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December 8, 2021

Taking on Thomas Friedman: Why I am not pro-choice

By JOHN CORBETT | November 29, 2012

Recently, I came across an article in The New York Times by op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman which dealt with a topic that rarely generates fruitful discussion—abortion. After a few minutes of reading, it became clear to me that the article, entitled, “Why I Am Pro-Life,” was making a unique argument: rather than rehashing the usual talking points of either side of the abortion debate, Friedman was undertaking a larger critique of the misleading nature of activist terms such as “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”

Friedman argues compellingly that “pro-life” cannot be used to describe someone who believes that abortion is wrong, but who has no objection to other behaviors and policies that endanger life, such as unrestricted gun ownership or unregulated environmental standards. “We must stop letting Republicans name themselves ‘pro-life’ and Democrats as ‘pro-choice,’” he declares. “It is a huge distortion.”

This analysis strikes me as both correct and significant—“pro-life” is a reductive and oversimplified euphemism for a movement which seeks support not through transparency and reasoned argument, but rather by marketing itself as a position which any sane person could not rationally oppose (imagine an activist trying to explain why they are “pro-death” and you’ll see what I mean).

However, Friedman goes on to praise New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who he views as “the most ‘pro-life’ politician in America” and in the process deals a devastating blow to his original premise. In describing Bloomberg’s policies, he begins by saying, “While he supports a woman’s right to choose, he has also used his position to promote a whole set of policies that enhance everyone’s quality of life.”

Here’s the problem: after claiming that the use of the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are a huge distortion, he does just that, referring to Bloomberg’s support of legally protected abortions as support of a “woman’s right to choose.” In doing so, he accidentally alludes to the argument that he promised us he would make: for all of his arguments against the “pro-life” camp, the ideological inconsistencies inherent in the phrase “pro-choice” are just as bad. Since Friedman didn’t make this argument, I’ll do it for him.

Let’s be clear on this: Mayor Bloomberg does not support a woman’s right to choose; he supports a woman’s right to legally protected abortions. And there is a big difference between the two.

Take the example of firearms control. According to Friedman’s analysis, it seems reasonable to assume that Mayor Bloomberg supports the kind of “common sense firearm restrictions” Friedman discusses. Thus, Bloomberg would likely prefer to see a renewal of legislation like the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004. Ostensibly, Bloomberg supports such measures because he is “pro-life” by Friedman’s measure – he supports legislation which enhances life and protects it from endangerment. But Bloomberg also supports a woman’s “right to choose,” meaning that, according to Friedman, he is also “pro-choice” by the traditional definition. However—and I think that deep down, Friedman would agree with me —support of legally protected abortions is not sufficient to grant someone the title of “pro-choice.”

Look at it from the point of view of advocates and opponents of gun ownership. While most people would scratch their heads if proponents of gun control started referring to themselves as “pro-life” and defenders of the 2nd Amendment started calling their argument “pro-choice,” these descriptions roughly fit the gun debate about as well as they do the abortion debate. Some believe individuals should have the “choice” to own a fully automatic assault rifle, while others believe that guns lead to more violence, and could argue that banning them would be a “pro-life” stance.

The same reasoning has myriad applications on topics ranging from drug use to campaign finance reform. Should individuals be able to contribute unlimited amounts to the super PAC of their preferred political candidate? Should individuals be able to choose to put whatever substances they want into their body, even if that includes drugs commonly considered illicit? Should individuals have the freedom to choose not to have healthcare coverage, or should they be taxed unless they purchase it?

Nearly every major issue in our society can be framed in terms of the choice of individual actors, and whether one is “pro-choice” or “pro-something-else,” be it life, equality, or some other value. On many, and maybe even most of these issues, Michael Bloomberg would certainly not land on the pro-choice side. Case in point: just months ago, the New York City Board of Health approved one of Bloomberg’s initiatives — one which would ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. Bloomberg may support legal abortions, but not legal 20 ounce sodas. Assessed broadly, he is, for better or worse, one of the most anti-choice politicians in America. As such, to Thomas Friedman and others who seek to undertake a critique of activist terminology, I suggest the following advice: try not to fall victim to the same mistakes you’re critiquing.

In his article, Friedman proposes the following revised definition for the term pro-life: “pro-life,” he says, “can mean only one thing: ‘respect for the sanctity of life.’” In the spirit of Friedman’s definition, I propose the following corollary definition. “Pro-choice” can mean only one thing: “deference to personal liberty in all forms.” What “pro-life” is to social liberalism, “pro-choice” should be to social libertarianism. “Pro-choice” means supporting a woman’s choice to get an abortion, but also her choice to own a gun, or seven; to contribute unrestricted amounts of money to the political candidate of her choice; to use marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines, and to do all of these things without purchasing health care coverage. Anything less is an abuse of the term, just as misleading as pro-gun, anti-abortion conservatives calling themselves “pro-life.”

John Corbett is a sophomore Economics and International Studies double major from Portsmouth, R.I. He is a staff writer for the News-Letter.

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