It’s easier to defend “women’s health care” than a right to kill
Since I graduated from Notre Dame, I’ve spent much of my time as a journalist writing and speaking about abortion—a grim topic, but an important one. I do this in large part because so few people know enough about it and even fewer seem to be interested in it at all.
Perhaps that’s to be expected. It’s an extremely difficult and sometimes deeply personal issue. If abortion is the intentional taking of an innocent human life—as many of us attest and as biological science confirms—it’s little surprise that most people prefer to ignore the topic entirely. It’s an unpleasant reality, something we don’t talk about in polite company (although I often break this rule). Outside of pro-life circles, if abortion comes up at all, people generally prefer to use euphemisms such as “the right to choose” or “women’s health care” or “reproductive freedom.”
Indeed, over several years of covering this subject, I’ve noticed that it is remarkably rare for supporters of abortion rights to actually say the word “abortion.” During the Democratic National Convention in 2016, for example, several leaders from prominent abortion-advocacy groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America took the stage and wielded these euphemisms. But they never used the word “abortion.” In the presidential debates that year, Hillary Clinton rarely, if ever, used the word abortion, even as the Democratic party adopted the most pro-abortion platform in U.S. history.
The problem is systemic. But why?
I think Ramesh Ponnuru, my colleague at National Review, put his finger on the issue in his book The Party of Death when he wrote, “Abortion is the right that dare not speak its name.”
When I read that line, I wrote it on a sticky note and committed it to memory. And since then, nearly everything I’ve witnessed from abortion-rights defenders has confirmed what Ramesh wrote.
There has to be a reason for that evasiveness. I can’t think of any other rights in our political system that U.S. citizens lobby for vehemently without being willing to name them. Why don’t we have creative euphemisms for the right to vote or the right to free speech or the right to practice our religion freely?
I think the answer is actually very simple: No one wants to say the word “abortion” because they never want to talk about what abortion is. Relying on pleasant phrases such as “women’s rights” makes it easier to avoid addressing or even thinking about the truth of what happens in every abortion procedure. If they refuse to so much as say “abortion,” there is less chance of reminding people that this policy debate is really a fight over innocent, defenseless human lives.
Abortion supporters’ reluctance to address this reality is understandable. It’s much easier to defend the worthy goal of women’s autonomy than it is to defend the view that a woman’s freedom depends on having the supposed right to kill her unborn child. This is why you will rarely, if ever, find pro-choice politicians or commentators willing to admit that abortion is an act of killing. They prefer to pretend that the unborn human being is a “clump of cells” or part of his or her mother.
Understanding this situation must be a fundamental part of our pro-life witness, because it isn’t just pro-abortion people who think this way. The average person doesn’t think much about abortion at all, and if they do, the information they can find about it most likely uses euphemisms or excludes unpleasant information. It is hard to find resources that explain the negative effects of abortion on women, the disproportionate way that abortion affects minority and low-income communities, or the reality of disability-based and sex-selective abortion.
Have you ever heard a journalist ask a politician who supports abortion, “Do you believe that abortion ends a human life?” I haven’t. Imagine how different our debate would be if this were the question we considered.
Helping people understand the evil of abortion doesn’t usually require complex ethical arguments, and it never requires the tricks of euphemism. For many of the most famous converts to the pro-life cause, all it took was a sudden glimpse of reality, a quick instant of seeing for themselves what abortion is. Let us look for ways to help more people see that truth and allow their hearts to be changed by it.
Alexandra is a 2016 graduate of the University of Notre Dame who studied political science and served as the executive editor of the Rover. She is now a staff writer for National Review, host of the “For Life” podcast, and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.