The strange double-euphemization of abortion

One of the TV channels in Taiwan recently broadcast a program introducing the two main candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and I watched it with my wife.

One of the points it dealt with was Mr. Romney’s changing positions on the issue of abortion — and it managed to discuss the issue for some time without ever actually using the word abortion. It was all “a woman’s right to choose” and “Mr. Romney’s opinion on the subject of life” and other such evasions. Whoever was responsible for doing the Chinese subtitles didn’t bother to gloss these euphemisms, either, but rendered them literally. When, several minutes into the discussion, someone finally let the a-word slip, my wife said, “Oh, so that’s what they were talking about!”


Euphemism is of course rampant in the world of politics, but it’s unusual for both sides on an issue to feel the need to euphemize themselves. As I mentioned in this post, insistence on euphemisms for one’s own group is an expression of weakness or an admission of deviance, an acknowledgment that one needs euphemizing. The prissier a given group is about how they are referred to, the lower you can infer their social standing to be. And unilaterally deciding to euphemize a group which has not asked to be euphemized (as in “a gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion”) is an act of aggression, an assertion of social dominance. As such, euphemisms tend to be one-sided; the subordinate group euphemizes itself but the dominant group does not. In the case of the abortion debate, though, both sides prefer Orwellian crap about “life” and “choice” over straight talk.


Of the two euphemisms, pro-choice is the easier to understand, since no more direct option is really available. Pro-abortion is unacceptable because it implies that one is actually in favor of abortion itself, as opposed to believing merely that abortion should be legal. A person who thinks abortion should be legal isn’t necessarily “pro-abortion” any more than a person who opposes Prohibition is “pro-alcohol.” In the latter case, the convenient term anti-Prohibition is available, but nothing similar suggests itself in the case of abortion.

However, that logic applies only when a convenient one-word designation is needed. “Pro-choice candidates” is a more convenient phrase than “candidates who believe abortion should be legal” — but no comparable excuse can be made for locutions like “I support a woman’s right to choose,” no less wordy than the synonymous “a woman’s right to abortion.” Such expressions really can’t be seen as anything other than euphemisms — as tacit admissions that one is ashamed of one’s own position.

But still it makes sense for “pro-choice” people to euphemize their position. Abortion is an ugly word for an ugly act (something which even “pro-choice” people can recognize, precisely because they are not really “pro-abortion”), and it makes good political sense for its champions to avoid mentioning it directly.


Pro-life is harder to explain. Anti-abortion would be perfectly accurate (unlike pro-abortion for the other side), and it would seem to make good rhetorical sense to use raw, direct, un-euphemized terms for bad things which one is against. Anti-war activists chant “Stop the killing!” — not “Stop the defense!” — so what accounts for the “pro-life” camp’s reluctance to call a spade a spade?

One possibility is that what the pro-lifers want to euphemize away is not abortion, but anti-. Given our current culture’s aversion to anything that smacks of “negativity,” it may be that it’s always rhetorically better to define oneself as pro- something rather than anti-something. I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation, though, since no one seems to feel the need to euphemize anti-war or anti-rape movements.

A better explanation, I think is that both abortion and opposition to abortion need to be euphemized, but for different reasons. Abortion is euphemized because it is intrinsically unpleasant to consider, and opposition to abortion is euphemized because it is the culturally weaker of the two camps.

If this is the correct explanation, we should expect double-euphemization in cases where the culturally dominant (i.e., liberal) side of the controversy is also the more intrinsically unpleasant (bad or disgusting) one — and that rule does indeed seem to hold. Same-sex marriage is another controversy in which both sides prefer euphemisms like “marriage equality” and “defense of marriage” (or even just plain “marriage”, which, confusingly, can be used as a euphemism for either side!), and as with abortion it’s a controversy in which the “yucky” side is culturally dominant. The anti-war and anti-rape movements, on the other hand, are culturally dominant movements against “yucky” things and thus do not need to be euphemized.


Filed under Language, Politics, Rhetoric

2 responses to “The strange double-euphemization of abortion

  1. Maybe the euphemism of pro-life comes from the fact that pro-choice people control the public forum, and will not allow allow their opponents to ‘pre-judge’ the issue by using any less euphemistic terms?

  2. That’s essentially what I’m saying, Bruce — that pro-life has to be euphemized because the other side is socially dominant, while pro-choice has to be euphemized because abortion is intrinsically repulsive.

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