Cliche Culture: Safe Language Jeopardizes Reproductive Freedom

by
Sarah J. Kennedy, MPH

At best, mainstream pro-choice Americans are disenchanted with the current political environment.
This fall, the federal government almost made it a crime to transfer minors out of states with parental
involvement laws and assist them in accessing abortion in states that do not have such laws; South
Dakotan anti-choice legislators are attempting to make abortion illegal with a bill that may directly
challenge Roe v. Wade; and the FDA has restricted behind the counter sales of Plan B to women age
18 and older, despite the fact that science has shown it to be safe for women of all ages, and would
reduce unintended pregnancy rates dramatically.  Sigh.  Where does this increasingly anti-abortion,
anti-reproductive freedom culture stem from?  One cause may be linked directly to pro-choice
Americans (including women), as we have let the abortion issue become stagnated and cliché in both
public and private discussion.

It’s clear to this reproductive health professional, who’s overheard substantial personal and
professional discussion on abortion, that Americans (pro, mixed and anti choice alike) rarely engage
in conversation about the issue without using a series of safe remarks to describe their own “personal”
views on the subject.  An example of this appeared last month, when I picked up a recent issue of a
popular magazine (I won’t say which one), and read a lead-in to an article that described an up and
coming young actress as a “pro-choice activist.”  I began to read, but stopped short when she
articulated her pro-choice views; she said that although she believes that women need to continue to
have access to safe, legal abortion, she herself would never have one.  This unfortunate statement lacks
sensitivity and an understanding of being pro-choice – acknowledging that circumstances arise that
would make abortion a necessity to those (including ourselves) who would otherwise not choose that
option, and being secure enough to say that we would indeed choose abortion if we know that to be
the case.  Self-declared pro-choicers, including the actress in the article (and all women), should
embrace this meaning and revise explanations of their beliefs accordingly.  Unfortunately the status-
quo seems to be hesitant to move forward and admit personal consideration of abortion.

The status-quo’s words do not line up with women’s actions however, as evidence of abortion rates
suggests that women do choose abortion.  According to a May report by the Guttmacher Institute, if
current unintended pregnancy rates remain at their current level, approximately half of all American
women will face an unintended pregnancy during their lives, and one in three women will have an
abortion[1].  Go figure.  If so many women have undergone or will undergo a pregnancy termination,
why are people (including women) hesitant to admit that they would consider it as an option?
Perhaps they really feel or know that they themselves would not make that choice, or perhaps they
are afraid of the social repercussions of saying that they would consider abortion.  However, reasons
for using safe comments are less important than the negative impact they have on women who have
had, and will have, abortions in the future.  Abortion is a complex, emotional issue, and it,
unfortunately, becomes more so when self-described pro-choicers unintentionally infer judgment.

So what might pro-choicers do, one may ask, to limit further stigmatization of the abortion issue?
One action would be to contact a local advocacy group such as NARAL, or a Planned Parenthood
affiliate, and become actively involved with the pro-choice movement.  Support of a local family
planning, Title X-funded organization is also necessary, in order to continue to provide contraceptive
methods and reproductive health care to those who need them despite ability to pay.  Also, it is
important to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education, as comprehensive education provides
young people with a forum for open discussion about sexual decision-making, healthy relationships,
and medically accurate information.  In addition to these actions, however, pro-choicers (including the
actress mentioned at the beginning of this essay) should reevaluate their positions on abortion, and
determine whether the declaration, “I’m pro-choice but I wouldn’t have an abortion myself,”
accurately represents their personal beliefs.  Whether it does or does not, committed pro-choicers
(especially women) should reject its use, as it casts judgment against women who would make that
choice.

Finally, one must remember that women do their best to make wise decisions for themselves and their
families, including decisions surrounding abortion.  If we are able to trust this of ourselves and others,
we will abandon the use of safe comments, speak honestly about our beliefs, and the abortion issue
itself will ultimately become de-stagnated, shake off its cliché status, and grow to be less threatening
in the face of American culture.  At least that is what this reproductive health professional (a woman,
no less) hopes for.