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.
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 they do not all have bad motives, 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. And frankly, in some cases, that’s probably true. However, the vast majority of active pro-lifers are just that. Pro-Life.
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.
Dehumanizing the Fetus
The biggest propaganda tool used by the pro-choice movement is to dehumanize and denigrate the life of the fetusin particular and pregnancy in general.
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 long-term or natural. Instead it’s seen as a problem that can be taken care of with a medical procedure.
Most people are also familiar with the dehumanizing language used to refer to the preborn human. Clump of cells, tissue, product of conception, etc. The latest misinformation, coming from the same May 2019 NPR memo to journalists mentioned above, bizzarely involves referring to the baby’s heartbeat as “embryonic pulsing,” because: ” heartbeat activity can be detected “about six weeks into a pregnancy.” That’s at least a few weeks before an embryo is a fetus.” While it is technically true that the growing human being is still called an embryo at the time that its heart starts beating, no one calls it that and no one, pro life or pro choice, had ever called it that until the recent wave of “heartbeat bills” banning abortion after the preborn baby’s heartbeat can be detected.
These are all ways of talking about a human being in order to dehumanize the fetal human growing in the womb. Because these euphemisms and techniques pit a pregnant woman against the tiny human growing inside of her, rather than supporting both mother and child, they constitute propaganda. They do not honor the objective truth of the humanity of the preborn person.
What Pro-Life People Say
Humanizing the Preborn Person
A key strategy of the pro-life movement, on the other hand, is to humanize the child. For example, a common term used by pro-lifers is the word “preborn” rather than the word “un-born,” which indicates something that isn’t going to happen (i.e. work left un-done) rather than something that has not yet happened. “Preborn” emphasizes the ongoing development of the fetus in the womb. It shows that there is a process, which involves a natural progression from when the baby lives inside the womb to when the baby lives outside the womb.
Pregnant Women are Mothers
The pro-life movement also refers to pregnant women as mothers. They describe them in this way to emphasize that the preborn child is, in fact, a child. A baby is not just an item that you should be able to throw away. Pro-choicers also use the term “mother” for pregnant women, when they are advocating for “life of the mother” or “health of the mother” exceptions to restrictions on abortion.
Fetus is a Medically Accurate Term
Referring to a baby in the womb as a fetus is perfectly fine with most pro-lifers, because that is the proper medical term. At the same time, a person should be aware of what words they use when referring to the sex of the fetus. When someone does not know the sex of a fetus, they often refer to them as an “it.” Instead, one should refer to a fetus as him or her; essentially recognizing his or her humanity.
Humanizing the preborn being, a unique person with DNA separate from its mother, referring to pregnant women as mothers, and being comfortable with using the medically accurate term “fetus” all constitute rhetoric, or language in keeping with the true nature of a person or thing.