Rhetoric and Propaganda in Discussions about Abortion

When you talk about abortion, are you using rhetoric or propaganda? Both rhetoric and propaganda involve trying to persuade another person of something. Rhetoric is the art of trying to persuade someone about a good, or doing something good, like your doctor using rhetoric to encourage you to have regular health check-ups. Propaganda, on the other hand, refers to efforts to persuade someone of something that is not objectively good or good for them. Think of the classic used car salesman example. How confident can you be that a used car salesman is listening carefully to your particular needs in and price range for a vehicle? Is he more likely telling you flattering things to sell you a car that you cannot afford, or withholding key information about problems with a vehicle he shows you?

When it comes to abortion, we consistently find that both sides have a whole different set of vocabulary that frames their views. We often end up talking past those with whom we disagree because we have not agreed on how to define the terms the terms that we use, i.e. what we mean by the words that we say. This can be quite counter-productive for abortion discussion and dialogue. In order to have meaningful conversations, we need to use rhetoric rather than propaganda.

Let’s look at some examples of words and concepts that are used by both sides to get their point across, and determine whether they constitute rhetoric or propaganda.

What Pro-Choice People Say

With the caveat that not all pro-choice people are the same and that individuals’ motives vary, here are some ways that propaganda, or disingenuous wording and terms, are employed by the pro-choice movement.

Negative References to Pro-Lifers by Pro-Choice People and the Media

In the media you will be hard pressed to find a pro-choice source that uses the name that pro-lifers use for themselves. Rather than calling them pro-life they will refer to them as “anti-abortion” or “abortion foes,” (who even uses the word “foe” these days?) “anti-choice extremists“, or “anti-choice activists.” In fact, a May 2019 NPR memo requested that journalists use the terms “abortion rights supporters” referring to pro-choice people and “abortion rights opponents” referring to pro-life people. 

The goal of all of these euphemisms is to portray pro lifers as “the bad guys.” After all, no one wants to be ‘anti’ or a ‘foe’, and being a “supporter” sounds much more positive. Of course, many people accuse pro-lifers of only being anti-abortion, also known as “pro birthers“. But that argument has been debunked a dozen different ways, including here

In contrast, WhyProLife.com often uses the term “pro-choice” because that is what people who support abortions for one or every reason prefer to be called. Using this term in this context does not indicate support for or agreement with pro-choice beliefs about abortion.. Whereas calling someone pro-abortion can unhelpfully antagonize a person we want to have a conversation with, using the term they use to describe themselves can be a starting point for dialogue about what abortion really is and what it does to women

Pregnancy as Problem

The biggest propaganda tool used by the pro-choice movement is to dehumanize and denigrate pregnancy in general and the life of the fetus in particular. 

For example, the pro-choice side often refers to pregnancy as a medical condition, while the pro-life side views it as a natural process. Referring to a pregnancy as a medical condition, i.e. a pathology or disease process, removes the idea of it being time-limited or natural. Instead it’s seen as a problem that can be taken care of with a medical procedure. 

Dehumanizing the Fetus

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