Perils of Language: Why Sonia Sotomayor Won’t Call Herself “Pro-Choice”

As Sonia Sotomayor faces the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, two things are certain:Sonia Sotomayor

1. Much of the questioning will be about abortion.
2. You will almost never hear the word abortion.

When we talk about this subject – in speeches, in newspapers, and on our NSGC list serve – the dialogue is shaped by the words that we use, and the words that we avoid.  In the Senate, the discussion will use code words like “judicial philosophy” and “stare decisis.”

The rest of us will make do with more accessible terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”  Rereading the contributions of genetic counselors following the heinous murder of Dr. Tiller, it is striking how much the use of that familiar shorthand directs the conversation into well-worn ruts of left and right, pro and con, when the truth is I suspect that the majority of counselors – like the majority of Americans – have more in common on this difficult subject than readily meets the eye.

Take a look at the most recent Gallup Poll results of the subject of abortion. The headline in May was “more Americans than ever before identify themselves as “pro-life.”  Had this poll been taken after Dr. Tiller’s murder, the results might have been different – and the news organizations would have proclaimed this a change of heart.  But really, how many hearts were changed?  It only illustrates the ambivalence with which Americans attempt to shoehorn their complex and emotional attitudes toward abortion into inflexible categories drawn up by impassioned ideologues on both sides.

In stark terms, “pro-life” suggests that a fetus is no different than a baby.  If this is truly what you believe, how can any abortion be justified?  Many participants in our discussion complained about the intransigence of pro-lifers who won’t make exceptions for rape, incest and so on – but how many of us would identify circumstances under which it is acceptable to end the life of a baby?  Just over twenty percent of the population is opposed to all abortion, a position which may be intransigent, but is nonetheless morally consistent.

But look at the Gallup Poll results in greater detail and you will see that the vast majority of Americans favor abortion in certain circumstances.  What does this suggest?  Despite the fact that it is hard to talk about and it makes people uncomfortable, most of us believe that becoming a human being is a process – a continuum. We all seek to identify a point along that continuum when “human-ness” becomes so compelling that our moral obligations are clear.  But whether or not you pick conception, or quickening, or viability or birth, the truth is that there are few of us who would not admit that if the building were on fire and we could only save one soul, we would go for the two-week old baby over the frozen embryo every time.

A majority of genetic counselors identify themselves as pro-choice (although not all, as we all learned in that listserve conversation!).  I am guessing that despite our political and professional stake in that identification, most of us have our own sliding scale, and we may all find ourselves a bit queasy about an abortion that occurs late or for a reason we find “inadequate.”  I believe that what can get lost in the language of political engagement is that we are largely in agreement that abortion is an ugly necessity until the moment when it becomes entirely untenable.  When is that moment?  Don’t we all struggle with that?  Can’t we all sympathize with the desire for a clear and convincing answer?  Don’t we know it will never come?

Good luck, Sonia!

1 Comment

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One response to “Perils of Language: Why Sonia Sotomayor Won’t Call Herself “Pro-Choice”

  1. I thought this was a thoughtful and very well-written post. The line “But how many of us would identify circumstances under which it is acceptable to end the life of a baby?” reminded me of an excellent interview with a woman on titled “Born Too Soon”, which details a the story of fraternal twins born at 24 weeks gestation. The subheading is “Vicki Forman’s twins weighed only a pound at birth. She thought they should be allowed to die. Doctors disagreed.” Apparently Ms. Forman has written a book titled “This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood.” While I have not read her book, I encourage people to check out the article at Salon.

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