A Pro-Choice Argument for English Majors
COLUMBUS — With the recent introduction of a total abortion ban in the state of Ohio, the real meaning of seemingly arbitrary words has never felt more relevant. The proposed legislation is very focused on the definition of the word person and it could determine a lot more than you might think.
As a young woman studying English in undergrad, I spend a lot time thinking about words and their meanings. Like anyone who dreams of someday becoming a writer, I know that the words we choose to describe the world matter — just ask Donald Trump’s Twitter feed or the Anti-Vaxx Mom’s on Facebook. Language is the king of social media and arguably the key to understanding the most important issues of our time. I am often struck by the way in which this is overlooked in the abortion argument altogether.
It is important to understand that words are not stationary creatures. They evolve with time; breathe like beings with their own minds in everyday life. Words hold social context and emotional connotation; make us feel things and form ideas.
This is why words such as love are so deeply personal to the beholder. Although we may pronounce them the same, a simple conversation with a person on the street will reveal their only universal truth — there is none. Any lawyer, English professor, ethicist, or philosopher can tell you as much. Yet it isn’t a topic that most people ever stop to consider, despite the fact that it has wide-ranging implications for most of the modern issues of our time — specifically abortion rights.
It’s easy to understand why this is the case when you begin to examine the definition of personhood, which is usually regarded as more of a concept than your typical definable word in the Dictionary. The real error takes place when someone assumes that the word person automatically equals human, or potential for human in the pro-life argument. However, this is is not the case. While it can be attributed to human beings, personhood is actually a deeply philosophical and legal term that is used to give a being or thing rights. This is why many marginalized groups in American history were not considered legal persons until they were given rights under the law. Who or what is a person is solely decided by the state or government. Lake Erie is now even considered a person and many would argue that animals should be considered so as well.
Not only is personhood an entirely legal and philosophical concept by definition, but it’s also a bioethical one. What is or is not a person, down to the smallest cell, have massive repercussions for modern medicine. I myself have had to deal with this on a more personal level — I got a bone marrow transplant. Organ and stem cell donation are both reliant on the universal acceptance that a person has right to their own anatomy and where and to whom that organ or blood goes to, unless the person donating is declared diseased (and even then they must consent before death in the United States).
I am literally alive today because someone I don’t know blessed me with their bone marrow — but they didn’t have to do that. I am not, nor should I be, owed their bone marrow just because it could save my life. In the same way, a woman’s unborn child is not obligated to the mother’s body just because it needs it to stay alive. The mother has to consent.
By definition, if we did live in a legal system that attributed personhood and rights to an unborn fetus, we would also be opening up the flood gates to giving lots of other things personhood. If a clump of cells in a woman’s body at 6 weeks is a person, to be protected with rights and a social security number, then why can’t my kidney be one too? I would argue that my kidney most certainly should be, under that criteria. And if my Kidney is a person, and I kill my kidney on accident, then I should go to prison for the rest of my life.
Hidden in these definitions is the absurdity of the pro-life argument. Kidneys cannot experience suffering or react with emotional understanding, but they hold the potential for life for another person. If you believe that a Kidney should be a person, with a legal rights like you and me, then I guess that the pro-life argument works by definition. If not, and you simply believe that God told you so, then we would need to have a very clear and agreed understanding of exactly whose God we’re both going to be referring to.
All of these definitions are important to our understanding of abortion rights. I hesitate to talk about abortion as even simply a women’s health issue — we live in an era when our definition of the term woman isn’t even stationary, not that it ever has been before. When we talk about Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life narratives, it’s important to make sure that we’re not only defining words the same way, but we’re acknowledging that they also have broader legal and medical implications. This isn’t a moral or religious issue at all. Instead, perhaps it should be sorted out by simply consulting a dictionary.