Thursday, 18 October 2012

What’s in a name?

About 10 years ago, I went on a sex education study tour to the United States. At that time, the debate about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) was far more polarised in the States than back at home and I spent time with both the pro and anti SRE lobbies. One of the most striking things I noticed was how important, and fascinating, the language both sides used was in framing the debate. Those who supported SRE had created a new name for it – ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ - this was to counteract the opposition who had started to claim that abstinence education was a form of sex education.

Ever since that study tour I have been a bit more of a pedant about the language we use when talking about sexual and reproductive rights. So over the last few weeks, I have considered carefully the way we talk about our views of abortion. Following Mr Hunt’s statement about reducing the time limit to 12 weeks (and Mr Cameron’s swift reassurance that that government had no intention of changing it) there has been some truly exceptional journalism. It has been full of empathy and trust for women and their circumstances and for the health professionals who help women through their decision making processes and beyond.

But I have looked carefully at everyone’s language and I have decided it’s time to make some changes.

For a start, I am pro-life, in the true meaning of the word. I like life, I like living and I want my fellow citizens to enjoy life and enjoy living.  Life is a wonderful thing and I am therefore completely pro-life.

I am also pro-choice, and I am pro-abortion.  Pro-choice speaks for itself but, just to be absolutely clear, I believe that women should have the autonomy to make their choices within the framework of the law, and I think the law should reflect medical opinion and the evidence on both the time limit - which is 24 weeks in the UK - and on patient experience and safety. This means I think the UK could improve women’s access to abortion through, for example, home use of early medical abortion.  My pro-choice beliefs extend to respecting people’s right to not want an abortion and to disagree with it.

I am pro-abortion. This does not mean I believe that I want everyone to have one (though I am often accused of that view). It means that because I believe in choice, I should support abortion in those circumstances it is chosen. Some people shy away from calling themselves pro-abortion.  I am not of their number.

So if I am embracing the terms ‘pro-life’, ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-abortion’, what language should we use to describe people who believe that abortion is wrong for them AND for everybody else and that it has no place in a civil society?  How do we describe those people who believe it is right to provide false information about abortion and pregnancy to children and to harass women outside services? It’s not enough to say ‘anti-abortion’ because there is much more to their beliefs and behaviours than that. I haven’t found a short and snappy term yet, but I have an accurate one. They are “people who are ideologically opposed to safe and legal abortion in all or all but the most extreme circumstances (extreme circumstances dictated by their view, not the woman’s)”.  I’m not sure it’ll catch on.

I also think it would be helpful to remove the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ from the language when it comes to abortion. We can simply say medical abortion, surgical abortion, first trimester, up to 13 weeks, between 20 and 24 weeks.  None of it makes our sentences shorter, but the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’, are a little like ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ in that they carry a sense of judgment. There is no room to be judgmental when it comes to a woman’s right to choose.

Of course, none of these musings on language will change anybody’s position on abortion, but using the right language at least means that discussion can be had from a position of understanding, and from a position of accuracy.  Pro-life does not accurately describe people who are opposed to legal abortion.  It positions the pro-choice majority in a particular place. Pro-choice is accurate for many people, and none of us who support choice should be afraid to say that we are pro legal abortion.

Ultimately, the other thing missing from the debate is that if all of us can agree that preventing abortions when possible is a laudable aim then good quality sex and relationships education as defined by the Sex Education Forum and access to contraceptive services that provide choice are absolutely vital. But the language of those issues is for another time.

This blog is also included on the 40 Days of Choice blog
You can follow 40 Days of Choice on Twitter @40DaysofChoice

1 comment:

Becki Tse said...

Hello Simon,
Your blog post presents some particularly insightful views into abortion rights and the way names affect people's perspectives.

I'm researching a presentation for the organisation, 'Abortion Rights', and I'm looking for an authoritative opinion on the effect this organisation has on abortion legislation etc.

If you're available for a quick interview, could you possibly give me an e-mail (as I can't find any contact details on your blog) at

If possible, that would be much appreciated. Thanks again for such an informative post.