For many years, I have identified as “pro-life.” As of today, I will no longer describe myself as a pro-lifer. Instead, I now identify only as “anti-abortion.” This is not a mere semantic difference. It is, rather, a rhetorical difference. And that, as Frost said, makes all the difference.
A Brief Divagation on Rhetoric
Humans speak. Humans speak of leaves and grass, of eating peaches, of the folly of youth and the vanity of all things. We use language to invoke beauty, wonder, awe, shock, fear, horror, revulsion, lust, love. Humans speak to share our experience.
Language is a political, as well as a poetical, tool. Words build sentences, sentences convey thoughts, thoughts provoke action, and action produces change. It is nearly mystical: the right word can form a new world. That is the art of rhetoric. Although I use the term “rhetoric” in the context of speech, it is a tool for communication, written or spoken.
Rhetoric is good. When I say rhetoric, you likely think of words designed to incite frenzy in their hearers, yet empty of substance, words designed to make the weaker argument look the better. But that is not rhetoric. Rather, rhetoric is merely the art of arranging words persuasively.
Rhetoric is formal. Grammar gives meaning to vocabulary; rhetoric gives form to substance. “Red springs more strangely than a tall justice” is a grammatically correct sentence with nonsensical vocabulary. Rhetoric is grammar; ideas are vocabulary. Thus, someone can still make incorrect ideas persuasive. But something’s abuse does not ruin its proper use. Rhetoric, like grammar, is just a tool.
Sloppy grammar mires readers in ambiguity. Sloppy rhetoric leaves hearers unpersuaded. Worse, such sloppiness may persuade hearers that the speaker was wrong, ignorant, or evil. I think the term “pro-life” is such sloppy rhetoric.
Some Rhetorical ABCs
Imagine speech as a bike tire. The center is the subject; the spokes are rhetoric. Each spoke must be the proper length and bear its proper weight. If the spokes are too short, the wheel is warped; too long, and the spokes puncture the rim; too few, and the wheel is feeble; too weak, and the wheel will fail. But if the spokes are the proper strength, and the proper length, and the proper number, then the wheel will carry its rider to the road’s end.
To get the spokes right, good rhetoric should be assertive, brief, and clear. This is not a list of exhaustive attributes, but of necessary ones. Just as strength, length, and number are all attributes of one spoke, so assertion, brevity, and clarity are all attributes of each rhetorical device a speaker employs. “Pro-life” and “anti-abortion” are just such rhetorical devices.
Assertion is the spoke’s strength. Indecisive speakers do not inspire decisive action. The rhetorician must enter the fray unafraid of her position. If she is timid, or if she hedges, her hearers will not trust her to lead them. Too little strength, and the wheel will fail.
Brevity gets the length of the spokes right. A brief speaker says no more than she needs. But brevity is not mere economy of speech. A brief rhetorician treats each subject with appropriate depth, but not more. Properly brief rhetoric excludes whatever information a hearer does not need to understand the debate. Too short or too long, and the wheel is ruined.
Clarity gets the number of spokes right. A clear rhetorician focuses on appropriate subjects. Properly clear rhetoric includes whatever information a hearer needs to understand the debate. Thus, clarity and brevity counterbalance each other. Clarity requires more speech, brevity less. To few spokes, and the wheel is feeble.
“Safe, Legal, and Rare”
Bill Clinton gave us an example of good rhetoric when, like a potter at the wheel, he turned the phrase “safe, legal, and rare.” It was truly a masterwork, albeit for an evil purpose.
Clinton makes a bold assertion
“Safe, legal, and rare” is assertive: there is no timidity to Clinton’s statement. It does not second guess itself, or shy away from its subject. The phrase does not sell from its back foot. Rather, it unfurls and plants a banner for Clinton’s vision of abortion.
Clinton packs a brief punch
It is brief: Clinton packs decades into three adjectives. He wants abortion to be safe — because for the women subject to back-alley butchers, it was not; legal — no longer considered a crime against God, humanity, or nature ( in that order), but rather bearing the governmental imprimatur; and rare — because abortion is, of course, a tragedy. The phrase provides enough context to make sense, while also relying on its hearers to understand a deeper meaning.
Clinton casts a clear vision
And it is clear: there is no question as to what Clinton’s abortion policy will be. Even though “rare” strikes a discordant note, — why should abortion be rare? — we are evaluating rhetoric, not ideas (grammar, not vocabulary). Clinton says that he will protect abortion, but also that he will seek to serve women so that they do not resort to abortion.
Pro-Life is Bad Rhetoric
I do not believe that “pro-life” works as good clean rhetoric; at least, not anymore. Once it did, but it has served its purpose. Now, we need to put it out to pasture and let it die.
It makes an oblique assertion
True, “pro-life” is assertive. However, it asserts at an angle. “We are pro-life,” it says, and implies that the alternative is “pro-death.” It was a clever label, and it put our enemies in a dilemma. But “pro-life” shies away from abortion rather than label it. Thus, the assertion it makes is actually about us, and not about the topic at hand. We left our enemies free to support “choice” and reframe the debate.
It says too much
True, also, “pro-life” is brief. It is more brief than “anti-abortion” by three syllables. But “pro-life” also says far more than “anti-abortion.” It includes people and politicians who still believe abortion is the solution for rape victims. If the same people can be both “pro-life” and, however occasionally, pro-abortion, then “pro-life” says too much. This too-big tent includes our enemies: those who identify as “pro-life” though they support abortion.
It blurs the issue
I deny that “pro-life” is clear. Almost everyone, outside of the context of abortion, would identify as “pro-life.” Pro-life does nothing to clarify the context of the debate. Our enemies point out alleged hypocrisy. They say, if you are truly pro-life, you must oppose the death penalty, or gun ownership, or police, or… Our “pro-life” label dilutes our message. This branding error causes confusion within our own ranks. Many pro-life sites have lost focus on abortion. Just take a look at the LifeSiteNews homepage. At the time of this writing, the homepage does not even mention abortion. Granted, they post about “culture,” as well
In all three categories, “anti-abortion” is better rhetoric than “pro-life.” Anti-abortion asserts our position with both brevity and clarity. It is a refreshingly short, sharp shock after decades of “pro-life” activism.
It makes a forcible assertion
“Anti-abortion” states simply what our position entails: opposition to abortion. We do not accept abortion as a solution, ever. Abortion is simply unacceptable. The oblique assertion — our enemies are pro-abortion — shifts the debate away from “choice” and its attendant abstractness. Instead, it tells its hearer what we care about: abortion, abortion, abortion.
It says exactly enough
“Anti-abortion” does not leave room to serve two masters: if you are anti-abortion, you cannot be pro-abortion. Anti-abortion politicians do not support any “exceptions.” “Anti-abortion” makes no space for such exceptions. Thus, it avoids the problem of empowering our enemies or welcoming them into our tent. As well as excluding, “anti-abortion” binds together those with both the true vision and the will to fight for it.
It focuses the issue
“Anti-abortion” particularizes the debate: we oppose a specific, evil act, rather than support an abstract, good concept. It robs our enemies of the rhetorical strength of pointing to our perceived inconsistencies. I am anti-abortion — that is not inconsistent with my position on the death penalty, healthcare, gun control, or immigration, because none of those issues is abortion. “Anti-abortion” distills our message. It never dilutes it.
I will not go back and change every instance of “pro-life” on this website. Going forward, I will identify only as “anti-abortion.” I hope you join me.