Pro-Both      Preserving Life by Promoting Choice

Why Call Yourself Pro-Both?

Why should you call yourself "pro-both" rather than "pro-choice" or "pro-life?" There are really two faces to this question. First is a basic one of values. Do you believe in the pro-both message? Second is one of political strategy. Does injecting the pro-both label into the abortion debate advance it in a desirable direction?

We have argued the case for the pro-both philosophy from values on another page. This page considers it from the point of view of political strategy. Can we change the world for the better by calling ourselves "pro-both" instead of "pro-life" or "pro-choice"?

The Abortion Deadlock

Certainly something needs to be done about the state of the abortion question in American politics. The issue has become completely deadlocked. Almost everyone seems to be firmly in the pro-life or the pro-choice camp. Based on current abortion rates, it is believed that a third of all American women will exercise their right to have an abortion sometime in their lives, though few of them will ever speak about it in public. This hints at the fact that there is a strong, deep, and mostly silent resistance to the idea of banning abortion in the nation. There is virtually no chance that abortion could be banned in the country in the foreseeable future, though continued gradual erosion of abortion is probable, as smaller encroachments on abortion tend not to arouse the silent resistance.

So the deadlock persists. Neither pro-lifers nor pro-choicers will see their goals achieved. Women's rights will be eroded but abortion will not be stopped. Very little will be achieved on either side. I have in these pages compared the pro-both approach to reducing abortion to the alternative of illegalizing abortion. But in practical political terms, that isn't even the real alternative. The real alternative is continuation of the current deadlock. It's pro-both or nothing.

This deadlock not only prevents any kind of substantial progress on the issue of abortion, it also leads to a broader polarization of society. Many people define their politics based on the abortion issue, and cast their votes based on this one unsolvable issue. This reinforces a general political paralysis on many issues, and impairs our nation's ability to work effectively on many other issues.

The question of abortion, important in itself, has grown to be about more than abortion. It has become the Gordian Knot of American politics.

The Power of Names

Though "pro-both" is just a name, names have immense power. The names "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were very carefully chosen by the supporters and opponents of legal abortion to highlight their best arguments and encapsulate the basic values that drive their cause. If the pro-choice movement had called itself "pro-abortion" instead, it would be a completely different entity, and it's support would be much narrower. The pro-life too would be narrower and less popular if it were called the "anti-abortion" movement. It would not, for example, seem as applicable to questions like euthanasia.

The items on the pro-both agenda really aren't very new. All the policies described there are things that have been pursued by various organizations for decades. Views on abortion not very different from those presented here have been common for years. They have, however, been below the radar of most Americans. While many people vote for candidates based on their stance on the legality of abortion, few pay much attention to questions of sex education and contraception, even though they are extremely relevant to the abortion question. Putting a name to the pro-both agenda gives it cohesiveness and clarity.

When I first started arguing that what the nation should be doing is not so much arguing over the legality of abortion, but looking for ways to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, I found the response strange. I was making some unusual arguments, but I would always get the same old replies. It was as if the people I was talking to would listen just long enough to define me either as pro-life or pro-choice and then they would stop listening and reply as if I had said the usual pro-life or pro-choice things. Only when I adopted the pro-both label was I able to get people to acknowledge that I was saying something different, and that a different response was needed.

The names we use to label these causes effect they way we think about them. In liberal circles, there has recently been much discussion of the power of names in politics, notably by George Lakoff, who calls the conceptual structure associated with a word a frame. Some credit the rise of the right in American politics to the effective use of framing.

My original problem was that most people thinking about abortion had only two frames to work with: pro-life and pro-choice. People always try to fit new data into old frames. That is what frames are for. They give us a way to relate new information to our knowledge of the world. The name "pro-both" is effective first because the word itself subverts any attempt to fit it into either old frame. It demands of the listener that they figure out what it means, and think about how it relates to their established views. It's a term that gets people thinking. That's the first step to breaking the deadlock.

The Pro-Both Challenge to Pro-Life

Of course, getting people thinking would be pointless if you don't actually give them something worthwhile to think about. Pro-both is just a name, but there are some serious ideas behind it. When we ask people who think of themselves as pro-life or pro-choice whether they are actually pro-both, we are issuing a challenge.

If you are pro-life, then you probably base that position on a belief in the sanctity of life and the immorality of killing innocent human beings. The pro-both position, of course, agrees with you completely on those points. If you want to argue that you are pro-life, but not pro-both, then the pro-both challenge is for you to argue not that abortion is bad, but that the best way to deal with the problem of abortion is to illegalize it. That we should stop abortion through repressive police actions aimed at controlling women, rather than by seeking ways to give people more perfect control of their reproductive destiny.

If you are among the minority of pro-life people who believe that contraceptive devices are inherently evil, then you will certainly find much to object to in the pro-both agenda. I confess to being hard-pressed to understand the moral justification for that stance. How does it make sense to oppose both abortion and the prevention of abortion? The AIDS epidemic only makes this position more puzzling.

The Pro-Both Challenge to Pro-Choice

If you are pro-choice, then that is probably because you believe in a woman's right to determine what goes on in her own body, without intrusion by the government. Pro-both agrees with and supports that right. If you want to argue that you are pro-choice, but not pro-both, then the pro-both challenge is for you to argue that abortion is so benign that society should not even try to make it unnecessary. That it is no worse than trimming a fingernail and shouldn't concern anyone.

Though the pro-both challenges to pro-life and pro-choice groups may seem somewhat similar at first glance, they are different in a fundamental way.

To change from pro-life to pro-both means keeping the same goal, but abandoning nearly all of the old methods of achieving it. Nearly everything that groups like Right To Life do contradicts the pro-both agenda. It is only in their goals that pro-both and pro-life are alike. This is obviously no easy step to take.

To change from pro-choice to pro-both does not require as dramatic a change in methods. In fact, groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL already advocate contraceptives, broad sex education, and nearly everything else on the pro-both agenda.

But changing from pro-choice to pro-both requires a shift in goals. Nearly all pro-choice people say they consider abortion to be a bad thing, but to be pro-both requires raising that belief to equality with their belief in freedom of choice. Many pro-choice people are reluctant to do that, because it appears to weaken the case for keeping abortion legal. It means giving up the arguments that say abortion isn't really so bad, and relying exclusively on our belief in the right of women to control their bodies. I believe that is actually a stronger assertion of the rights of women, but for people who have spent their lives fighting for the legal right to an abortion, abandoning any defense is a difficult step.

In fact, I think that if the U.S. Supreme Court ever again takes up the question of Roe vs. Wade, a pro-both defense might well do better than a traditional pro-choice defense. The key question would be whether the State has a suffiently compelling interest to justify the intrusion into women's privacy that illegalizing abortion would require. What if we can show that there are means by which the State can reduce abortion that do not infringe on the rights of women? Clearly the State's compelling interest evaporates if that is the case. If I was a defense attorney, I'd much rather rely on that argument than on the argument that the life of a fetus isn't valuable. Pro-both provides that argument.


For many people committed to the pro-life or pro-choice movements, there is another problem with the pro-both agenda. To take up with this new, upstart approach means abandoning your old allies. What if it turns out that only people from your old side join this new movement? What if your defection weakens your side, giving victory to the other?

The distrust between the pro-life and pro-choice camps is very deep. Even if the whole pro-both argument makes perfect sense to you, the very idea of conceding anything to those other people, of actually allying with some of them may seem unacceptable.

What can I say? There are people of honor and good will on both sides of this debate. If we can't trust across the lines, then there really is no hope left for America. Have courage. Have faith.

In the end, this is what pro-both is really about. It's the real challenge that it presents to both people on both the pro-life and pro-choice side: giving up the idea that the people in the other camp are your enemies. Giving up the idea that there is a war to be fought and that victory has to go to one side or the other. Let's forget all that and all win.


Pro-both offers a challenge to all parties in the abortion debate, but it also offers hope. Hope to break the deadlock. Hope to move forward. Hope to solve our problems instead of fighting over them.

I hope you, dear reader, will give these questions due consideration, and lend your support where it will best serve your nation.

Copyright April 2005 - Jan D. Wolter