Americans’ views on abortion unchanged, but they like the term “pro-life” better than “pro-choice”

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012 · 11 Comments »

That’s really the gist of the latest Gallup poll. The percentage of Americans self-identifying as “pro-choice” is at a record low, with a majority now preferring the label “pro-life.” But their actual views on abortion haven’t changed:

See? No change. What’s changed is the label people prefer:

I’m not saying this is good news; I’m just pointing out that what we’re seeing here is the triumph of a name, not an idea. People like to call themselves pro-life. I’ve even seen it on feminist blogs: people say stuff like, “I’m pro-life, but of course I think abortion should be legal.” What they ought to be saying is that they’re pro-choice—because that’s what they are—but apparently “pro-life” is now the preferred term if you want to indicate that you like babies and children, or that you would never have an abortion yourself though it’s fine for other women, or maybe if you just want people to know you shave your legs.

Personally, I’ve always thought that the reproductive rights lobby made a huge mistake when they went with “choice” as a term. It’s so utterly meh. It sounds like the seafood buffet at a restaurant, not a political rallying cry. We ought be talking about liberty or freedom, or even bodily integrity or sovereignty. The right to control your own body is the most fundamental liberty in Ango-American jurisprudence, and reproductive rights are like habeas corpus for women. That’s how we should be talking about it. Liberty, freedom, human rights—not “choice.”

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11 Responses to “Americans’ views on abortion unchanged, but they like the term “pro-life” better than “pro-choice””

  1. Adrienne in CA says:

    That’s why a lot of regressive ideas seem to be gaining steam. Because conservatives invest in and excel at messaging — the same kind of psych-tested ad marketing that gets people to buy shit they don’t need. Liberals, on the other hand, rarely employ smart marketing techniques to convey their ideas. From what I can gather, they either don’t really believe that this type of messaging works, or think it’s unethical to engage in it, or just don’t have as much money to spend on it, and besides, if we just explaaaiiinnn the truuuuth to people in wordy articles galore, of course they’ll understand. Wrong.

  2. Violet Socks says:

    Yep. Conservatives also speak at a third-grade reading level and repeat their propaganda ad nauseum. There’s a reason.

  3. quixote7 says:

    The right to control your own body is the most fundamental liberty in Anglo-American jurisprudence, and reproductive rights are like habeas corpus for women.

    I’ve been (trying to) megaphone that since the early ’80s when this shit started. (“Trying to” because nobody listens!)

    That point is exactly the problem. I’d only argue about two things.

    It’s not only in the Anglo-American system where it’s important. Any human being who has to fear physical violation will do anything to avoid it. It doesn’t matter what it’s called or what legal system you’re in. There are no other rights that are worth the paper they’re printed on without that one.

    And I’d also argue about “like habeas corpus for women.” They are a huge part of habeas corpus for women.

    In other words, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And yes!

  4. Toonces says:

    Yep, the left loses arguments because it looks down on pragmatism. I think we need to popularize the “personally pro-life” phrasing for those who feel the need to broadcast to others that they would never get an abortion themselves, because that is more important to them than the whole you’re helping the pro-back-alley-rusty-hanger crowd argument.

    I’m not sure how pro-choice can morph into pro-liberty or whatever, but I agree that we need to talk a lot more about bodily sovereignty in feminism. “Choice” is pretty watered-down and meaningless at this point. I! CHOOSE! KHAKI! PANTS! And I am a woman so it is a beautiful feminist act.

  5. Nina M. says:

    Well, the term “pro-choice” emerged out of message testing. Its a derivation of the “Who Decides” message.

    Believe me, choice tests a lot better than liberty. Liberty is popular for men, and maybe in an abstract way, but when you start asking average Americans to support liberty for slatterns, they want less, not more.

    That’s why the messages that test *really* well go like this:

    abortion should be a woman’s decision – sort of popular

    abortion should be a woman’s decision in consultation with her doctor – more popular

    abortion should be a woman’s decision in consultation with her family and her doctor – even more popular

    abortion should be a woman’s decision in consultation with her her family, her doctor, her clergyman, the town council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Elks Lodge – most popular of all

    when it comes to messaging on this issue, you can go with principle, or you can go with popularity / effectiveness – but you can’t have both.

    Remember a large percentage of Americans are authoritarians, with low levels of interpersonal trust — they don’t want more freedom, they want less. Or rather, they want freedom for themselves personally but they don’t want it for other people, because they fear / don’t trust / look down on other people.

  6. anna says:

    Here’s a cool pro-choice poster: http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/2012/05/25/a-poster-to-print-and-put-up-during-thi-american-election-cycle-never-again/

  7. jackyt says:

    I’m the Boss of Me!

  8. quixote7 says:

    Nina, the problem with going with what tests well at the time is you keep getting further behind. When all people hear is that this is a really difficult decision that’s what they believe. In the late 1970s a solid majority near 70% (75%?) said they were pro-choice. After thirty years of yammering about “life” (with a subtext of “Yew, icky, gross!), and thirty years of well-tested market messaging on the other side, we’re down at 41%.

    When people over a period of years have been hearing that marriage equality for gays is a matter of civil rights, guess what? Now a majority of people believes that. 20 years ago, that message would have tested at 1%.

    I think the whole premise of “ZOMG we mustn’t annoy anyone” is fundamentally flawed if you’re talking about basic human rights. If you’re trying to sell a new brand of perfume, that’s different.

  9. quixote says:

    (ack. I seem to have fallen into spam.)

  10. Violet Socks says:

    I fished you out. Excellent comment @8; I agree totally. With a human rights issue, you have to stake the position and shape the message accordingly, not follow along with whatever prejudices are currently in the way. Gay marriage is a perfect example.

    Though Nina, your point about liberty for slatterns is hilarious and I’m sure completely true.

  11. Violet Socks says:

    Also, I think the whole framing of abortion should be different. With regard to the questions you cited, Nina, I would suggest we should be asking things like:

    - Should the government have the right to determine whether a woman gives birth?

    - Should the government have the right to determine whether a woman carries a pregnancy to term?

    - Should the government have the right to determine whether a woman becomes pregnant in the first place?

    And so on.