"Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" Labels Make Abortion Debate Even Worse Than It Needs to Be

There's nothing wrong with labels.

But labels can be inaccurate or misunderstood. When it comes to one of the most contentious moral and political issues of our time — abortion — the debate is muddied by two very misleading terms: "pro-life" and "pro-choice."

Unfortunately, opponents on both sides of the debate often take these labels at face value, leading to predictable objections:

"Well, if you're really pro-life, shouldn't you be in favor of universal health care, in order to keep people alive as long as possible after they're born? Shouldn't you support extreme measures to keep all patients alive, even anencephalic babies, who are born missing most of their brain)? Shouldn't you support a ban on all forms of euthanasia, and oppose do-not-resuscitate orders? Shouldn't you support giving half our budget to countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have low life expectancies and high infant mortality rates? Shouldn't you be against the hunting and killing animals? And the death penalty and capital punishment? And guns, weapons of mass destruction, wars, drone strikes, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden?"

And on the other side:

"Well, if you're really pro-choice, shouldn't you support legalizing drug use, suicide, and prostitution? Shouldn't you support same-sex marriage, polygamy, and incest, if adults chose such relationships? Shouldn't you be against the individual mandate and back people who choose to go without health insurance? How about driving without car insurance or not wearing seat belts? Shouldn't you encourage school choice (i.e., school vouchers)? Shouldn't you oppose affirmative action and be OK with private companies having bigoted hiring practices? Shouldn't you oppose the minimum wage and price controls more generally?

There are easy responses to these objections, because they stem from simplistic distortions of what each side believes. People who are pro-choice when it comes to abortion aren't pro-choice about everything, just like people who are pro-life about abortion aren't pro-life about everything. They're pro-life or pro-choice when it comes to the moral considerations specific to abortion.

And even that requires qualification, because there are few people who oppose absolutely all abortions, just like there are few people who support absolutely all abortions. Many abortion opponents support exceptions for cases in which the life of the mother is at risk, and many abortion-rights advocates are wary of late-term abortions of healthy babies when there's no extraordinary risk to the mother.

In fact, pretty much everyone supports some abortions and opposes others. The disagreement lies in where to draw the line. How late in the pregnancy is the abortion taking place? Was the pregnancy planned? Was it a result of rape or incest? Is the fetus developing normally, and what are its prospects for being healthy? Is it posing a risk to the life or health of the mother, or to other fetuses in the womb?

More generally, abortion contains some perennial moral conundrums. When does life begin – and when do rights begin? What is the extent of our obligation to aid others? How much are we expected to sacrifice to preserve the life of an unborn child? Is death always worse than life? And who are we to make that decision?

I can understand the passion people feel about the issue of abortion, why they want to convince others to agree with them, and why they're frustrated when they see others refuse to come over to their way of thinking. When you've laid out what you consider to be a rational argument and people still resist, there's a temptation to impute their motives or to depict them as ridiculous or evil. So pro-lifers are accused of being anti-woman, opposed to people controlling their own bodies and making decisions about their own lives. And pro-choicers are demonized as being anti-life in favor of infanticide, and as supporting a culture of death.

But such vilification isn't helpful. It doesn't clarify the debate. It doesn't inform us, or enlighten us, or make us more thoughtful about the choices we have to make as individuals and as a society. It just serves to incite hatred and make the debate more acrimonious than it needs to be. We should move beyond the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice," rather than complicate an issue that's complicated enough as is.