A brief history of a marketing masterpiece: branding the anti-abortion movement “pro-life”

Anti-choice does not sound as bad as anti-life.
Anti-choice does not sound as bad as anti-life.
Image: Patsy Lynch/MediaPunch/IPX
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The day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, millions of people across America and the world took the streets to march against the new US president’s many positions and policies that would limit women’s ability to live as equals in the country. For many of the marchers, this included strongly voicing support for a woman’s right to choose.

Two days later, the president issued an executive order that cuts reproductive services for some of the most disadvantaged women in the world; on Friday (Jan. 27) the 44th March for Life, to protest against legal abortion, was held in Washington, DC with high-profile participants including vice president Mike Pence and Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway.

The debate over whether abortion is an expression of human rights or a violation of them is decades old, dating back to at least the 1930s, when the first movements demanding safe, legal abortions were born. The fight wasn’t always drawn so starkly along political lines. Today you can almost always figure out someone’s position abortion based on their political affiliation—Democrats are pro; Republicans are against. But that’s a relatively recent development, beginning in the 1970s when Democratic politicians started to align themselves with the feminist movement, and took a pro-choice stand. Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan (who had supported abortion previously in his career), ran and won a presidential campaign with a strong anti-abortion platform—forever turning the Republican party into the guardian of the Christian dogma that personhood begins at conception.

But it was well before 1980 that the movement to stop abortion made one of the smartest moves in the history of cause branding: labeling themselves “pro-life.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “pro-life” was first introduced to modern language in 1960 by A. S. Neill in his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (p.138), which promoted progressive parenting and citizen attitudes. Neill wrote, “no pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishments of homosexuals, our attitude towards bastardy.”

By the late 1960s, anti-abortion started to latch on to the “life” framing: the Right to Life League was founded in 1967 in California and the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life was launched in 1968. But it didn’t quite mean what it does today; in progressive circles at the time, you could be “pro-life” by being both anti-abortion and anti-war. “To be pro-life you have to be for all life,” said Sue Bastyr, a 21-year-old student from the University of Minnesota, to the Chicago Tribune in 1971.

Then, in Jan. 1973, the Supreme Court wrote the landmark Roe v. Wade decision declaring American women have the right to choose to have an abortion.  In response, anti-abortion groups began to mobilize rapidly. Part of their move towards organizing was deciding on what to call themselves; “pro-life” was chosen by movement leaders to put forth a positive image. The same month Roe v. Wade was decided, the first iteration of the Human Life Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw abortions, was introduced in congress.

It was a marketing masterstroke: the word “life” has been linked to the opposition of abortion since, and being “pro-life” has come to mean specifically opposing abortion—and not, for instance, opposing war or the death penalty. The success of the label is largely due to its ability to frame the issue not as standing against something (a woman’s choice) but in favor of it (life).

It has been so successful, in fact, that the opposition party was forced to adapt directly to it: the label “pro-choice” was created specifically to counter “pro-life.”

Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel, authors of Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling, say the framing around choice was introduced by Jimmye Kimmey, the director of Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA), who in 1972 wrote a memo (pdf, p. 50) emphasizing the need “to find a phrase to counter the Right to Life slogan.” Some options Kimmey floated in the memo were “Right to Choose” and “Freedom of Conscience.” She didn’t really like either, but did say the concept of choice was preferable to that of conscience: “a woman’s conscience,” she wrote, “may well tell her abortion is wrong, but she may choose (and must have the right to choose) to have one anyway for compelling practical reasons.”

Either way, the memo was a clear acknowledgement that anti-abortion groups had made an excellent branding decision: “Right to Life is short, catchy, and is composed of monosyllabic words (an important consideration in English). We need something comparable—Right to Choose would seem to do the job,” writes Kinney.

Kinney’s earlier hesitation around that choice may have been borne out. The framing around choice isn’t however quite as strong as the one around life: in their very label, pro-life advocates accuse their opponents to be anti-life; and while the pro-choice label replies that their opponents are, in turn, anti-choice, the seriousness of such accusation doesn’t seem to compare.