labels speak a thousand words

finn dillon

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Pro-life and pro-choice are the two accepted sides of the abortion debate – framed as mutually exclusive labels.

Discussing abortion usually focuses on the substance of the topic, but is it possible the very labels of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are inhibiting progress within this area? Could adopting a different term achieve less exclusivity and more mutuality, advancing the common objective of reform?

The laws surrounding abortion focus largely on circumstances where there would be health consequences to the mother or baby if an abortion was not allowed. The current law does not provide women with a choice to have an abortion; rather it provides exceptions to the general rule that abortions are illegal. If a woman satisfies one of the exceptions listed in s187A of the Crimes Act 1961, she will be permitted to have an abortion. If she fails to meet one of the exceptions, it will be a criminal offence for her to have an abortion.

This is Parliament saying, “We will only recognize an abortion as lawful under limited circumstances which we have designed.” How do the two sides of the debate reconcile the current law?

On one side, people argue that if we allow too much choice to fall in the hands of the women who become pregnant an abuse of process could occur as there would be far less deterrent for falling pregnant. Thus advocating that women shouldn’t have unfettered choice, due to the importance of taking responsibility and being accountable for your actions. You could call these people anti-abortion activists, religious conservatives, or maybe you could term them as “pro-life” supporters. This group tends to generally prefer the latter term, and this is the term used to capture this side of the debate. This argument is generally based on the understanding that sacredness of life overrides personal struggles and inconvenience.

What about those who hold the contrary view? Some of these people believe women should have total discretion about whether to get an abortion when they fall pregnant. This is based on beliefs that women should have total control over their body and subsequent decisions relating to their body – including potential pregnancies. The phrasing of ‘pro-choice’ has been used to reflect the inherent argument behind this stance; as opposed to saying you are ‘pro-abortion’ which may not correctly capture everyone’s opinion in this camp.

Specific phraseology chosen to use to reflect public opinion and personal beliefs is not accidental.

This is not limited to abortion, but all kinds of issues of reform, and politicians are constantly selecting their words carefully to advance their objectives – using certain words and phrases as vehicles to drive emotive responses from the public and ultimately influence legislation. This is also relevant to the media, seen through the agenda setting theory; news sources provide definitions of issues and consequently determine the terms of future discussion and frame problems in a particular way.

For a comparison and analysis, we will use the example of the issue of high levels of dairy robberies. The media may frame this issue in a number of ways: perhaps it’s a problem of cigarette price rises, or maybe the market saturation of dairies has lead to them being an easy target, or perhaps it’s poverty in general that is leading to the rise in robberies. These are all competing interpretations of ‘reality’, and whichever approach the media choses to focus on – if it catches on – will become the accepted interpretation of the ‘reality’ of this issue.

Consequently, because agenda setting theory also suggests that the issues getting the most media attention are the issues of most importance to the public, politicians will thus adjust their policies accordingly. Bringing it back to abortion now, the media may frame this issue and interpret the ‘reality’ of this issue in a number of ways, but the prevailing framing hitherto has become one of ‘pro-life’ vs. ‘pro-choice’. If this is the ‘reality’ of the abortion debate, and consequently the competing thoughts politicians weigh up when considering law reform and new policy surrounding abortion, the next question to then ask is does this actually reflect reality? Is it the correct interpretation of reality?

In 2017, the Abortion Law Reform Association released poll results that can help us identify what the reality of the abortion issue is. These results at a glance are as follows.

Respondents were asked if they supported abortion being legal in a number of situations.

Pregnant woman is likely to die without an abortion

  • Legal: 77 per cent
  • Illegal: 5 per cent
  • Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

Pregnant woman’s health is likely to be permanently harmed without an abortion

  • Legal: 76 per cent
  • Illegal: 6 per cent
  • Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

Fetus has no chance of survival

  • Legal: 76 per cent
  • Illegal: 6 per cent
  • Unsure/refuse: 18 per cent

Pregnancy is the result of rape

  • Legal: 73 per cent
  • Illegal: 8 per cent
  • Unsure/refused: 18 per cent

Pregnancy is a result of birth control failure

  • Legal: 55 per cent
  • Illegal: 24 per cent
  • Unsure/refused: 21 per cent

Pregnant woman can’t afford to have another child

  • Legal: 54 per cent
  • Illegal: 27 per cent
  • Unsure/refused: 20 per cent


What these statistics show us is that the dichotomy of the two terms used at present are too rigid and don’t reflect the sliding scale of viewpoints. One may think abortions should be permitted for women who have become pregnant as a result of sexual assault, but do not think they should be permitted if it is a result of birth control failure. Such a person does not sit squarely under the ‘pro-choice’ label, and a lack of space for these nuanced perspectives deters people from engaging in the issue altogether.

The consequence of disengagement has meant ‘pro-choice’ is rife with definitional contentions within their own faction, rather than presenting a united movement for reform. While all of those who would identify themselves within this group agree on reform, their ideas of particular reform are at odds and thus there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive driving force strong enough to influence legislators to want to make those changes. As the current legislation reflects quite plainly a ‘pro-life’ approach, the ‘pro-choice’ group has the task of altering the status quo.

Instead of continuing to frame this issue as it currently is – ‘pro-choice’ vs. ‘pro-life’ – those wanting change should form a larger, stronger, and more cohesive unit under the title of ‘pro-reform’. The theory here is the belief that there are more ‘pro-reformers’ than ‘pro-choicers’, and ‘pro-reformers’ will be able to do what ‘pro-choicers’ cannot: form a large enough voting demographic that politicians will be forced to acknowledge them or fear not being elected or re-elected.

Pro-reform is a wider term than pro-choice and still manages to advance the objectives of bringing the issues of the current abortion provisions to the attention of legislators. Once that has happened and we have secured the attention of lawmakers, then there will be an arena to enter the discussions surrounding the particulars of reform. Since ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ evoke so much emotion from people due to the strong values those stances represent, framing the issue as one needing reform generally is much less distracting and doesn’t halt the discussion before it can truly begin.

The benefit of the ‘pro-reform’ label

We have what has been described as “one of the most restrictive pieces of abortion legislation in the Western world” – contained in the Crimes Act 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortion Act passed in 1977. Yet we have one of the highest rates of abortions compared to other Western countries.


Although the legislation is strict, it is being practiced much more loosely as medical practitioners and women have to stretch wording and subvert the process in order to obtain a just result. Whether you support the current legislation surrounding abortions or not, the law as Parliament has set is not working satisfactorily. There are month long waits to get access to the treatment and the stigma is so strong it keeps some people away all together. Whether Parliament intends to widen availability of abortions or not, they should at least make sure the current laws they are responsible for are actually operative.

Moving abortion to different legislation; such as the Health Act from the Crimes Act, could improve the process and functionality of the law. Currently, women have to jump through a number of legal hoops to obtain an abortion, which contributes to 45% of abortions being carried out after the 10th week of pregnancy. If decriminalised, the procedure could be more accessible, safer, and law compliant. This would advance best medical practice and provide for less intrusive procedures. Furthermore, it would diminish the need for shady, ‘behind closed doors’, abortions which can result in serious harm to the women – a sad irony of our current legislation that prioritises the health of the woman over their choice.


The exceptionally slow pace at which New Zealand’s approach to abortion law has progressed is highlighted by comparisons to decades old accounts of women’s horrific experiences in the US, because it was illegal at the time. Such recounts are not historical in New Zealand, rather they could be pieces of contemporary news. Furthermore, Trump’s new appointment to the Supreme Court now puts Roe v Wade – the authoritative case declaring a women’s right to an abortion under the American Constitution – in jeopardy, causing fears that abortion may be made illegal on a federal level again. It seems that the US may reform their abortion law, regressing into the same position as the current New Zealand law stands. 


Framing the issue as ‘pro-life’ vs. ‘pro-choice’ ultimately makes the abortion debate more contentious than it already is and distracts from the actual reality – that the current law is inadequate and ineffective and there seems to be strong support for reform in general. The point is we should be calling for “abortion reform” generally, but this hasn’t happened yet because the extremity of the two ends of the spectrum makes people feel uncomfortable about choosing a side.

The nuances of the debate around abortion law cannot be constrained to ‘pro-choice’ vs. ‘pro-life’, but unfortunately those are the labels we have been given. Thus perhaps labelling oneself as “pro-reform” better reflects the reality that abortion laws in New Zealand are desperately in need of reform – regardless of which camp you pitch your tent in.