The debate on the moral permissibility* of abortion is perennial and tests some of our deepest held ethical convictions. We need not look hard to find examples of this ongoing argument: most recently, a 13 year old in India delivered a child, the result of rape, after a decision was made to permit her an abortion – but far too late, at 31 weeks pregnant. Here I argue that if we think abortions are permissible, we should call ourselves pro-abortion, not pro-choice.
There are many reasons to find abortion permissible, and many reasons to find it impermissible. We might think fetuses up to a certain gestational age are not persons, and it is not wrong to kill these non-persons. We might hold women own their bodies and the right to life of the fetus does not include unfettered use of this body that the fetus does not own (this is, briefly, J J Thomson’s, 1976 famous philosophical defence of abortion). We could argue it is better to terminate a pregnancy than bring a child into a situation in which they will not be adequately cared for. Or we might maintain that women are unequally burdened by pregnancy and childcare, and so if we care about equality we should permit acts, like abortion, which might mitigate these inequalities.
Those who argue that abortion is morally impermissible cite reasons such as the personhood of the fetus, and the wrongness of terminating a persons life in most circumstances. Some appeal to religious beliefs, arguing the word of God is reason enough to find abortion impermissible. Others argue that permitting abortion would lead to a slippery slope: if we have good reason to permit abortion, then we also have good reason to permit infanticide.** Of course, there are many, many more reasons in favour of, and against, the permissibility of abortion. And, of course, some are more or less convincing than others.
But the exact tenets of the debate are here not my concern. I argue that if we agree abortions are permissible – as I believe – then we should buck the trend of labelling ourselves pro-choice but instead embrace what really are: we are pro-abortion.
Typically, we call people who think abortions are permissible pro-choice, and those who think abortions are impermissible pro-life. But, as we can see from our cursory review of the arguments for and against the permissibility of abortion, this dichotomy just does not capture the differing views in this debate. Consider: those who believe in the permissibility of abortion might not believe that a commitment to women’s choice is the deciding feature of the argument. They might purely think fetuses are not persons, and hold that as the most salient fact. They might choice think it is an important feature, but that this feature would not support the permissibility of abortions if it were the case that fetuses were in fact persons.
On the other side, those who are ‘pro-life’ are not dichotomously ‘anti-choice’. On any plausible view, proponents of the impermissibility of abortion will not blanketly think that women should not make any choices. Rather they will propose that reasons we have to think women are permitted to terminate pregnancies are outweighed by stronger reasons we have to believe that it is wrong to terminate a pregnancy (for example, given the right to life that the fetus may have).
Moreover, those who are ‘pro-choice’ cannot properly be said to be ‘anti-life’, as the stand-off between so-called ‘pro-lifers’ and those who are ‘pro-choice’ suggests. One can think that abortions are permissible, and yet also believe that fetuses have some right to life, just not an inalienable right (a right which can never be infringed or violated in any circumstance). This is the sort of argument J J Thomson gives: fetuses have a right to life, just not when this means the use of the body someone else has a right to control.
Importantly, those who are ‘pro-life’ are presumably not ‘pro-life’ in all circumstances. People rarely think the right to life is inalienable. So-called ‘pro-lifers’ might simultaneously believe the death penalty is permissible, in which case they certainly are not pro-life in all cases. They might also believe that it is sometimes permissible to kill in war; indeed most people are not complete pacifists. Or maybe they think, like I suppose many people believe, it is permissible to defend yourself with deadly force against someone who is fatally aggressing against you.
We have many examples of conservatives who simultaneously think abortions are wrong, and the death penalty is not: one thing is clear, they certainly are not pro-life. I’m looking at you, death penalty-loving, (now) abortion-hating Donald Trump… And all the other self-misdiagnosed ‘pro-lifers’.***
So, we see that ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are just not fitting labels for arguments supporting and opposing abortion. Nor does this capture any relevant dichotomy between the views.
Proponents of the permissibility of abortion should call themselves pro-abortion. (And those opposing should call themselves anti-abortion). Why this term in particular? Because this most accurately reflects the position, and isn’t so much of a mouthful as ‘proponents of the permissibility of abortion’. But there is more to it than that. By using obfuscating, inaccurate terms like ‘pro-choice’ we remove ourselves from the reality of the view: we proponents think that abortions are okay. We should not, if we are truly committed to this ethical position, be afraid to say what we believe. And we should not be ashamed of this considered conviction.
If we are ashamed of this ethical conviction, or suggest we are by how we call ourselves, what hope do we have of signalling to those who have abortions that we are not ashamed of them and their choice? More broadly, if we have an ethical conviction, we should have reasons to hold this – not merely be blindly following some dogma. If we have reasons to hold a view, we should not be afraid to admit this, or indeed defend it. In the end, if you believe in the spade: call a spade a spade.
And that’s why I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro-abortion.
*The exact meaning of moral permissibility is debated. I find the best way to think about it is: when we say an act is morally permissible, we think that given our ethics or or morality as a system/scheme we are allowed to do this act.
**Michael Tooley (1972) doesn’t find this morally problematic. He argues that human fetuses and infants do not fulfil conditions required for a being to have a right to life (but other beings such as some adult animals in fact might fulfil these conditions).
***Note that I am not saying that you cannot consistently hold both of these views (for the death penalty, and against abortion), but rather that it is misdirecting to then call yourself ‘pro-life’.