In a recent post I defended the idea that an atheist can be against abortion, preferring to frame the debate in terms of ‘pro-abortion’ and ‘anti-abortion’. I feel that the more common ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ sound a bit like PR; each trying to make the position they refer to more appetising. My choice of terms didn’t seem very popular, so I will do my best to explain them here.
‘Pro-life’ is always problematic, as it raises sometimes irrelevant points about what counts as life, and whether or not one is pro-all-life or just ‘pro-foetus’ (see for instance those who are anti-abortion and pro-death penalty). It is in my view much simpler to say “anti-abortion”, and I don’t think this is likely to be controversial.
That one is ‘pro-choice’ signifies that they believe that abortion should be an available choice. This is a political point, and the reason that I do not use it is that when I talk about abortion I am usually talking about the moral issue. But are they not the same thing? No – as a matter of fact it is logically possible to be both anti-abortion and pro-choice. This means that ‘pro-life’ (which I take to be synonymous with ‘anti-abortion’) and ‘pro-choice’ are not mutually exclusive positions. One can fight for the right of women to choose to abort a pregnancy while going down to the local abortion clinic to hold a placard containing images of mutilated foetuses. The moral issue is rather different, and this is the one that I was concerned with in the post linked above; whether abortion is a morally acceptable choice or not.
Is ‘pro-abortion’ therefore preferable to ‘pro-choice’? I think it is. Firstly, it forms a nice counterpoint to ‘anti-abortion’ and is logically incompatible with it. It can describe the position I hold – that abortion is morally acceptable; ‘pro-choice’ cannot do this as it is logically compatible with the view that abortion is morally abhorrent. The only difficulty with ‘pro-abortion’ is that it might be thought to mean that one believes abortion to be a good thing in itself – as if getting pregnant and having an abortion is better than not getting pregnant in the first place. So how much should we worry about this interpretation?
I think that this isn’t a realistic reading of the term ‘pro-abortion’. For a start, it seems so absurd that anyone would think that abortion is a good in itself, that I doubt that if someone claims to be ‘pro-abortion’ people will believe them to think such a thing. It seems far more likely they are what is more usually called ‘pro-choice’. We can also look to other debates and see how ‘pro-‘ is used. I’ll choose just two that I think support my case: ‘pro-euthanasia’ and ‘pro-gay marriage’. A Google search will confirm that these terms are fairly widely used (and I cannot think of better terms to describe the respective positions). Euthanasia is a very sad necessity, and I would rather that it wasn’t needed at all. Nevertheless given the situation, euthanasia is a good thing. Mutatis mutandis this is the case with abortion. Being ‘pro-euthanasia’ does not imply that one would rather euthanise people than have them live a happy and fulfilling life. Likewise with gay marriage. Gay marriage is different in that it is a happy occasion in itself, but ‘pro-gay marriage’ might seem to imply that gay marriage is better than straight marriage. The important thing is that the choice is there and that neither is inherently superior to the other. ‘Pro-gay marriage’ means in favour of the option of gay marriage, considered morally acceptable. ‘Pro-euthanasia’ means in favour of the option of euthanasia, considered morally acceptable. ‘Pro-abortion’ means in favour of the option of abortion, considered morally acceptable.
Please leave your comments on this issue – I’m interested to hear what people think.