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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Defining the Abortion Debate


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.