies in the womb or within minutes of being born. How is it "pro-life" to continue a pregnancy which will not result in life?

The most accurate statement you can make about this group is that they are against abortion. Therefore, it is most accurate to label this group as being Anti-Abortion.

Linguistic Semantics

Finding accurate names for the groups on either side of the abortion debate may seem like a minor point. However, considering the meaning behind each group's name may make it easier to better understand each group's arguments, and perhaps find some common ground.


  1. the super weirdo thingy about the words "prolife", at least to me, is that it doesn't consider the killing of abortion doctors, miscarriages and the lives ruined when peeps unprepared for children, have children. Awesomeness.


  2. kriss: legitimate prolifers condemn the killing of abortion doctors - your point is nonsense. miscarriages aren't murder so the prolife principle doesn't apply. a screwed up life isn't murder either. What you did to reasoning? That was murder.

  3. Susan,
    the reason prolifers do not refer to those who support abortion is because of the choices you list, *both* sides agree about choosing between the first two. The only new thing that the "pro-choice" side adds to the table is the 3rd choice, namely abortion. So, to most succinctly distinguish between the two we should refer to that 3rd choice only: yes to abortion or no to abortion. More accurate terminology might be pro-abortion and anti-abortion, but pro-choice is misleading.

    btw, I mean the above in a sincere effort to begin a dialogue - this is an important point you bring up and I welcome a reasoned response.

  4. Your term "legitimate prolifers" is subjective. You may not consider the people who threaten (or take) the lives of abortion doctors to be "legitimate prolifers" but, from what I've seen, they typically identify themselves as being "pro-life."

    As to the terms, I think you missed one of the points in my post. Namely, what do you call a person who would not have an abortion themselves but who still believes that abortion should be a legal choice for others?

    Pro-abortion does not seem accurate for that mindset (since they may not agree with abortion as a personal choice), whereas pro-choice shows that they support the right of individuals to make the choice about abortion for themselves.

    I tend to think that anti-abortion and pro-choice sum up each side of the argument most accurately.

    One side opposes abortion (anti-abortion), and the other is open to allowing individuals to make any choice for themselves (pro-choice).

  5. "legitimate prolifers" is not subjective in this case. You support murdering an abortionist? *Not* prolife, regardless of what you call yourself. To allow them the term "pro-life" is to make that subjective which is to assume the conclusion you are attempting to argue. Didactically sloppy but sophistically clever, I'll give you that.

    "Pro-abortion" doesn't mean that they want to have an abortion or that they would have one themselves. "Pro" just means "supportive of" in this case. "pro"choice means supportive of choice in general. Coke or Pepsi? No. We're talking about whether the choice of abortion should be on the behavior. You are either for or against abortion being on the table, i.e. pro-abortion or anti-abortion. Both sides believe in the other choices so using that term doesn't distinguish between them and as such is misleading.

    And it is isn't "the other is open to allowing individual to make any choice for themselves". "Pro-choice" as you use it refers only to abortion. If it were about *any choice*, you would first have to determine the prolife position on that choice to determine whether or not that was a distinguishing factor.

  6. I think the problem you have in understanding the prolife position is that you are viewing it from the standpoint of the woman and you assume the validity of situation ethics. From that perspective and within that ethical framework, the pro-abortion argument certainly follows but it is not consistent with other things I am sure you believe. It never is and this is easy to show, if you'll humor me by replying to the following:

    1) are there things which are *intrinsically* wrong? I do *not* mean wrong because God, the devil, your conscience, Muhammed, whoever, says so. I mean: Is there any deed which is wrong regardless of the circumstances? Remember that a deed involves the doer, the action and the thing or person on whom the deed is done.

    2) Is the fetus alive? I do not mean one "potentially" or anything of that sort.

    3) a) If the answer to 2 is "yes": of what species?
    b) If 2 is "no", how/why is it growing? How/why does it convert ADP to ATP? How/Why does it have organ systems?

    4) a) if 3a is "Human" - Who is it?
    b) if 3a is something else please explain

    ...More to come pending answers from above.

  7. I'm not sure if the last two posts came from the same person. If you use the drop down box next to where it says "Comment as" you can choose "Name/URL" and type a name. Or you can simply add a name to the comment itself.

    If this is the same person who yesterday asked for a "reasoned response" and wanted a "sincere dialogue," I don't think calling my thoughts "Didactically sloppy but sophistically clever" is the way to go about having a cordial or respectful discussion. Anyway...

    I've presented my reasons for supporting the term "pro-choice." You've presented your reasons for disagreeing. Frankly, I'm not interested in turning this into a debate over what constitutes "life."

    From my perspective, the issue over the legality of abortion has little to do with questions about the morality of the procedure. It is a matter of allowing every woman to make the choice (of whether or not to have an abortion) for herself.

    For the record, I can understand the reasons why some people are morally opposed to abortion. If that's how they feel, then they can base decisions about their own pregnancies accordingly. I simply don't think that gives them a right to limit other people's choices.

    Vegans who are morally opposed to eating meat, do not have to do so. They can even advocate their diet as a reasonable alternative. But they don't have the right to make that decision for other people. This is no different.

  8. Susan,
    Don't worry, I won't keep this up if you're not interested, but... The problem with subjective morality is that it can be used to justify anything. I'll take a paragraph of yours and change the subject but keep the reasoning and you'll see why I have a problem with that:

    "For the record, I can understand the reasons why some people are morally opposed to slavery. If that's how they feel, then they can base decisions about their own work force accordingly. I simply don't think that gives them a right to limit other people's choices."

    If the reasoning is correct in your paragraph, how could it be wrong in this one?

  9. or...

    "Vegans who are morally opposed to eating meat, do not have to do so. They can even advocate their diet as a reasonable alternative. But they don't have the right to make that decision for other people. This is no different."

    "People who are morally opposed to torturing animals, do not have to do so. They can even advocate their lifestyle as a reasonable alternative. But they don't have the right to make that decision for other people. This is no different. "

  10. The laws against slavery and torturing animals are exactly that: people who claim "the right to make that decision for other people" and impose their view on others.

    This is why I asked the set of questions above. If a thing is intrinsically wrong (like slavery or torturing animals), "imposing your views on others" is a good thing if you are advocating against an intrinsic evil. The alternative to agreement with this is to state that nothing is intrinsically evil - you need then to use another standard. If you select the popular standpoint that if it is legal it is "okay" then by that argument, slavery was once "okay" and I vehemently disagree with that. Slavery was always wrong, regardless of it's legal status.

  11. And... (sorry to keep at this)

    I am posting as anonymous because I have been assaulted, threatened, spit upon and falsely accused because of my prolife views. I do not want to give anybody the opportunity to renew that experience.

  12. I wasn't asking for your real name, any kind of identifying tag would be helpful.

    I understand the point you are making. I don't know that I would call my views situational ethics, because that phrase implies Joseph Fletcher's specific model of philosophy where morality is based entirely on love.

    I believe that moral decisions come from principles. Society rules do play into the decisions as well, mostly because one of my principles is to abide the rules of the society in which I live.

    The difference between principles and rules is that principles sometimes need to be bent to accommodate another more important principle.

    For example: My principles say I should follow driving rules. But I also have a principle which says I should help other people. If I'm rushing my severely injured child to the hospital, my principle to help him may override waiting through a red light--as long as I've stopped long enough to make sure I don't cause an accident (which would harm other people).

    I would still be liable for paying a ticket if I'm caught going through the red light, but the circumstances make that an acceptable consequence of getting my son needed medical care.

    In the case of abortion, people on the pro-choice side typically acknowledge that abortion is not an ideal choice, but it is sometimes the best choice, given the circumstances. They simply want that decision to be made on a case-by-case basis by the people immediately involved.

    Morality is a complex issue and something that I think about (and blog about) quite a bit. If you're interested, here's a post that explains a little more about some of my thoughts on morality: Is Morality Irrational?

  13. Anonymous,

    First you have to have a living thing and since a fetus is on life-support well passed the 5th month and can't survive on it's own so in my opinion it's not yet alive and I know your view on it. But of course you want to force YOUR view on everyone as a moral standard and a legal one too. Try using examples of non-living things when you want to give examples of a morality, picking living things which are NOT inside someone or some animal is not the same as this topic.
    Susan, in my opinion pro-choice is the only way I would stand on this issue. I have no need to control others in their choices. This reminds me of some of the current new laws (NYC) regarding consuming soda or flatty foods. This is America, there should be a freedom of choice on such things, not some communist group who wants to control everyone's choice in life. These people need to focus in their own house and quit trying to focus their views on everyone else.