Pro-choice Pregnancy and the Politics of Language

There are many things that are different about the experience of carrying a pregnancy to term versus choosing to terminate, but one place where you’ll often notice a stark difference is in language.

Lately the question of pro-choice and pregnancy has been buzzing around the media, the internet, and my mind. Perhaps it was the announcement of Princess Kate’s pregnancy that stirred it up this time, but as a pro-choice doula who has supported women during abortion, childbirth and miscarriage, these thoughts are never far from my mind.

For some, pregnancies that are wanted and taken to term can stir up questions that cause them to reflect on their pro-choice beliefs. Maybe it’s their own pregnancy, or the pregnancy of a friend that they witness. Or perhaps it’s the pregnancy of a celebrity, or a high school classmate who posts sonogram pictures all over facebook.

There are many things that are different about the experience of carrying a pregnancy to term versus choosing to terminate, but one place where you’ll often notice a stark difference is in language. Among pregnancy and parenting books, obstetricians, midwives and birth doulas you’re bound to hear oodles about the baby, the unborn child, lots of language that personifies and highlights the would-be child, even very early on in the pregnancy. Walk into an abortion clinic, or read pro-choice materials on the topic, and the word “baby” is unlikely to appear. Instead you’ll hear about the fetus, or the pregnancy, or the embryo.

These choices are undoubtedly political, often meant to stake a claim to a particular view of fetal development. But they are also choices that attempt to reflect how one choosing each path (childbirth or abortion) might see their own pregnancy. This, unfortunately, is purely a guessing game and a political tip-toeing with hopes of respecting an individual’s experience with their pregnancy while also drawing a political line in the sand.

As a blogger and a doula, I think about this question of language a lot. What language to use when talking with people I’m supporting during their abortions? What about when supporting someone with a miscarriage? Should I use different language in one scenario over the other? How about when I write about these issues? I’ve also gotten a handful of questions over the years from well-meaning pro-choice people who are challenged by these questions of language and pregnancy. If we call it a baby at only eight weeks, does that compromise our right to access abortion?

For me the answer is no. The reason that abortion is a decision best left to individuals who are pregnant is because it’s a complicated ethical and personal choice that one can only make for themselves. While there may be a lot of science regarding fetal development, when hearts beat and nervous systems are developed, there is no right answer when it comes to when life begins. It’s a question and a choice that every individual person has to grapple with for themselves. The same is true for the language of pregnancy and birth.

I do my best to mirror the language of the people I’m working with. If they call it a baby, I’ll call it a baby. If they call it a pregnancy, or a fetus, or a itty-bitty bundle of joy, I’ll do the same. Nothing about these language choices denotes anything about what choices should be available to pregnant people—it simply denotes how that individual person sees themselves and their pregnancy.

Obviously language is political. And if I’m in a scenario when I’m not working with a pregnant person, but instead simply writing or talking about pregnancy and abortion—I am more likely to use words like fetus and pregnancy than baby. But that’s just my inclination, and not a prescription for what others should do.

If we understand that the language people use and how they feel about their pregnancies is simply a reflection of the truth that pregnancy and birth are intimate processes and that each person grapples with these on their own terms, and integrates with their politics and experience of life and parenting, then it becomes even more clear why politicians, lawmakers, and even each one of us has little business in that equation. Pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion are all part of the same complicated and delicate process. When we understand that continuum, and reject the black and white thinking that there is some line in the sand that we can cross and comfortably place abortion and fetuses on one side, and babies and birth on the other, we might actually come closer to building a political reality that reflects actual people’s lives and experiences.