We need language and the law

As Pennsylvania moves to ban abortion, fight the rhetoric that threatens our rights

6 minute read
A crowd of about a thousand people attending a rally in front of the National Constitution Center on a hot summer day.
Twenty-four hours after the Supreme Court overturned Americans’ right to abortion, Philadelphians rallied outside the National Constitution Center. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

People who refused to believe it last year must accept it now: Pennsylvania legislators (with a constitutional amendment on the docket that could ban all abortion) want to join states like Texas in ensuring that anyone who can become pregnant has fewer rights than a human corpse. In the face of that reality, some of us are able to donate, vote, protest, volunteer, or organize. But all of us need to question the rhetoric around abortion, versus the facts and policy.

When, not whether

On her popular News Not Noise platform, veteran political journalist Jessica Yellin began her June 24 remarks about the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade by noting what is perhaps the most common rhetoric about abortion in America.

“I want to remind you that those who oppose abortion rights are a minority in this country,” she said, yet “you are constantly told by the media that this is a divided question in America.”

Yellin emphasized that the vast majority of Americans want abortion access: “There is dispute about when abortion should be legal, not whether it should be legal.” Since the ruling, which has triggered total abortion bans in some states, she has used her massive platform to share people’s abortion stories and iterate the truth: abortion is common, and abortion access, with some limits, is a solidly centrist and popular policy.

The bad language of bans

As abortion bans proliferate, media outlets as powerful as The New York Times often spread misleading rhetoric about abortion, like a recent op-ed by Leah Libresco Sargeant, a Catholic author who underwent surgical treatment for her ectopic pregnancy.

“In an ectopic pregnancy, the baby implants somewhere other than the uterus,” she writes, arguing that treating an ectopic pregnancy is not abortion, but akin to “delivering a child” who doesn’t survive.

The facts are more complicated (Poynter has a great explainer on the problem of ectopic pregnancies post-Roe). The broad language of America’s metastasizing abortion bans, many of which ignore the widening gulf between medical, moral, and legal definitions of abortion, muddy the waters between elective and necessary terminations. This leaves many doctors afraid to perform any procedure that could be construed as abortion under the law until a patient is near death—even if the pregnancy is non-viable.

President Biden’s executive order this week, directing hospitals in states with total abortion bans to perform the procedure to preserve a pregnant patient’s health or life, in accordance with existing federal law on equal access to lifesaving emergency care, demonstrates that unchecked, these “pro-life” laws leave people to suffer and die.

False premises

Sargeant deserves to define her own pregnancy experience, and to be respected by healthcare providers. She deserves to grieve the child she wanted. She accessed healthcare that should be legal for everyone: she didn’t have to wait for surgery until her ectopic pregnancy ruptured and caused potentially fatal hemorrhage. The problem here is the fallacy she perpetuates: that her beliefs about pregnancy are facts, a shared premise for all conversations about abortion, and a valid basis for medical policy.

Abortion opponents (usually Christians) often elide the chasm between their own beliefs and viable laws for a secular, democratic nation of 330 million people. Sargeant demonstrates this: as soon as she describes ectopic pregnancy not as an implanted fertilized ovum but as a “baby,” we’re in the world of her own moral rhetoric, not the world of medical facts and diverse pregnancy experiences. (This piece from The Conversation helpfully articulates the moral status of a pregnancy as a necessary continuum.)

The title of her op-ed, “In a Post-Roe World, We Can Avoid Pitting Mothers Against Babies”, demonstrates the same fallacy. The implication that pro-choice advocates are promulgating a battle between mothers and babies is a distracting fabrication, and a false assertion that deep down, everyone shares the same beliefs about pregnancy and personhood.

In reality, most healthcare professionals and reproductive justice advocates (especially those whose religious beliefs stipulate that personhood begins at birth) do not regard a fertilized ovum, zygote, embryo, or non-viable fetus as a “baby.” Pretending that they do or insisting that they should derails necessary dialogues about abortion, steering us instead to the false yet powerful narrative that anti-abortion folks don’t tolerate killing children, but reproductive justice advocates do. Identifying and disengaging from this rhetoric is an important part of productive conversations about abortion policy—otherwise, it’s like trying to discuss traffic-safety laws with someone who just keeps insisting that driving is immoral, despite the fact that almost 85 percent of Americans have a driver’s license.

“Safe, legal, and rare”

Questioning the rhetoric around abortion is also important in pro-choice spaces, like a June 25, 2022, rally at the National Constitution Center featuring Pennsylvania attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro. Every time I go to a pro-choice demonstration in Philly, I see signs that say abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”, and this slogan lives comfortably alongside words from one of the June 25 rally speakers, who claimed that abortion “is always a last resort.”

A more zoomed-in photo of Josh Shapiro speaking at the June 25 rally. A sign in the crowd reading PRO ROE is held up in front
Be aware of the narratives, whether or not it’s a pro-choice space. Josh Shapiro speaks at the June 25 rally. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

The truth is that abortion is not and never has been rare, and it’s not a last resort. The Guttmacher Institute reports that about one in four US women will have an abortion by age 45, and that in a 2017 study, 18 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion. A 2014 survey found that 37 percent of abortion-seekers were Catholic or Evangelical Protestant. (Given these stats, it’s not surprising that many abortion opponents suddenly find the rhetoric to claim their own abortions are permissible as soon as they face an unwanted pregnancy, documented in sources like “The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion”.)

And as platforms like Shout Your Abortion demonstrate with thousands of real-life stories, the truth is that many people become pregnant when they simply don’t want to be, seek abortion care (most with non-surgical treatment in the very early weeks of their pregnancy), cope with a wide range of emotions from grief to relief, and get on with their lives. It is not a rarity, and it need not be a tragedy—anyone who insists otherwise is promoting a minoritarian moral agenda while denying the facts and the lived experiences of millions, not to mention the views of a strong US majority who want abortion to remain legal nationwide.

Language is not the law

You might have noticed something else about the language around pregnancy and abortion: it doesn't need to be gendered. That’s because cisgender women (like me) are not the only ones who can become pregnant: other genders can as well. It does not diminish womanhood to talk about pregnancy, birth, abortion, and parenting in ways that include everyone, and this adds necessary accuracy and sensitivity to conversations about abortion while making the biggest tent possible for reproductive justice. (To build your understanding and language around gender diversity, follow experts like ALOK, Ericka Hart, and Philly-based sex educator Erica Smith.)

That’s the beautiful thing about language: it’s not the law, and it has room for everyone. The beliefs and experiences of people like Sargeant who sincerely oppose abortion for moral or religious reasons are valid; draconian laws that leave other people bleeding, desperate, and unable to control their own bodies are not. When we’re not afraid to separate the facts and the real-world policy from anti-abortion narratives and their imagined battles, we can finally talk about abortion rights in a useful, inclusive, authentic way that promotes safety and justice for everyone. Especially in Pennsylvania, the time is now.

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