40 Years After Roe v. Wade, Why Is Abortion Still a Debate, Not a Discussion?

Planned Parenthood’s new ‘Not in Her Shoes’ talking points suggest taking labels out of the abortion conversation. Not everyone wants to.

Planned Parenthood’s Diagnosis: ‘Women don’t turn to politicians for advice about mammograms, prenatal care or cancer treatments, and they shouldn’t. Politicians don’t belong in a woman’s personal medical decisions.’ (Photo: Not in Her Shoes)

Jan 22, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Sara Benincasa is a blogger, comedian, and author of 'Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.'

Full disclosure: I briefly worked for Planned Parenthood Federation of America as a blogger in 2008.

In response to its own research finding that almost a quarter of voters identify as neither “pro-choice” nor “pro-life,” Planned Parenthood has revamped its messaging strategy. The organization has released a new video, “Not in Her Shoes,” which urges people to talk about abortion in terms that don’t box them in with ideological labels.

The move to shift the abortion debate to an abortion discussion comes just in time for January 22, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively gave American women the right to choose abortion.

Over the past 40 years, advocates in favor of the Roe decision have borne such labels as “pro-choice” and “pro-abortion,” while those who oppose Roe have been called “pro-life” and “anti-choice.”

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In case you need a Roe refresher, 40 years ago this Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law banning abortions unless the procedure was needed to save the life of a mother.

Furthermore, the Court forbade states from interfering with any abortions performed in a pregnancy’s first trimester. States were given leeway to ban third-trimester abortions, but exceptions were required in the event the procedure was needed to protect the life of the mother.

“They don’t want the word abortion to be used, and we want to keep putting it in their face.”

In the past four decades, however, legislators have found plenty of ways to make it relatively difficult to obtain an abortion in some states. For example, Arizona requires “medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds” for women who wish to terminate a pregnancy. Louisiana does the same, but also “specifically requires that they listen to the fetal heartbeat followed by a 24-hour waiting period before accessing abortion services.”

Now, acting on its recently released research, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Planned Parenthood’s political advocacy arm, has launched NotinHerShoes.org, an effort to appeal to women who already resist conventional “pro-life” or “pro-choice” labels and a call for more women to reject those labels.

The crux of the campaign can be summed up by a partial transcript of the video:

Most things in life aren’t simple. And that includes abortion. It’s personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it’s NOT a black and white issue.

So why do people try to label it like it is? Pro-choice? Pro-life? The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion.

The video goes on to note that “a majority of Americans believe abortion should remain safe and legal…Truth is, they just don’t want to be labeled.”

Reactions have been swift to Planned Parenthood’s decision to move away from “pro-choice.” Writer Katie Roiphe suggests using the term “pro-freedom” instead of “pro-choice”:

“Freedom” is at least a more expansive word than “choice,” with glimmers of promise, of possibility, of amber waves of grain; it has a patriotic undertone that might appeal to those confused people who do believe in at least a limited right to abortion but won’t call themselves “pro-choice,” because “choice” seems to belong to a pampered elite.

Feminist Amanda Marcotte is more resistant to a change in language, writing,

I can see why Planned Parenthood might want to shed the term in order to get these conflicted people to realize they are on Planned Parenthood’s side. But I’m afraid that the desire to go label-free is doomed to fail … Labels are simply part of language, and shorthand rhetoric is part of the political debate. As long as abortion is a contested issue, there’s no opting out of that.

Planned Parenthood isn’t the only reproductive-debate stakeholder considering rebranding. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, wrote that “we are moving away from using ‘pro-life’ to ‘anti-abortion’ or ‘abortion abolitionist.” She added, “They don’t want the word abortion to be used, and we want to keep putting it in their face.”

Anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek wrote, “Pro-lifers may be tempted to scoff at PP’s new strategy. It does indeed reflect a victory on our part. We have made the term ‘pro-choice’ synonymous with ‘pro-abortion.’ ”

In the end, regardless of the labels used (or not used), this debate shows no signs of being downgraded to a discussion in 2013.

Do you identify as pro-choice, pro-life or neither? Tell us in COMMENTS.