April 16, 2024

Americans wrestle with definition of abortion

Abortion is just as inflammable and divisive an issue as ever in the United States, but the rhetoric is changing. The best illustration of the shift in language is the rebadging of one of the leading American pro-choice organisations, NARAL.

NARAL, or to use its full name, NARAL Pro-Choice America, is now Reproductive Freedom for All. The group explained the change on its website:

Our research has shown that reproductive freedom is a core value for people across the country—across religion, race, and age. With this change, our organization boldly forges ahead toward a future where reproductive freedom is a reality for everybody.

The shift from “choice” to “freedom” is interesting and merits further discussion. But even more interesting is research by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion thinktank, which suggests that people have a wide range of views on what abortion is. In an article in the journal Social Science & Medicine, its researchers report on reactions to several vignettes. “Our biggest takeaway is that people do not hold a shared standard definition of what is and isn’t an abortion,” lead author Alicia VandeVusse told NPR. “We found that there’s a lot of nuance and ambiguity in how people are thinking about these issues and understanding these issues.”

For instance, one of the vignettes employed the phrase “had a surgical abortion.” Still, “67% of respondents said, yes, that’s an abortion, and 8% said maybe, but 25% said no,” VandeVusse says.

The word “abortion” is stigmatising – which may explain why NARAL changed its name – and the researchers found that “there was a preference to avoid labeling something an abortion or someone as having an abortion, even when respondents understood the experience to meet the biomedical definition of abortion.”

The “pro-life” side has its challenges as well. Originally the phrase was a stroke of PR genius, as no politician wants to be labelled “anti-life”. However, while accurate, it, too, can be problematic in public debates.

Senator Kevin Cramer, a staunch foe of abortion from North Dakota, told The New Republic, that the phrase “pro-life” “has come to mean something extreme to a lot of people … Just like ‘pro-choice’ has come to mean ‘pro-abortion,’ ‘pro-life’ has come to mean ‘no exceptions.’ … I probably come from a place where being pro-life is probably the easiest way to say it, but not everybody does, and I understand that. We certainly don’t want to confuse people and appear uncompassionate.”