Defining the Abortion Debate

By Alexander, Mary S. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Defining the Abortion Debate


Alexander, Mary S., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


MY FRIEND LEXI once said that when she looks at newborn babies she sees the "wisdom of the ages" in their eyes. I did not see this "wisdom" then and, now that I have my own little girl, I still don't. But I do understand why Lexi and I are not communicating. For me, "wisdom" has something to do with language and time-binding. It is something we pass on from generation to generation, something acquired with age. Hence the phrase "wise beyond her years." For Lexi, wisdom has something to do with being uninhibited and at one with nature. If I use her definition, I can agree, babies do have the wisdom of the ages in thier eyes. But I don't like her definition because it goes against what I consider to be the most important of human characteristics: the ability to share knowledge. So, we have agreed to disagree.

Of course, we are friends and it is easy for us to do this. We agree to disagree about all sorts of things that are not that important and allow us to maintain our friendship. But there are times when people are unable to reach this kind of compromise. Sometimes definitions are so concrete or so un-examined that it becomes impossible for people to speak to ane another. Postman has called this "definition tyranny." He describes the problem here:

Some people are greatly tyrannized by definitions. They seem unable to put any distance between themselves and a system's way of defining things...What I am talking about is people who have so internalized a definition that they cannot even imagine an alternative way of seeing matters. They make a definition into the definition, and, as a consequence, sharply limit their ability to evaluate what is happening to them (1976, p. 188).

One of the most heated, angry, and irreconcilable instances of definition tyrany is in the abortion debate. As a nation, we seem to be locked into the stupid and simplistic expressions of each side. As the Pro-choice faction screams accusations of backward thinking, religious fanaticism, and male domination; the Pro-life group counters with cries of baby killers, satan-worshippers, and inhumanity. These slogans make a true debate impossible. Neither side is willing to stop yelling and consider the perspective of their opposition. Each group is trapped by a definition of life that leaves no room for compromise.

In a moment of disgust and exasperation, I began thinking about these definitions. I am uncomfortable with continued non-communication so I tried to examine these two movements by using Hayakawa's abstraction ladder (1990). I was hoping to find some agreement, some general principle that both sides could believe. Unfortunately, no matter how high up that abstraction ladder I climbed, I still could not find this magical resolution. Instead, I found a fundamental difference in how the Pro-choice and Pro-life groups define life. I believe this difference has to do with time, that is, tenses. The Pro-life movement lives in the future tense and the Pro-choice movement lives in the present tense.

For the Pro-life movement, in general, life happens in the future. This may seem counterintuitive because they define life as beginning at conception, but the reasons for this definition have to do with the future. Their concern does not rest with the woman or teenager who already exists. They don't care if a woman feels that having a baby will destroy her chances for a productive life. They are concern with what the new life will bring. Is it a Mozart, a Shakespeare, a Messiah?

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the Pro-life movement is associated with religious fundamentalism. Religion is, by its very nature, oriented toward the future. It asks that we wait for a better world, that we give up our self-control and trust that God knows best. To abort an unwanted pregnancy is to fly in the face of God's plan. From this point of view, it is vanity to believe that we can control our fate. …

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