In this moment of crushing political polarization, looking for common ground in the abortion debate can feel to both sides like abandoning their most cherished values. For pro-choice leaders, the other side wants to strip women of fundamental rights in a quest to regain power over women’s bodies. For pro-life leaders, the other side wants to rip unborn children from their mothers’ wombs on a path toward full-fledged sexual libertinism. These bogeymen haunt the abortion debate and make it virtually impossible, especially on social media, to imagine that any common good exists between the two camps.
As someone who identifies as pro-life, I have little hope today that either side wants to find mutual policy goals that would reduce the number of abortions in the United States. Even reduction itself is a controversial goal. For many pro-lifers, talk of “reduction” is like talking about reducing the number of plantations in the Antebellum South instead of outlawing the institution of slavery. For many pro-choicers, reduction implies that abortion is a shameful act, something to be avoided, thus heaping further guilt on the women who choose it. More generally, the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh revealed a profound mutual distrust among our nation’s top leaders. It’s hard to do the work of politics—creating laws and policies that benefit a wide swath of Americans—when you believe the senator sitting next to you is the embodiment of evil.
All this said, pro-choice and pro-life leaders can work toward common ground by using better language to talk about and to one another. The abortion conversation in this country desperately needs a new lexicon.
Our language holds the power to create entire moral universes. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Americans’ conversation about what’s right, good, and true sounds increasingly like the Tower of Babel. Based on his research in The Righteous Mind, there are now a blue language and a red language, wherein both groups use language to signal in-group identification and demonize the out-group. We can’t talk about shared moral beliefs and policy goals when we are speaking in different moral tongues.
In the abortion debates, in particular, pro-choice voices say that the other side wants to “control women’s bodies.” Pro-life voices say that the other side wants to “murder unborn children.” The problem is that neither side would express their own view this way. David Blankenhorn, founder of the Better Angels Project, calls this “rhetorical framing”: essentially “describing your opponents’ views with loaded words that your opponents themselves would never dream of using.” There’s little desire to understand the beliefs, values, and goals of the other side; it’s easier to assume they are evil, bent on your and others’ destruction.
Both sides of the abortion debate could create the conditions necessary for reaching common ground by seeking to understand the other’s views—and using language that accurately and fairly represents the other side. Pro-lifers must accept that those who hold a pro-choice position arrive at their views from genuine moral convictions: namely, that women still suffer in a patriarchal culture, and should have bodily autonomy and generally better access to reproductive care. Pro-choicers must accept that those who hold a pro-life position arrive at their views from genuine moral beliefs: namely, that life in the womb is a human life and thus has full rights of its own. Both sides arrive at their convictions via legitimate, hefty philosophical and spiritual claims. Those claims must be earnestly reckoned with rather than reduced to pejoratives.
Clearly, labels like “pro-abortion,” “anti-choice,” “murderer,” “fascist,” “abortionist,” and “pro-death” (the last used by some pro-choice leaders to suggest that pro-life activists are okay with women dying during childbirth) add lots of heat and little light to an already inflammatory debate. Over time, they dehumanize the flesh-and-blood people on the other side of the debate while obscuring the foibles and failures of one’s own side.
Beyond agreeing to resist dehumanizing language, both pro-life and pro-choice leaders might push for new language for their own positions. After all, many pro-life leaders agree that they are seeking to protect prenatal life, not life in all its forms. Identifying the movement as pro-life opens it up to rightful charges of hypocrisy when, for example, the lives of young immigrants at the border are at stake. “Pro-natalist” or simply “anti-abortion” could tighten and clarify the movement’s specific goals. Likewise, many pro-choice leaders, including Planned Parenthood, are moving away from that label because they find it doesn’t resonate with a younger generation who nonetheless wants abortion to be kept legal in most cases.
Two organizations, one secular and one with Christian roots, are trying to give new language to the binaries of the 40-year-long debate. Founded in 2000, Exhale gives emotional support to women and men after abortion. Founded in 2016, Pro-Grace offers training in local churches to help more Christians, traditionally a strong pro-life contingent, transcend political polarization and care for women in noncoercive ways. It strikes me that both organizations are focused less on battling an ideological opponent and more on the actual women caught in the middle of a debate that so often feels disconnected from the lives of people most affected by it.
“When we think about conversations around abortion, we put on our armor … like we’re all going into battle with every individual conversation,” Aspen Baker, cofounder of Exhale, told ThinkProgress. “We want to see if it’s possible to sort of strip away that battle mentality.” Both sides of the debate have the best shot at changing hearts and minds by laying down their weaponized words and caring for women caught in the middle of the battle.