[originally posted 20 June 2009]
ome days it doesn’t pay to put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing. I’ve started and trashed at least a dozen openings for this current entry, and I still don’t know what the topic is supposed to be. Am I gibbering about obscure Portland-area DJ Wee Willie Nelson? or about slogan-stealing? or what? My resources are inadequate to doing justice to the topics that cross my mind at the moment. I had files of documents relating to the history of Portland radio, and copies of books like Summerhill and Catch-22, that might have been helpful in one or the other, but I don’t have them any longer, and it feels like part of my brain is missing. I used to know where to go for stuff; one of my most valuable assets in writing was my file of notes taken over the decades on a variety of topics that interested me at one point or another. And just as my memory is increasingly failing me I lose a big chunk of my external memory storage, so to speak. It is goddamn frustrating.
One thing I had notes on was the use of the term “pro-life”. I can’t find a goddamn thing on the innertubes about it. I know the term was kicking around before the anti-abortion crowd got their hands on it, but I can’t find dates or specifics anywhere. As I remember those of us who were interested in the environmental movement before there was an environmental movement used the term “pro-life” to identify our position as protecting and defending all life everywhere, as being opposed to extinction for any species. (I remember concerns whether the “pro-life” movement should support extinction for organisms that cause smallpox or polio—would this not be anti- rather than pro-life?) And earlier than that I seem to recall some D. H. Lawrence types using the expression to mean a healthy open attitude toward sexuality, or something like that.
As I remember it there was a kind of split between those who preferred the save-the-planet sort of rhetoric (probably borrowed from the anti-nuclear folk) on the one hand, and those who focused on the species-in-danger approach on the other. The one direction leads directly to Earth Day, the latter perhaps to the Endangered Species Act. Speaking only for myself, I never cared for the Earth Day type of language; the planet Earth is in no danger—its sister planet Venus gets on just fine without the thin film of life on its surface Earth boasts of. It’s living things that are in peril. Hence the designation pro-life.
I do remember being irritated when I first heard the term “pro-life” used to mean “anti-abortion”. I regarded it as theft pure and simple, and not even a good theft; pro-life is utterly inadequate as a slogan for their position. It fits them about as well as a Frederick’s of Hollywood evening gown fits the average linebacker. “Pro-life?” Don’t make me laugh. And don’t for God’s sake give me that incredibly lame line about being pro-innocent life—the slogan you anti-abortionists stole says nothing whatsoever about innocence, only about life. If you didn’t mean it, why steal it? Yeah, I know, you liked the sound of it—never mind that it made no bloody sense at all.
Now somewhere in the vast wilderness of the interwebs I saw some anti-abortion type claiming that pro-life was an accurate description of the movement because it focused attention on the important thing—that the foetus, no matter how undeveloped, is already a separate human individual entitled to all the rights and privileges that come with that status. Now personally I don’t get that meaning from pro-life; something more like pro-foetal-personhood would seem to fit the bill. But really, what was wrong with anti-abortion? It’s succinct, and it’s accurate. Oh, I suppose from the “pro-life” viewpoint it only covers the conclusion, without giving the grounds for it. It’s quite conceivable for someone to oppose abortion without believing that the foetus is a separate human individual entitled to life at all costs. Such a person would be anti-abortion but not pro-foetal-personhood—or something like that. I’m not a believer, and I don’t play one on the internet either. I’ll leave it to them to explain.
The people opposed to the ban on abortion, on the other hand, had a real problem with the movement label. Pro-abortion is only accurate in the sense that supporters were against its prohibition, not in the sense that they were in favor of abortion itself, or even what opponents like to call “abortion on demand.” Many felt there should be strict restrictions on the practice, favoring it only in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s life was in danger. The uneasy compromise in this case was the weasel term pro-choice, which focused on the issue as they saw it, which is that the choice should exist, but leaves wide open the basic question of who should do the choosing, and under what circumstances. Also, like the term pro-life, pro-choice is way over-broad in its implications. Pro-choice in regard to what? Just one narrow issue—whether a woman chooses to bring her foetus to term. And pro-life in regard to what? Again just one narrow issue—whether a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.
If you didn’t already know what these labels applied to you’d have a hell of a time figuring it out. Pro-choice? Choice in regard to what? What profession to go into, what recreational drugs (if any) to enjoy, what church (if any) to attend? And pro-life? What does life mean here? We could be talking anti-war (as I believe Joseph Heller used the term), anti-pesticide, anti-death penalty, or anti-vivisection. Fuzziness seeps in when sloganeering replaces thought.
I suppose they’re no more inane than the labels given to groups in the past. Free-soilers, abolitionists, know-nothings, nullifiers, roundheads, levelers, and other extinct forms of life once walked the world stage, and the people then knew what was being abolished, or leveled, or nullified. It’s just some of us can’t keep from poking the phrases with pointed sticks.