While the basic definition of abortion--the termination of a pregnancy--is widely accepted, the term’s connotations and associated language are anything but.

In their preferred language, people in favor of legalized abortion focus on the mother, particularly her choice and her rights: hence pro-choice, a woman’s right to choose, reproductive rights, and similar terms. In contrast, people in favor of restricting or ending abortion center primarily on the baby/fetus, with terms like pro-life and assertions that the right to life is a fundamental human right. 

Abortion and Women: Emancipation or Exploitation?

While some women hail abortion as a great victory for women’s rights and bodily autonomy, others view it as the ultimate exploitation of women. On one hand, abortion and choice about one’s reproductive activity figure prominently in the larger progressive argument for women’s freedom - especially given the way reproduction has traditionally limited women's activities and movement. On the other hand, many conservatives, who see the bringing of life into the world as central to womanhood, are genuinely baffled at those who position the right to end a future child’s life as somehow central to advancing women’s rights.  

Abortion and the Fetus/Baby: Murder or Medical Procedure?

For those who oppose legal abortion, abortion is tantamount to murder - with the roughly 60 million legal abortions since Roe v. Wade seen as representing a holocaust far larger than the 1940s Holocaust in Europe.For supporters of the right to abort, this language over-dramatizes and misrepresents a medical act involving a fetus that women seeking abortion do not see as having the full status of a human being or person. 

Misleading Terms?

So stark is the disagreement that the two sides cannot even agree on what to call the party in utero. People who identify as pro-life, believing that human life begins at conception, use the term baby; advocates for legal abortion tend toward product of conception, fetus, or embryo, depending on the stage of development.

Curiously, while the terms pro-choice and pro-life reflect these emphases, they are also problematic on several fronts. Most basically, they misrepresent the position of people on the other side of the term in use. Pro-choice advocates may imply, or state outright, that their opponents are anti-choice;  people who are pro-life may label their adversaries anti-life.  Neither group, however, would identify itself with these anti- terms.  

As many are quick to point out, each term is overly broad and imprecise. People who identify themselves as pro-life question the label pro-choice by noting that the baby gets no choice and that women who have abortions often feel they have no choice. Advocates of legal abortion deem the term pro-life unrepresentative of people who, in some cases, do not take a “consistent life” approach --for instance, opposing capital punishment.

Alternative Views of Abortion.

As a 2012 poll confirmed, this discussion is more complex than the aforementioned framing often admits. Many Americans identify as both pro-choice and pro-life, with attitudes often dependent on individual circumstances--a large gray area not reflected in the larger discourse.  This "both" position is also reflected in people who say they would not have an abortion themselves but would not force this decision on others.

For instance, the significance of abortion often depends on when and how it happens. In this view, if the pregnancy has just started, only a tiny ball of cells is being destroyed; but if the pregnancy is into its second or third trimester, and the ball of cells has developed certain characteristics--a heartbeat, brain activity, a face--abortion becomes a different proposition altogether.

From another perspective, if the woman was impregnated against her will, lives in an abusive situation, or is a child herself, abortion takes on different moral dimensions from when the woman is older, consented to sex, and has the support of people around her.  From still another perspective, which one might call anti-abortion and anti-criminalization, some find abortion always tragic, at best the lesser of two evils, and yet see in any attempt to punish women and/or doctors who participate in abortions as yet a third evil which is not even likely to reduce the number of abortions performed.

In yet a different context, some people see abortion as a cover for deeper systemic problems and even a tool of oppression - citing higher rates of abortion happening to racial minorities and the disabled. By contrast, others view it as a way to expand the liberty of women most affected by violence and financial instability.


Efforts to engage these differences have sparked some fruitful conversations.  In the 1990s, the Governor of Massachusetts and the Archdiocese of Boston called for dialogues between leaders of both sides following two fatal shootings at women’s health clinics in the state. Co-sponsored by Public Conversations Project and Podziba Policy Mediation, these conversations, which were originally planned for a month’s time, lasted six years, and led to a changed tone of exchange and authentic friendship (see 2001 Boston Globe report, “Talking with the Enemy”  a video from local news coverage and Mary Jacksteit’s 2009 Huffington Post summary, “Pro-life and Pro-choice Can Work Together“. In 2013, David P. Gushee and Frances Kissling also were guests on Krista Tippett’s On Being program, in a conversation called Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue.


  • How do your views of abortion vary from the "typical" positions on the left or right?  

  • Do the circumstances surrounding pregnancy matter when it comes to abortion?  If so, which circumstances would or would not matter?

  • How does your belief about the existence or non-existence of a human soul influence your view of abortion?