Rhetoric in the Abortion Debate

When it comes to the abortion debate, it’s hard not to notice words being wielded about like weapons on a battlefield. One look at the opposing sides of the issue and it’s clear that the question of who’s right in the abortion debate is mixed up in rhetorical battle. On the pro-life side, terms like “pro-abortion” and “anti-life” are often used to describe those in favour of abortion. On the pro-choice side of the issue, the term “anti-choice” is used in the same way, referring to those opposed to abortion. These terms exist as an appeal to sympathizers of either cause. Those fighting for the right to life identify their opponents as those in opposition to life. For this reason, the use of the terms “pro-abortion” or “anti-life” are powerful rhetorical tools because they place those in favour of abortion in direct opposition to the defence of life. Likewise, the term “anti-choice” places self-proclaimed “pro-lifers” in opposition to a woman’s freedom to choose.

Rhetoric, of course, extends beyond the labelling of those in favour of and opposed to abortion. Within the abortion debate, the way in which the unborn are labelled and described plays a much more important role than the labels “pro-abortion” and “anti-choice”. In the lefthand corner of the ring stand “pre-born” and “unborn child”. In the righthand corner, “fertilized egg” and “clump of cells”. These four terms can be observed within the wrestling ring that is public discourse, battling it out. Again, the importance of the use of such terms in the abortion debate cannot be denied. While “pre-born” and “unborn child” give life and humanity to the foetus, “fertilized egg” and “clump of cells” objectify it. In the first case, “fertilized egg” suggests a lack of change after conception; because it is still an “egg”, though fertilized, it belongs to the woman and, therefore, may be removed without remorse. In the second example, the foetus is exactly what it is described as and therefore possesses no life.

What is the point of this analysis, then? Yes, labels are placed in the abortion debate to support the argument of either side of the issue. Yes, a rhetorical battle ensues, even as you read this article. So what? Well, the terms describing the unborn are far more important to the debate than the terms describing the opposition. While the latter targets the opposition, labelling them as fundamentally opposed to either the right to life or the right to choose, the former has the power to directly affect a woman’s decision to abort or keep her child, and this makes all the difference.

So, is there any connection between the two labelling systems? Does the labelling of the opposition connect in some way to the labelling of the unborn? Do they support each other, the one building upon the other? While the rhetoric of those opposed to abortion is consistent (“anti-life” and “unborn child” both work to focus the issue on the life and humanity of the unborn), the rhetoric of those in favour is not. The term “anti-choice” focusses the debate on the right of women to choose but “fertilized egg” and “clump of cells” primarily work to demonstrate the absence of life in the unborn. The woman’s right to choose is dependant upon this demonstration and follows secondarily in the argument. Both sides, then, focus the more important defining of terms upon the humanity, or lack thereof, of the unborn. Therefore, through the analysis of the rhetorics of the abortion debate and the unanimous acknowledgement, through these rhetorics, of the importance of the identification of the unborn as either human or not human, it follows that the resting point of the debate is not upon the right of a woman to choose but, rather, upon the right of the unborn to live. In other words, both pro-life and pro-choice rhetoric demonstrates that the humanity of the unborn must be established before the question of a woman’s right to choose is answered.

For those fighting for the right to life, the question of the humanity of the unborn must be kept in mind when engaging the public sphere. While one can easily get caught up in terminology, the central point must always be that the unborn are human beings deserving of life. Focussing our speech upon the humanity of the unborn is far more powerful than pro-choice rhetoric and it will be this tool, along with love and compassion, which will win the battle. While labelling may sway some, proclaiming the humanity inherent in the unborn will change hearts and minds. Though this article is an analysis of words, the heart of the matter is about much more. In a culture which denies the humanity of the unborn, in a country which permits abortion until the moment of birth, who will protect those who cannot protect themselves? In Canada, approximately 100,000 lives are cut short every year as a result of abortion. Will you be a voice for the voiceless?


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