This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Oh, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”1
Indeed, sweet Juliet. Romeo is your true love despite being a Montague, and roses retain their rosy nature with or without the word. It is the meaning that matters, and changing titles — no matter how cleverly wrought — cannot, ultimately, alter the who or what.
A recent trend, which gained traction with a propaganda piece released by Planned Parenthood a handful of years ago (“Moving Beyond Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice Labels, You’re ‘Not in Her Shoes’”), is attempting to do just that. There is a growing desire that the terms pro-choice and pro-life be abolished because they do not adequately express feelings about abortion.
Most people “just don’t want to be labeled,” proponents claim. They may very well be on to something, but I think they’re taking things too far.
Label Pros and Cons. Simply put, labels come with pros and cons. Some labels are associated automatically with stereotypical meanings, which can be exacerbated further by any number of factors that influence individuals — culture, education, loyalties, circumstances, media.
When labels are thrown out haphazardly, they oftentimes unfairly corral others into groups according to the audience’s perception. On the face of things, a label alone associated with a single person drops all of its baggage on that individual.
Consider the way liberal and conservative are dropped casually into descriptions of individuals or ideas. By definition, liberal means “open to new behavior or opinions, and willing to discard traditional values,” while conservative means “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.” As ethicist Christopher Kaczor points out, if conservative means preserving the status quo, it could be argued that (given the current climate on abortion) the pro-life position is anything but conservative.2
Neither definition explicitly mentions politics or religion. But when you hear one or the other, those definitions are probably not all that come to mind, if they come to mind at all. The moment I tell someone I am pro-life, I’m generally assumed to be a whole host of other things that I may or may not be. That proverbial pendulum swings both ways, and the lack of refinement is confounding.
The Heart of Communication. To be a responsible communicator, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of your audience’s context, whether it’s an individual or a packed room. An awareness of the audience allows the communicator to define terms carefully so that the meaning of the message is clear. Words, even labels, must be carefully chosen and defined so that a clear message can be received. Irresponsibility in this area can shut your listeners off and have them labeling you so that your message, and your meaning, fall on deaf ears. On the flip side, irresponsibility can come from the listener, too. Whether you’re the one talking or receiving, assuming that all abortion advocates are heartless or that all pro-lifers are ignorant is both dishonest and shortsighted.
Shared meaning is at the very heart of what it means to communicate. In Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture, Tim Muelhoff writes, “When I speak with another person, I convey my thoughts through symbols that must be interpreted. The listener works to understand what my symbols stand for or represent. In turn, I seek to discern how my symbols are being interpreted. In short, communication is a reciprocal process of meaning making” (emphasis added).
Part of the process is seeking to understand another’s view, which is not the same thing as agreeing with it.
Entering into another’s context enables the communicator to treat others with respect, to handle their views fairly, and to convey ideas clearly that may be contrary. It allows the conversation to continue. A lack of finesse in this area results in communicators who attack straw men — they tear down views that their listener doesn’t even hold. As a result, the communicator, and his/her view, loses credibility in the eyes of the audience.
A Lesson from Helen Keller. But the “Let’s do away with labels” mentality, if logically followed, would have disastrous results.
As I recently read a Helen Keller biography to my daughter, she was gripped by the telling of Keller’s first “word.” Keller lived the earliest years of her life in darkness and silence after sickness left her blind and deaf. Anne Sullivan, Keller’s live-in teacher and caretaker, had been working for some time using the sign language alphabet to try and teach Keller about the world around her. Washing the dishes one day, Sullivan signed “w-a-t- e-r” into Keller’s hand. Keller did not respond. Later that day, at the pump outside the house, Keller placed her hands in the water and realization dawned. She frantically began signing “water” for Sullivan, showing that she understood, that she associated the label with the clear liquid spewing forth from the pump.
Keller’s realization that the world around her could be named is what began her learning, and learn she did. Her concepts had categories that made communication possible, and through communication her world blossomed and her categories grew in variety and complexity. Hers is an amazing story.
One has to accept that in order for any meaningful interaction to be had, labels are necessary. Young Helen had to know what “water” meant in order to learn its varied forms, uses, beauties, and dangers: water for drinking and water for washing; the similarities and differences between creeks, lakes, and oceans; whether to dance in the rain or avoid it; steam from a pot set to boil or surfaces slick with ice.
If words lose their meanings, we are all in trouble. Consider marriage and gender. Language is one of the key things that separates human beings from animals. We think about the world around us propositionally and form meaningful thoughts that can be tested and proved either true or false. We adopt beliefs, and collectively (though imperfectly) we make moral judgments about the beliefs we hold and act upon.
Labels give us a jumping-off point in dialogue with others. They bring the other person into the general vicinity of the talker’s point of view. Once some general boundaries are established, specifics can be sought. Truth can be uncovered. Meaning can be had. Progress can be made.
To do away with that meaning altogether is, as C. S. Lewis suggested in The Abolition of Man, to “evolve” ourselves right back to the very Nature whence we supposedly came.
The Myth of Moral Neutrality. In the case of Planned Parenthood’s propaganda and its following, the claim is that the labels pro-life and pro-choice don’t accurately portray how most people feel about abortion. In fact, a large group of individuals do not identify with either label.
People who hold this view are aiming for moral neutrality when it comes to abortion; and, in doing so, they’re taking the firm position that everyone else should be neutral as well. Here’s the rub: when it comes to abortion, moral neutrality is a myth.
The fulcrum of the debate over abortion is the moral status of the unborn, which, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with what an individual feels about it. With an edge too finely sharpened to balance on, that fulcrum forces everyone to come to a conclusion on one side or the other. You either conclude that the unborn are human beings deserving of protection by law, or not.
It may be that the call for abolishing the label pro-choice comes from the fact that many identify themselves as personally pro-life, while others label them pro-choice. These individuals play the moral relativism card by reducing moral truth to mere personal preference.
As far as the labels go, they’re both (the claim goes), so essentially they’re neither. The fulcrum, however, demands an answer to the question, “What is the unborn?” Are they human beings like you and me, or some other category of things that don’t warrant our respect? There is no in-between. The personally prolifers can’t have their cake and eat it, too.
It’s interesting that this kind of relativistic thinking lurks around abortion but would be viewed as heinous here and now if we were discussing other moral issues such as human trafficking, slavery, or domestic violence. You’d never hear someone in our nation today say, “I’m personally anti-slavery, but neither I nor any law can tell other people they shouldn’t own slaves if that’s their truth.” Human beings aren’t commodities to be used and traded as property.
The pro-life view says they’re not disposable, either.
Read between the Lines. Having exhausted the pros and cons of labeling one another, we’re back to Juliet’s waxing poetic regarding flowers and Montagues. The label pro-choice may be changed, shifted, or thrown out, but whatever rises up in its place will have the same meaning. Call it what you wish, but even those who consider themselves personally pro-life are (functionally) squarely within the stance/label/lack-of-label they claim not to be. That is, one that holds that other women ought to have the legal right to choose if and when they want or need to — consider the labels — “have an abortion”/“terminate a pregnancy”/“exercise their reproductive rights.”
Though humanity’s ability to name things and communicate meaning with one another involves great responsibility and, at times, more than a little nuance, the “Let’s drop the labels” rhetoric is insidious at best. My hope is that those who hear it, no matter how nice it might sound, read between the lines and seek out the meaning behind the words — the assumption that “what [most Americans] want” is for women to have the safe and legal option to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
There are only so many attractive names to put on that, and none of them smell sweet.
Megan Almon is a speaker with Life Training Institute. She addresses audiences and trains students nationally on pro-life apologetics and related topics. Georgia born and raised, she lives near Atlanta with her husband, Tripp, and their two children.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2.2.46–47; http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/html/Rom.html.
- Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 20.