Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation
If you say the word “abortion,” what type of reaction do you get? Depending on the company, you may get a spectrum of responses from horrified to hushed.
For this, we can thank the vilification of abortion not only in practice but also in speech by religious extremists who seek to impose their worldview on a secular nation. As secularists, we must stand up for abortion by saying its name.
Much like “atheism” (the other “A word”), abortion is made to be synonymous with evil and diabolical acts. In truth, abortion is nothing more than a medical term. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, abortion means “a procedure to end a pregnancy. It uses medicine or surgery to remove the embryo or fetus and placenta from the uterus. The procedure is done by a licensed health care professional.”
Abortions are actually considered to be one of the safest medical procedures. Over 99 percent of abortions are completed without serious complications. Moreover, abortion is extremely common, with 25 percent of women in the United States having an abortion before they are 45 years old.
However, despite its safety and commonality, our culture seems to feel more comfortable with saying words like “termination,” “procedure,” and “the right to choose” when discussing abortion. We don’t do this with other medical terms like “tonsillectomy” or “colonoscopy” — medical procedures that are far riskier than abortions. It’s time that we stop living in fear of saying the word “abortion.”
President Biden, arguably one of the most visible supporters of abortion rights in the United States, has also been silent on the word. At a time when abortion advocacy is needed more than ever, Biden appears to try to placate his own Catholic Church that wishes to deny him Communion by not saying the word. As noted in a piece in the New York Times, his “avoidance [of the word ‘abortion’ is] so noticeable that one women’s health group has created a website tracking his reluctance, DidBidenSayAbortionYet.org.” (Spoiler alert: He hasn’t.)
It shouldn’t be lost on any of us that the disdain for abortion relates to other female-oriented words that are considered dirty. Euphemisms such as “that time of the month” serve as a substitute for “menstruation” and “private part” for “vagina.” The impetus for this can be seen in religious texts of various faiths that describe menstruating women as “unclean.” In the Christian bible, Genesis 3:14 decrees that women be cursed with have severely painful childbirths. And yet, the bible doesn’t say anything about abortion. In fact, the bible says that life begins at first breath.
Even still, the religious subjugation of women permeates so deeply into our vernacular that abortion, a simple woman’s medical procedure, is severely attacked as an affront to religion.
Abortion is a word that we shouldn’t fear. In fact, abortion can be a force for good. Indeed, Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF’s principal co-founder and an abortion rights activist, titled her provocative book Abortion is a Blessing. Published in 1975, just two years after Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right in the United States, her groundbreaking text explained the importance of challenging the vocabulary that is used by the Religious Right. Gaylor wrote: “Those who oppose abortion are not ‘right-to-lifers,’ they are anti-abortionists or compulsory-pregnancy people. Those who adhere to the pure Catholic doctrine, and do not believe in abortion even to save a woman’s life (and there are a surprising number of these on the speaking circuit), quite properly can be described as being against the right to life for women.”
But more so than challenging the vocabulary of the Religious Right, we must also challenge ourselves. As Gaylor declared, “Euphemisms are not honest.” When we play into the Religious Right’s hand of fearing the word “abortion,” we make it easier for them to pass abstinence-only sex education programs, provide funding to anti-science Crisis Pregnancy Clinics, and penalize health facilities like Planned Parenthood.
For example, 2021 is on track to be a record-setting year for anti-abortion legislation — with more than 561 abortion restrictions introduced since January. In fact, eight states have introduced legislation that would establish fetal personhood. Additionally, the ultraconservative Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an anti-abortion case that could effectively overturn Roe v. Wade. This unsettling news signals that this is no time to be quiet about abortion rights.
There are a number of initiatives that we must ask our members of Congress to support:
- The removal of the Hyde Amendment from appropriations bills to make abortion care available on federal insurance plans, including Medicaid.
- The EACH Act, which would permanently end the Hyde Amendment.
- The permanent lifting of unnecessary bans on medication abortions by the FDA.
- The Women’s Health Protection Act, which guarantees a federal right to abortion.
- The Global Her Act, which would permanently end the Global Gag Rule and protect abortion rights all over the world.
We can also donate to the Women’s Medical Fund, which was co-founded by Gaylor, and helps an average of 900-1,000 Wisconsin residents obtain affordable abortion care each year. You can make a tax-deductible donation here.
And, perhaps most importantly, let’s destigmatize abortion by saying the word “abortion.”