Civility and the Term "Anti-Abortion":

On a discussion list I'm on, one of the members -- a law professor -- complained about others' use of the term "anti-abortion" (e.g., "anti-abortion legislators" or "taking an anti-abortion position") to describe abortion opponents; such a term, he reasoned, violated canons of "civility and respect," at least those applicable to academic discourse.

I'm a big believer in civility, but it seems to me that there's nothing uncivil about "anti-abortion" here. True, it's not the term that abortion opponents prefer; as I understand it, they generally prefer "pro-life." But that I want to be called something doesn't impose on others a manners obligation to conform their speech to my desires.

That's especially so when the term I choose is a term that others might find to be unduly flattering to my position, and inconsistent with their own view of the matter. If someone thinks that fetuses at an early enough stage of gestation aren't really "living," it's understandable that they wouldn't want to call anti-abortion forces "pro-life." Likewise, they might balk at the imprecision of "pro-life" -- in fact, pro-life forces may well favor capital punishment, lethal defensive force, just wars, and for that matter killing of animals.

"Pro-life" may well be a well-understood shorthand for supporting fetuses' right not to be aborted, so I don't fault abortion opponents for using it despite its imprecision. (I use it myself, just as I use "pro-choice.") But others may disapprove of the imprecision, conclude that the imprecision gives anti-abortion forces an unfair rhetorical benefit, and may therefore not want to use the term. (Of course, anti-abortion forces can quite reasonably refuse to use the term "pro-choice," for the same reason.)

People do have an obligation, both one of candor and of good manners, not to label others using imprecise and unfairly derogatory terms. Calling anti-abortion forces, for instance, "anti-choice" would qualify; in fact, all of us are against some kinds of choices, especially those kinds of choices that we think violate others' rights. Opponents of abortion are thus no more "anti-choice" than anti-slavery forces or anti-infanticide forces. One could of course argue that abortion is morally proper and slavery and infanticide are not; but "anti-choice" doesn't capture that argument, but only stresses opposition to "choice," which we all disapprove of in many instances.

On the other hand, "anti-abortion" is not imprecise, and (for similar reasons) not unfairly derogatory. I would think that most people who call themselves "pro-life" will happily agree that they oppose abortions -- not just abortion rights, but abortions (at least except in highly unusual circumstances). They are thus "anti-abortion" just like people who think drunk driving is bad and should be illegal are "anti-drunk-driving."

It's true that rhetorically many groups might prefer to focus on what they support, rather than on what they oppose; that may well politically benefit them. In that case, "anti-abortion" might not be politically optimal for opponents of abortion. But there is no manners obligation to refer to a group using the term that the group finds to be politically optimal -- especially, as I pointed out, when some people disagree that fetuses are "life" or think "pro-life" is otherwise inaccurate, and thus have plausible reasons of their own not to use a term whose pretty clearly visible derivation they do not endorse.

So I say it again: It's important to be polite, and politeness requires you to avoid certain words -- but it doesn't require you to avoid all words that people want you to avoid. It doesn't even require you to call all political groups by the labels they prefer. "Anti-abortion," in particular, is an accurate description of opponents of abortion, and strikes me as perfectly suitable for polite company, especially if you strongly disapprove of "pro-life."