Pro-choice. Anti-choice. My body, my choice.
Somehow, the abortion debate has been characterized by this one word: choice.
I first started thinking of the term “choice” and its utility (or lack thereof) in the abortion debate when I started working on my spoken word: Pro-Woman, Pro-Choice, Pro-Life. I had a few different goals in making that video. As I said in the video, one of my goals was “to challenge the idea that choice is what abortion is all about.” I nuanced the word choice and discussed the reality of coerced abortion, which is a pervasive problem that too few pro-abortion individuals acknowledge.
However, I had another goal: I wanted to commandeer the term “choice”. Because, if we are honest, saying that someone is “pro-choice” or “anti-choice” is utterly unhelpful and entirely unenlightening. Here’s why:
If you think about it, when it comes to classifying choices, everyone has three categories of choices: “good” choices, “bad” choices, and “neutral” choice. For example, here would be an example of some of the choices I have listed in each of these three categories:
Good Choices: having access to education, caring for one’s children, being politically engaged, etc.
Bad Choices: sexual assault, murder, speeding, theft, littering, smoking, etc.
Neutral Choices: favourite ice cream flavour, favourite animal, favourite colour, etc.
Note: I put those descriptive words in quotations because I am of the opinion that, regardless of how someone personally classifies a choice, there is an absolute truth about the classification of that choice. For example, many rapists would classify the choice to sexually assault someone as “good” or “neutral”, but that choice is objectively and absolutely wrong, regardless of their personal classification. This also works in the reverse. For example, I classified smoking as a “bad” choice because of the health side effects associated with cigarettes. However, I do not think that smoking is, from a moral perspective, an absolutely wrong choice.
Let’s return back to our lists. We all have these three lists. Yes, there are some objective moral absolutes that, in my opinion, override the perceived correctness of our subjective categorization. Regardless, we each have these three lists that are informed by many factors, including our political ideology, our religious identity (or lack thereof), our family background, our cultural context, and our personal preferences.
Now, I mentioned that I oppose sexual assault. Technically, that makes me “anti-choice”. And you know what? I absolutely am anti-choice when it comes to sexual assault! I do not think sexual assault is ever a legitimate choice that an individual is entitled to make. And, if he or she chooses to make that choice, I am more than happy to be “anti-choice” and remove his or her freedom via incarceration. So you better believe I’m “anti-choice” in that sense. And I certainly hope that most people would agree with me and be “anti-choice” in relation to rape and sexual assault.
However, I also mentioned that I support people having the choice to access education. So I am “pro-choice” in the sense that I want people to have equal opportunities when it comes to accessing education, should they wish to do so. And I think most people are “pro-choice” in that regard, since most individuals support equal access to education for all.
So then, we come to a position where most of us are “pro-choice” on some issues and “anti-choice” on others. Do you now see the futility of these labels?
The issue is that labels like “pro-choice” and “anti-choice” do not have intrinsic values embedded in them. They are not value-laden statements. The value of the label is directly linked with the underlying subject matter, not the label itself. That is why being “pro-choice” is good for education (ie. because education is good), but bad for sexual assault (ie. because sexual assault is bad). The same goes for the “anti-choice” label: being “anti-choice” is good when discussing sexual assault (ie. because sexual assault is bad), but bad for choosing one’s favourite ice cream flavour (ie. because one’s favourite ice cream flavour is neutral and functions exclusively as a personal preference).
Determining whether being “pro-choice” or “anti-choice” on any given subject matter is easy when everyone agrees on the moral value of the underlying issue (eg. everyone agrees that sexual assault is bad – and I say “everyone” because even a rapist would demand justice if he/she was sexually assaulted). Things become much trickier when there is disagreement. And that is precisely what we see in the abortion debate.
In the Great Abortion Debate, you have two camps: those who support abortion (ie. “pro-choice”/pro-abortion) and those who oppose abortion (ie. “anti-choice”/anti-abortion/pro-life). Those who support abortion are “pro-choice”, because they support abortion as a legitimate solution to an unwanted or crisis pregnancy. However, that is not a negative thing in their minds. There is nothing wrong to them about being “pro” a choice that, in their minds, is categorized as helping women. Similarly, those who oppose abortion can be called “anti-choice”, because they are “anti” a choice that, by their evaluation, results in the violent destruction of an innocent life. However, that is not a negative thing in their – our – minds. There is nothing wrong to them – to us – about being “anti” a choice that ends another human life.
The real issue that needs to be addressed is this dualistic method of characterizing and framing the issue of abortion. Abortion is either right (“good” or “neutral”) or wrong (“bad”). Part of the problem really comes down to what this “choice” is that we talk about so flippantly. If abortion ends the life of a separate living human entity, then it ends a human life – that is the “choice” being made. If abortion does not end the life of a separate living human entity, then it is just another medical decision women sometimes need to make – that is the “choice” being made.
So which is it? Is abortion right? Is abortion wrong? It is helpful to have these conversations. In fact, it is necessary to have these conversations. But we cannot have these conversations effectively when we devolve into the lazy labelling tactic of just accusing someone of being “anti-choice”.
Pro-choice. Anti-choice. These words and labels are empty without context, without information, without the necessary details required to reach an educated conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of abortion as a subject matter. So it is unhelpful and unwise to limit the abortion debate to these two overly simplistic labels. Again, whether you consider yourself “pro-choice” or “anti-choice” is irrelevant unless we first define the value of the choice we are discussing.
So to all my pro-life friends, I say: don’t let yourself be limited. Do not let people delegitimize you with meaningless mantras like “anti-choice”. You are “anti-choice”. So what? There is nothing wrong with that unless abortion is a good/neutral subject matter. So do not let the conversation end after you have been labelled. Push further. Have that difficult conversation about the rightness or wrongness of abortion as a subject matter. Be courageous. Be respectful. And be bold. (And, while you’re at it, be sure not to label others. It’s not helpful.)
To all my pro-abortion friends, I say: don’t let yourself be limited. Many flaunt the “pro-choice” label as though it is their badge of honour, their symbol of tolerance, their ticket to the ultimate woke life. Do not give in to that temptation. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with being “pro-choice” in the context of abortion. But perhaps there is. Do not skim over that detail. Wrestle with that question. Labels limit discussions. Do not accept that as your standard.
Stay curious, my friends.