Brad Hirschfield: Is 'pro-life' now 'pro-choice?'

Feb 19, 2013

After a Texas teen sued her parents claiming they were forcing her to have an abortion, pro-life advocates are celebrating a court's decision to give the teen the right to have her baby.

The argument pro-life advocates used in supporting the teen is that she should have the choice of whether or not she wanted to have an abortion - an argument made popular by pro-choice advocates.

Will this case redefine the terms pro-life and pro-choice? What does adopting a pro-choice stance mean for the pro-life movement?

There are few, if any, isues which rile folks up as much as the issue of abortion, freedom of choice and the dignity of human life.  That actually makes sense, as the last two are among the most important issues about which people can think.

As we wade into these waters today, let's see if we can generate more light than heat, even though that's typically easier said than done.  The recent case of a young moan in Texas gives us a great opportunity though, as it confounds thye usual categores which are often quite unhelpful in framing more constructive conversations.


Let's get started.

Might pro-lifers at least stop equating pro-choice with pro-abortion? I don't know anyone who is pro-abortion. I value life, but I'm pro-choice on this issue because I'm unwilling to judge a fellow woman and label her a murderer if she chooses abortion.

While my views are very much like yours, we need to be careful about two issues you seem to blow past.  First, some people judge a woman who chooses abortion because they believe that she has in fact taken a full human life.  Were you to beleive that the fetus is in fact fully human, then you too would likely judge her to be gulty of manslaughter, if not murder-- at least I hope you would.  the fact that we do not believe a fetus is fully human does not mean that we can simply or casually dismiss those who do, even as we remain committed to them not being able to compel us to submit to theit view.


Second, there are plenty of people who are pro-abortion, as I have come to learn.  In fact, I will never forget asking a regional director for Planned Parenthood when was the last time she had reccommended a woman carry her pregnancy to term, and she could not recall.  It was a chilling and disturbing moment.  If the pro-life movement needs to be careful about imposing their views on others, and the certainly do, the same can be said for at least some segments of the pro-choice community.

Doesn't your frame for this conversation make clear that the labels are just masking people's authentic feelings about abortion? Rather than redefine the labels, why not encourage people to move beyond them?

You are not wrong, but the fact is, that redefiniton is a way of moving beyond curent constraints.  If people began to feel the falseness of the dichotomy between choice and life -- at least in many circumstances -- we might be able to move this debate to a more productive place, one which had greater respect for both choice and life.


That, and the irony of a pro-life argument being entirely driven by committment to a woman's right to choose, is simply too important to gloss over.

This is a non-issue. Of course pro-choice means that women get the choice of whether to have a baby. Pro-choice people are not advocating a policy of mandatory abortions.

It's actually a very big issue because it offers the opportunity for people to appreciate that in fact, all people want the freedom to choose -- but some insist that that there can be only one right choice.  The young woman in this case argued that her right to choose her own path, and that of the fetus/baby she carries, is exactly the same argument made by the foces which she and her lawyers most oppose!  Any time that real experience helps us to cut through the confusion created by those who choose policy over people, we need to pay attention.  It's how better policy gets made, or at least can be.

...because "pro-choice" is a created euphemism designed to cover up the idea that one can take another's life on a whim, unless that person whose life is being taken is old enough to defend himself. It's interesting that some (many?) of the same people who wail about keeping guns out of schools are okay with making sure some of those children never get to go to school.

You would be correct, if it were a matter of decided fact that an unborn child is a full human life.  While that may be your belief, it is not one shared by all people, or even a majority of Americans.  To be clear, majorities can, and have in the past, made wrong and even immoral decisions, but given how much reasonable argument there is on both sides of this issue, you might at least acknowledge that your conclusion is not assuredly correct.


Secondly, your premise that all women who choose abortion, do so "on a whim"" is not only insensitive, it is factually wrong.  Had you written that you are deeply troubled by phenomenon of women having multiple abortions and simply using it as their birth control mehtod of choice, I would be right there with you.  That is wrong for any number of reasons.  It could also be addressed in any number of ways, without making abortion illegal.

This seems more likely this was a matter of expediency, a seizure of a particular argument in a particular case than a matter of shifting the basic goals. Is it hypocritical? There is an argument, but neither side is a stranger to that. I'm not suggesting a moral equivalency here (that's a separate debate), but rather expressing my distaste for how fluid "immutable" beliefs suddenly become when one sees an advantage.

It may be a matter of expediency, but that matter of expediency is a wonderful and teachable moment.  It reminds us that even so-called "immutable" principles may in fact, be mutable -- under certain circumstances -- and that rather that either side fighting for those so-called principles, they should be advocating for values which could be honored in multiple and competing ways.


Interesting, most Americans know this, and that is why we poll out time and again, as being BOTH pro-choice and actively anti-abortion.  In other words, the fundamentalists on both sides of this issue, as is the case with so many issues which divide the nation, neither represent our collective view, nor contribute to the making of policy which refelcts that view.

and the young man who wants to marry her. She is 16yo and not 12 or 13yo. It is her body after all. Would be interesting if she wanted an abortion and her parents wanted her to have the child. Hope it works out for the couple and the child but its doubtful. This is what happens when you play adult games you have to ready to pay the adult price. Both kids are and its shame the parents arent.

You are certainly right about the odds being against the very young couple, and I hope that the community which supports their decison will continue to support them as they try and make both parenting and marriage work.  That's the real test of being pro-lfe, a committemnt which should not end simply because a young woman decides to keep the baby.

I've always understood the two terms to refer to positions on abortion's legality, not necessarily on its morality. There are plenty of people who believe abortion is wrong but also believe that it should remain legal, and I consider them to be pro-choice. I suspect most of them agree with me that reducing abortions means changing the circumstances that lead some women choose them, such as better access to sex education and contraception and better support for mothers. Do you think that's the case? Is it fair to label someone as pro-life only if he or she favors governmental interference in the woman's choice to some degree?

The distinction between what is legal and what is moral can be problematic for two reasons:

1, the arguments advanced by both sides in this debate often and often quite purposefully blur that very distinction.

2, while we say that we do not legistlate morality -- gnerally prefering individual liberty over legislated moral norms -- that is clearly not always the case.  In fact, we legistlate all kinds of moral issues.  We simply don't talk about it as such because we tend to do so when there is broad agreement about the issue and simply assume "that's just the way things should be".


In fact, what we need is greater honesty about the fact that we legislate morality all the time -- sometimes from the right and sometimes from the left.  We could also use a greater level of awareness that such debates are often not between good and evil, but between competing goods -- some honored more fully by so-called conservtives and others by so-called liberals. 

I dont believe that this singular episode will change the anti-abortion movement into only a 'pro-life' movement. I have alway seen a subset of pro-life advocates in the anti-abortion movement - because they are trying to express that this is about deciding that a life should continue and they desire that the emphasis be on the positve aspect of their believes. It's more about controlling the message than changing the context of the message.

Of course, you are right.  By itself, this one case will not change a thing, but it can help a different set of people to shapre, if nt control, a conversation which typically accomplishes little good beyond providing intellectual ammunition for each side to lob verbal bombs (and sometimes worse) at their respective opponants.  Seize the moment!

Since the girl is not an adult will the sperm donor be arrested for rape? Apparently the girl is not financially able to support the sanctity of life baby, but who will be financially responsible for her - her parents, the federal government, pro life supporters - and how much will it cost to raise this kid to become a tax payer instead of a tax user.

How does your obvious snark and anger advance the conversation?  Why lable the father a "sperm donor"?  Because of his age?  Because it helps you feel better about feeling bad about him -- not for him, but about him?  And why confuse committtment to the sanctity of life -- however defined -- with economics?  Do you support the notion that potential parents should be means tested before being allowed to make a baby?  I mean it's an interesting idea -- if kind of scary.


My point is that you have actualy raised some potentially important points, points which deserve to be be considered regardless of when one thinks life begins, but because you do so with so msuch contempt for others, it's hard to take you as seriously as you deserve to be.

My cynical view is that many people who are pro-life want women to have a choice, if there is only one option, to not have the abortion. This is like the old Soviet elections where the people could vote for the one candidate the Communist party nominated. Or Henry Ford giving the customer of a Model T the choice of any color as long as it was black.

I appreciate your honesty and don't think you are at all cynical.  I think you have identified the heart of the issue.  We all want to feel that we have choices.  In fact, the ability to choose is one of the most dignifying human experiences, and coercion one of the least.  The divide her is between those willing to extend to others what they want for themselves, even when those others make a different choice.


I admit, that for those who truly believe that life begins at conception, this is a terrible bind to be in.  That said, I do not think their bind trumps others' freedom to choose.  Maybe if I shared their view I would....

No question here, just wanted to say that I missed you. It seems like it has been a while. Hope everything is going well as I look forward to your chats. Thanks for trying to carve up a small sane part of the internet where we can have civilized debates on tough topics.

Thank you.  Your support means a great deal.  Please spread the word, as this, as with most things in the media, is about numbers.  Quality too -- especially at the WPost -- but numbers also.

Most people are pro-choice when the choice is the one they endorse. This hardly makes the pro-life side "pro-choice" now, it just makes it more evident that they ought to be called anti-abortion rather than pro-life.

We agree about the first half of your comment, and it is what makes this such an important moment.  But if you are correct about people supporting the choice they endorse, then you would have to ask about the pro-choice community's refusal to look at how abortions could be reduced even as they protect the legal right to get one.  In fact, former President Clinton got into more than a little hot water with many in the pro-choice community when he spoke about the idea that abortions should be kept legal, safe and rare.  As with so many things he said, he found a middle ground that pleased few politcal pro's, yet resonated with much of the nation.

I really don't see how this is a reversal of roles, at least not for the pro-life camp. The fought for the rights of the unborn child to be born. Now, if the pro-choice side was supporting the parent's ability to require a minor to have an abortion, that would be against their claim of wanting to give mothers a choice, because it would take away her choice and give it to her parents.

They did NOT fight for the rights of the un-born to be born.  In fact, that argument would have had no legal standing.  Whether they like it or not, the attorney's who advocated for this young woman, made a powerful case for a woman's right to choose.

Is that sometimes people will choose differently than you want them to. If abortion advocates called themselves "pro-abortion," they would have to admit what they want. "Pro-life" is used a lot less by people who are anti-abortion than by the media.

You are certainly correct about the challenges of advocating for a choice you would not make, and ultimately doing so hinges on one's committemnt to the sacredness of the excercise of choice as an expression of human dignity.  And certainly both sides want to position themselves as "pro-something" as that is a much easier sell in American public culture.  But let's be clear, not all, or even most pro-choice folks are "pro-abortion", and the.  term pro-life is a creation of the movement, not the media.  Both those realities are functions of what I wrote above.

In your answer to "I Don't Think Changing the Term..." you said that there are a number of ways to address the issue of women using abortion as a means of birth control. Can you name those ways, please? I don't think I've really heard anyone focus on just that part of the issue.

First, there are real health risks linked to repeated surgical procedures, including abortions.  Second, there is real cultural risk when the removal of anything from one's system, including a potential, if not actual, life becomes trivialized.  There are plenty more, but that should suffice for now.


If you were asking about what we could so to avoid getting into this problem, that would include a sophisitcated, non-polarized, approach to sex education, birth control, the meaning and power of conception regardless of what one defines as a human life, etc.  It would require an honest reflection from abortion providers about their bias against keeping pregnancies, and and equally honest reflection by those opposed to women's choice about the absence of a real safety net which would make keeping those babies a more realisitc and healthy choice.

As always, there are so many more thoughtful comments and intelligent questions than I can address in an hour, but the hour is indeed at hand, and my hands are indeed tired!


Please look in the On Faith section later today, where I will answer a few more of your questions, and try to included some of those that were already answered here.  And please keep looking for the next installment of our ongoing conversation about the biggest questions emerging from the news of the day.


Until then, I wish you peace.

In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Brad Hirschfield is a public ethicist, author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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