‘Pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are too-rigid terms, don’t reflect the sliding scale of views on abortion and are hampering reform writes Finn Dillon 

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 ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are inhibiting progress in this area? Could adopting different terms 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 were 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 recognise 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 women too much choice an abuse of process could occur, as there would be far less deterrence for becoming pregnant. Furthermore, you could argue that we would be diminishing the important value of taking responsibility for your actions and being accountable. Thus, it is argued there should not be unfettered choice. You could call these people anti-abortion activists, religious conservatives, or maybe you could term them pro-life supporters. This group tends to prefer the latter term, and this is the one 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? At the extreme of this point of view, these people would allow a woman to have complete discretion about whether to get an abortion when she becomes pregnant. 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 capture that you are not ordinarily okay with the destruction of potential life.

Specific phraseology chosen to reflect public opinion and personal beliefs is not accidental. This is not limited to abortion, but is true of all kinds 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, when considered 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. 

The media could frame abortion and interpret the ‘reality’ of the issue in a number of ways, but the prevailing framing has become one of pro-life vs pro-choice. If this is the ‘reality’ of the debate, and consequently the competing thoughts politicians weigh up when considering law reform and new policy surrounding abortion, the next question to ask is does this actually reflect reality? 

In 2017, the Abortion Law Reform Association released poll results that can help us identify that reality. 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 percent
Illegal: 5 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 18 percent

Pregnant woman’s health is likely to be permanently harmed without an abortion
Legal: 76 percent
Illegal: 6 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 18 percent

Fetus has no chance of survival
Legal: 76 percent
Illegal: 6 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 18 percent

Pregnancy is the result of rape
Legal: 73 percent
Illegal: 8 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 18 percent

Pregnancy is a result of birth control failure
Legal: 55 percent
Illegal: 24 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 21 percent

Pregnant woman can’t afford to have another child
Legal: 54 percent
Illegal: 27 percent
Unsure/refused to answer: 20 percent

What these statistics show is that the dichotomy of the two terms used at present is too rigid and does not 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 the pro-choice side of the debate is rife with definitional contentions, rather than presenting a united movement for reform. While all those who would identify themselves within this group agree on reform, their ideas of particular reform are at odds and so there does not seem to be a cohesive driving force strong enough to influence legislators to want to make changes. 

Instead of continuing to frame the issue as pro-choice vs pro-life, those wanting change should form a larger, stronger and more cohesive unit under the title pro-reform. The theory here is 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 does not 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, Sterilisation and Abortion Act passed in 1977. Yet we have one of the highest rates of abortions compared with other Western countries. 


Although the legislation is strict, it is being practised 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 it 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 altogether. Whether Parliament intends to widen availability of abortions or not, it should at least make sure the current laws it is responsible for are actually operative. 

Moving abortion to different legislation, such as to 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 percent 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 a woman over her choice. 

Framing abortion as pro-life vs pro-choice ultimately makes the 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. We should be calling for such reform, but this hasn’t happened because the extremity of the two ends of the spectrum makes people feel uncomfortable about choosing a side. 

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in The Hive, a bimonthly publication where student volunteers of the Victoria University of Wellington-based Wellington Community Justice Project explore current social and cultural issues. 

Finn Dillon is in his fifth year studying for a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Commerce at Victoria University of Wellington.

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