Saturday, September 26, 2015

Toward a New Abortion Rights Rhetorical Strategy and Lexicon

There is a vacuum of relevant leftist rhetoric about abortion. The left has no cohesive abortion stance.

We call for more militant feminism, we hold safer spaces workshops, we volunteer at abortion clinics, we contact legislators, we wave signs, we share our abortion stories, we do what we can in a climate in which even the words that we use to describe abortion are empty husks referring to a battle we are constantly chasing, never initiating, never advancing, never winning. When it comes to abortion rights and access, the left - and I mean you, comrades - is severely lacking a unified, cohesive, effective rhetorical strategy. Patriarchal state control over reproductive power and the degradation of women is fundamental to the accumulation of capital and necessary to the proliferation of neoliberalism (Federici, Caliban), yet we can't seem to agree on how to talk about, much less mobilize around, abortion rights. This is a problem that must be remedied.

"Abortion" is an imprecise term that obscures various situations, numerous definitions, and individual stories. It's an abstract concept, alienated from the individual physical body and the social body.

We use the term "abortion" to refer to an an elective* medical procedure that ends 21% of pregnancies in the U.S. However, medically and practically, "abortion" refers to numerous ways of ending a pregnancy, intentionally or unintentionally. Most people are unaware of the term's vagueness. Here I will list a few types of abortion to illustrate of the vast number of procedures covered by one vague term. 

A "medication abortion" or "medical abortion" involves taking two pills that terminate a pregnancy that is less than 49 to 63 days along with what can be compared to a heavy menstrual period. The first pill is taken at the clinic and the second at home (or wherever one may be). It is simple, safe, and relatively painless. Then there is suction curettage or, in common parlance, "surgical abortion," which involves anesthesia and suction and is usually used to end pregnancies 6 to 14 weeks along. Induction abortion was applied to later pregnancies with great skill and compassion by the late Patron Saint of Abortion Rights Dr. George Tiller, so much so that doctors from around the country sent their patients to him. Then there is IDX or DNX, which was outlawed in the U.S. in 2003 thanks to Rick Santorum, George Bush II, and a bunch of other misogynists. Of course, since the procedure is occasionally necessary, doctors must find loopholes for those who can't afford to hop a plane to get the health care they need.** 

Another type of abortion that can be elective or non-elective is miscarriage. Miscarriage, or "spontaneous abortion," often happens automatically before the twentieth week and usually before anyone is aware of the pregnancy. "Stillbirth" refers to this phenomenon after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Other times, unctions and herbal concoctions are used to cause miscarriages and stillbirths when abortion is culturally, financially, or otherwise inaccessible. Miscarriages and stillbirths can also happen when the pregnant person is brutalized or poisoned. There are many other politically-loaded terms that refer to nothing, to an idea, or to something that means something else (e.g. "partial birth abortion," a phrase invented by a man in the National Right to Life Committee in 1995, "back alley abortion," and "feticide"). It is impractical to identify all possible applications of the term "abortion" in this article due to my limited knowledge, your presumed ability to perform research online, and self-imposed length limitations. And this is the point. The word "abortion" contains so many variances that its fullness becomes emptiness. The term "abortion" hides the reality of numerous, varied, and complex realities, obfuscating what is actually at stake: women's control over their own reproductive labor power and state enforcement of gender (and obviously always other) hierarchies.

"Abortion" and "Work": A Brief Interlude

Like capitalism uses the term "work" to cover up many different types of work (e.g. forced labor, indentured servitude, debt slavery, work done by undocumented immigrants, child labor, "consensual" work, sex work, etc.) to make the large-scale inequalities and abuses within "work" tolerable, acceptable, and ostensibly necessary, the broad, inaccurate term "abortion" obscures complicated realities surrounding the numerous methods and situations causing the end of pregnancies in order to strategically decontextualize "abortion," making it seem simple and abstract, an act to be accepted or rejected, judged right or wrong, in toto. The term "abortion" hides all of these nuances so that the utter necessity of state control over women's reproductive ability and the enforcement of gender hierarchies to the functioning of capitalism, as argued by Federici in Caliban and the Witch, remains hidden and therefore unexamined. 

While pregnancy and birth always seem to be part of a story - a single working woman struggling to raise her child alone, the immature 20-something man who suddenly becomes a responsible father, the heart-warming adoption story of a heterosexual couple who could not procreate but ended up with a houseful of children, the accidental teenage pregnancy from prom night, the urbane lesbian couple who used a friend as a sperm donor, even the virgin who is impregnated by God himself and bears the child who will save us all from a fiery eternity - abortion is an isolated event meant to be forgotten and written out of history for all involved, personally and socially.

Because the terms "abortion" and "work" have been so often drastically contorted and misused by everyone who uses either term, we now tacitly accept them at face value. 
This is a critical strategic error."Abortion is wrong," "I have to go to work," "Abortion should be the woman's choice," "Work is boring," etc. It is not possible for any of these statements to be true because of the vagueness of the terms "abortion" and "work." 

The right is winning the battle for control over reproductive labor, women's bodies, and gender hierarchies with domestic terrorism and successful use of rhetoric.

We could all take notes from anti-abortion propagandists. These people are savants. From "partial birth abortion" (not a medical term) to "personhood" to "fetal pain," these wizards know how to persuade an audience. They have succeeded in manipulating search results to the point that anyone seeking facts about abortion can become confused. They have polluted the main point of access for working class people seeking information about abortion - the Internet. The imprecise umbrella term "abortion" and its toothless cousin "pro-choice" are perfect accomplices in this muddled mess.

"Pro-choice" is an empty phrase that is rhetorically weak, outdated, and useless.

Like "abortion," "pro-choice" means so many things to so many people that it ends up meaning nothing. Some believe it means "pro-abortion," others believe it means "whatever a pregnant person wants to do is none of my business." I suspect the mainstream understanding of the phrase is something akin to: "It's up to the woman if she wants to carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. It's none of my business or yours. Plus, the Supreme Court said so." As the most widely-recognized term that signifies acceptance of a person's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, "pro-choice" (like "abortion") is the term I will use throughout this article and elsewhere until the discourse around abortion rights and access are re-evaluated, reframed, and reinvigorated/reinvented.

The liberal stance on abortion is apologetic at best, which is a concession to anti-choicers' moralistic condemnation of abortion and campaign of terror on abortion providers and seekers.

We expect liberals to be reactionary. Planned Parenthood is defunded; Obama will veto the bill. The last clinic in a rural state is attacked; donations are made. Hillary's view that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare is accepted. Some powerful, disgusting misogynist says yet another degrading thing about women, rape, and/or abortion, and memes are shared and scathing Facebook rants are written. Sexism is called out on Tumblr. It is not enough. The current abortion lexicon is useless, outdated, weak, and reactionary. It is our duty to remedy this.

Liberals are immeasurably more visible than leftists. They have an identifiably cohesive "pro-choice" stance. Therefore, theirs is the default "leftist" stance on abortion rights and access.

Most of the U.S. thinks "the left" means liberals; we don't even enter the public consciousness when they think of "leftists." Therefore, for all practical purposes, the liberal stance on abortion rights is the leftist stance. Their dominance in this narrative space has resulted in relentless usage of terms that have not been critically re-evaluated in decades, at least not in a mainstream or effective manner.*** 

This must be redressed, which is possible with a cohesive, united abortion rights rhetorical strategy and a revamped abortion lexicon. We cannot continue to hide behind the outdated, apologetic "pro-choice" stance. However, the failure of leftists to have clearly differentiated ourselves from liberals in the U.S. may be advantageous when reframing abortion rights discourse and introducing a new abortion lexicon because if a whole new set of terms were rolled out, it would follow that it would be by a wholly different kind of left. 

Everyone supporting current reproductive power relations accepts the current stagnation of abortion rights discourse. All feminists and leftists should be calling for free, safe abortion on demand, as well as working toward a new abortion rights rhetorical strategy and lexicon.

By the important but necessarily limited criteria discussed in this post, European women may have had more control of contraception, reproduction, obstetrics, and abortion in the Middle Ages before the loss of the commons and consequent Church and state imposition and enforcement of gender and racial hierarchies than (U.S.) women do today (Federici, Caliban). Because capitalism requires constant accumulation and new sources of labor power and because control of the reproduction of labor is a necessary element of capitalist accumulation and expansion (Federici, Caliban), failing to actively challenge the existing state restrictions on abortion is compliance with and approval of the entire capitalist system. If you support the destruction of gender hierarchies, access to free healthcare for all, dismantlement of the patriarchy, and, dare I say, abolishment of private property, you must support safe, free abortion on demand, no excuses, no shame, no harassment, no guilt, no barriers.**** 

I will think about and attempt to develop some accurate, meaningful, relevant terminology to potentially replace the outdated "pro-choice" "abortion" discourse in use today. I challenge you to do the same. As always, feel free to point me toward something potentially productive. All suggestions for terms, as well as references to other feminists, theorists, philosophers, and linguists working on a similar project, would be greatly appreciated. 

• Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch.

• Statistics cited in this article are accurate as of the posting date. I highly discourage readers from consulting for any abortion-related information unless you're going to edit the articles for accuracy; every entry on abortion I could find on that site are biased and sexist, and many are inaccurate. This is unsurprising but disappointing because readers know I often refer to Wikipedia for information on other topics.

*I'm using the term "elective" due to the limitations of abortion rights rhetoric at present. Many women's "elective" procedures do not involve much of a choice. Socioeconomic circumstances and systemic misogyny often force women into situations and decisions. Low wages, sexual assault, must I continue? 

**Rich women will always be able to obtain any type of abortion since they are not restricted by the financial barriers of travel, time off work, babysitters, and so on. Access to free, safe abortion is a class issue, a racial issue, and an LGBTQ issue, which always bears repeating.

***One can contrast this to the success of anti-choicers, who have had PR blitzes with unparalleled success. One can also contrast it to the success of the LGBTQ community's largely grassroots and surging online movement to reframe and address outdated issues surrounding the notion of sex vs. gender and many other issues. Both groups (lumping together here disparate groups that have had notable successes in reframing the discourse around dissimilar causes) have been adept at developing and implementing rhetorical strategies that have entered mainstream U.S. culture, and both groups are winning battles every day, as the "pro-choice" camp continues to stagnate and decay. This is not to suggest there is no important pro-abortion work occurring. However, I have not seen any concerted attempts at a large-scale assessment and overhaul of existing assumptions about and terminology used for abortion rights (from those who support access to "abortion"--I hear plenty coming from those against "abortion" access). Here I also would like to differentiate and applaud the success of transgender rights activists in creating an entirely new lexicon (e.g. CAFAB, CAMAB, etc.) that make thoughtful, nuanced differentiations and express very specific concerns. I encourage comments from my trans rights activist readers directing others to reliable resources so that they may educate themselves. For the purposes of this article I, as usual, use the term "woman/women" to refer to those who identify as such. This is not an attempt at erasure of those who do not identify as women but may still become pregnant, or women who need access to clinics for hormone replacement therapy. My post is an attempt to confront the current stale state of abortion rights discourse and to challenge the surrounding accepted rhetoric, without co-opting but while admiring the transgender rights activist community's successes in an often overlapping struggle. I hope I have achieved this goal as gracefully as intended.

****Also, abortion is a social good, which should perhaps be addressed in a future post and should further prompt leftists and feminists to act now in support of my pleas.


  1. oh hell yes. this is exactly right up my asshole by which I mean i have for a long time heavily invested my ego and sense of self worth in the idea that I can help hack the symbolic order for the forces of good. and I've thought a lot about it in relation to this issue as well. I wish I could remember the author, but I particularly liked an article I read that suggested we start talking about pregnancy and abortion as an issue of /consent/ instead of the current discussion that focuses on personhood and privacy. Imagine if women had the same ability to consent to participating in reproduction that men did. Consent.

    1. Thanks for reading, Tristan. What did you think of some of the terms I threw around in Pro-Abortion Activism: The Most Dangerous Type? Did any resonate with you or strike you as off-putting/ineffective/vague?