Analysis of the Commonplace Terms "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice":
And the Double-Think Involved in Their Usage
by Dana Williams


The relevant dictionary definitions1 of the prefix "pro" are as follows: "an argument in favor of something", "supporting", "favoring". When these definitions are applied to "pro-life", they render the phrases: "an argument in favor of life", "supporting life", "favoring life". "Life" itself can be biologically defined as: "the quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli". For the sake of argument let us assume that this definition of life applies not only to children already born, but also anything after the moment of conception. More loosely, pro-life can be viewed as the support of life, and its continuation after the point of conception until death.

Applying the definition of the prefix "pro" to "pro-choice" we get the following phrases: "an argument in favor of choice", "supporting choice", favoring choice". "Choice" itself can be defined in a number of ways, including "the act of choosing; selection" and "the power, right, or liberty to choose". "Choice" in this certain context refers to the choice of having an abortion of not having an abortion; the latter which is an aspect of choice frequently overlooked. Choice is something that can only exist during pregnancy, since after birth the termination of life, is not longer considered the abortion of a fetus, but the murder of a child. That said, we may infer that choice is a possibility which only exists during pregnancy; and is also something that is constantly being made and affirmed through out the process of pregnancy: the choice to not have an abortion until or if the choice arises to have an abortion (or the fetus is born).

To diverge on additional labels, let's look at relevant definitions for the prefix "anti": "opposed to" and "counteracting". Assuming the commonly held notion that choice and life are opposites, which by our previous definitions appears to be suspect, let's add the prefix "anti" to "life" and "choice" and attempt to equate them to the opposite corresponding term, such as "anti-choice = pro-life" and "anti-life = pro-choice". "Anti-choice", using our prefix of "anti" and "choice" definitions would constitute the following phrases: "opposed to choice" and "counteracting choice". Anti-life would constitute "opposed to life" and "counteracting life".

Anti-choice seems to be an accurate association with pro-life, since both support the stance of life under all situations, which classes with one of choice's two options: abortion. The equation "anti-choice = pro-life" appears to be true. However an analysis of the attempt to align "anti-life" and "pro-choice" reveals certain inconsistencies. One of the options in choice is no abortion, which means the uninterrupted continuation of life. Clearly it is difficult to claim that pro-choice is globally anti-life when this is only a portion of what choice is and entails.

It is now apparent that our suspicions about choice and life being opposites are correct: we cannot empirically claim that they are opposites in every respect-- only in some. Thus, it could be said that there is overlap in definitions; some of pro-choice overlaps all of pro-life, and thus implicitly some pro-choice overlaps anti-choice. This makes obvious the fact that choice is a much more broadly termed phrase than is life, not to mention causing a slight bit of apprehension, as it is mildly confusing and seemingly partially contradictory. A conclusion is that the association of life and choice is not a good one since they judge disproportionate amounts of potential connotation.

Perhaps another problem with the comparison of choice and life is even more basic. Life could be said to be an objective, while choice is, well, a choice. Choice is the ability to consider deciding on two very opposite objectives, life and death (abortion). So, it is not wholly the disagreement of a binary possibility like choice and the unary "option" of life, but more importantly that the concept choice contains life. This can be seen if we view choice as a logical set containing two elements: to have an abortion (death) and to not have an abortion (life). This view seems to better explain the wider ability of choice and to negate the falsely held viewpoint that choice always means to choose abortion. This alone is reason enough to consider not only the harmful effects of the current terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice", but to also consider changing the labels of the two ideologies.

It may be useful at this point to look at the focal action that is concerned with life and choice: abortion. We already have a general working model of what abortion is: one possibility of choice and the absence in life. But, let's get a formal definition down, just for the record: "induced termination of pregnancy before the embryo or fetus is viable". No surprises here, I'd likely guess. Let's apply our two-prefixes, which are opposites, and "pro" and "anti" to "abortion". "Pro-abortion" gives us the phrases: "an argument in favor of abortion", "supporting abortion", "favoring abortion". Immediately we see that pro-abortion cannot be comprehensively applied to pro-choice. Anti-abortion suggests "opposed to abortion" and "counteracting abortion". This is consistent with the definition of pro-life, since the lack of abortion is life. So, I'd almost push the envelope and assert that anti-abortion is analogous with pro-life. I would not however dare say that pro-abortion is analogous with pro-choice-- nothing could be more ludicrous.

Even though I'm willing to admit that anti-abortion is somewhat analogous with pro-life, it implies that someone who is pro-life is also anti-abortion. Is this always the case? Isn't pro-life a stance taken in pro-choice? A woman who is in support of life (under most circumstances) who also holds to her freedom of choice is in obvious contradiction with the above assertion. Yet, does this mean anything beyond that she supports life, but under circumstances would exercise her right to choose to abort life? It seems that haphazard associations should not be loosely applies to the flexibility of a human's psyche, especially those who are not in strong favor of life under all circumstances.

It is an exercise in double-think to assume and use terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in the context they are presently used, because not only do they not compare the same things using the same standards, but the imply and infer inaccurate conclusions which are not correctly defined by the definitions themselves.

I feel it a good idea to search for alternate labels for the stances and positions themselves. I think that the majority of people involved in the debate have correctly deduced and witnessed two major sides: 1) those opposed to abortion under all circumstance, and 2) those who want to have the opportunity to have an abortion, should they wish to or at least don't mind other people having the right to do so. Position 2 seems adequately qualified by pro-choice. Pro-life, however, doesn't appear to do position 1 justice any longer. I'd like to recommend two possible substitutes for "pro-life" to describe position 1, both of which have attractive reasons for being used.

The first substitute for "pro-life" which comes to mind is "anti-abortion" Those who are opposed to abortion under all circumstance are obviously anti-abortion. This implies the obvious: that in the case of a pregnancy there is no support whatsoever for an abortion. It also implies what "pro-life" intended to do: state that there is explicit support of the continuation of life. Anti-abortion also specifically antagonizes one of the possible options of pro-choice, abortion, whereas before "pro-life" merely expressed support for the other choice, which was rarely ever (and in my opinion, unfairly) included in pro-choice. Once again we see the semantics involved, and how they can be misapplied and weighted against certain positions. Example: one who has an abortion is obviously in support of life on one level or another, since they are alive and everyone they interact with is alive, and thus they support their birth and life. Case in point: anti-abortion more accurately describes the fundamentally disagreement with pro-choice, because it is the abortion part that anti-abortion has a problem with, not the lack of "support for life".

The second possible substitute, which I feel is even more an appropriate counter-position to pro-choice, is "anti-choice". The most important reason to consider "anti-choice" a better alternative than "anti-abortion" for "pro-life" is because it is the logical and most accurate counter definition to pro-choice-- it bases itself on the same issue: choice. One who opposes abortion under all circumstance has evidently forgone any scenario-specific decision-making process and continues to reject abortion as a viable thing to do during pregnancy. Anti-choice, like anti-abortion, also denies the possibility of abortion-- granted not as immediately-- as anti-abortion, but with the benefit of cutting through the superficial conclusions of not merely being opposed to the option of abortion, but the mere consideration of abortion as an option. "Anti-choice" works best because it contrasts "pro-choice" much better than "anti-abortion", contrasts "pro-choice", because the former is contrasting the same thing, choice, while the latter is contrasting abortion and choice, which previous arguments have shown to be inherently incompatible things for definitions, since they are on two different steps and are two different elements of the same process.

In conclusion, I think it is important to critically look at the meanings defined and the meanings implied in the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice", and their usage. It is important to understand and be able to identify the differences between the terms "life" and "choice" and see that they are not on par with each other; life is also a "choice". We must be able to identify that pro-life acknowledges a fundamental stand against abortion and choice, and that pro-choice does not take any fundamental stand (ex. always life, always abortion), but allows for the freedom to make decisions during pregnancy that can effect the outcome of life. I see "anti-abortion" and especially "anti-choice" as better descriptive terms to define the position that is opposed to abortion under all circumstance, because they get to the heart of the matter more directly and when contrasted with "pro-choice" they show the equality of the thing being supported or opposed: choice.

Notes: this essay has made certain assumptions based upon the definition of when "life" begins, in obvious favor of the anti-choice stance. Should any re-definition of when "life" begins be made, all following arguments and conclusions may become void and unsubstantiated. It is my opinion that this should be the only definition that could be of question (save the possible bending of what "choice" is, yet one would have to be fairly close-minded to assume that choice always meant abortion) in this essay, let alone the entire debated over abortion in the United States. I feel that in order for society to even approach such an issue honestly we must strip away all biases in the definitions and terms we use to discuss the issue. In order to have a logical, philosophical, scientific, and useful exchange about when "life" beings or any other aspect of the abortion debate we must eliminate all illogical and slanted definitions, theistic dogma, and emotional response from clouding our vision.

1. Dictionary definitions taken from the "New American Heritage Dictionary", 1995.