A euphemism is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as:
1. That figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended.
2. An instance of this figure; a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.
The first definition captures a very important aspect of a euphemism. It is less precise and less direct than the word or phrase for which it substitutes. A euphemism is characterized by the way it masks or conceals an unpleasant truth.
If rhetoric is the art of persuasion and philosophy is the pursuit of truth, then one can see why this could be a virtue of the former but necessarily a vice of the latter. Truth can dissuade one from espousing a position as much as it can convince one of espousing it. For this reason rhetoric often masks or conceals unpleasant truths in order to sweeten them if it cannot pass over them in complete silence.
But if rhetoric is subordinated to the end of philosophy then unclear or imprecise language cannot be a virtue of rhetoric. When the only end is persuasion, then any means to that end– including misrepresentation and deception– can be justified. But if the ultimate end of rhetoric remains ordered towards truth then misrepresentation and deception must be ruled out. Both of these are opposed to truth.
For this reason I conclude that it is undesirable to use euphemisms in political discourse. A euphemism will tend to obscure rather than illuminate the issue in discussion. When a euphemism avoids truths about any given issue it wounds debate rather than augments it.
One euphemism in contemporary American politics is the label “pro-choice.” It means, roughly, that one is a proponent of legalized abortion.
But why ought we prefer “pro-choice” to the more direct and clear label “pro-abortion?”
The reasons are usually given as the following. One may be pro-choice without being pro-abortion. In fact, most people who are pro-choice would prefer not to have an abortion. Some even oppose it absolutely on moral grounds and so would never have an abortion. Besides, no one is really “pro-abortion.” To say that one is pro-abortion is to imply that they like abortions. But surely even those who have them only do so with great trepidation and reluctance. It’s not as if by being pro-choice one wants to force everyone to have abortions– no, one merely wants to grant people the freedom to have an an abortion when they feel they need to. On the other hand, “pro-choice” clearly expresses what they do advocate: not abortion per se but the freedom to choose abortion. They are advocates of freedom primarily, and abortion only secondarily.
I disagree with this position.
Addressing last things first, it is precisely the “freedom” angle of “pro-choice” which seems to make the euphemism. Things like choice and freedom are very appealing to the contemporary American ear. For this reason it really is a very smart rhetorical move to brand oneself as pro-choice. Choice and freedom are just as American as apple pie. In many ways this rhetorical move co-opts popular strains of American thought.
But this is clearly not sufficient reason to oppose usage of the term “pro-choice.” If politics did not attempt to appeal to the beliefs of the masses then it would hardly be democratic politics. This isn’t what is objectionable. The better question is about the usage of “pro-choice” in its general implication.
Because it is a term in contemporary usage this is almost too obvious to be noted. So presume for a moment that we are in some era before this one. Say ancient Greece or Rome. You go up to your friend in the agora (or the forum) and say, “I am pro-choice.” What would he think? How would he respond? Absent the supplied context of the contemporary debate on abortion this statement is indecipherable. Pro-choice? About what exactly? Everything? A small list of things? One thing?
This, more truly, is where the euphemism lies. It is less precise and less direct than is needed. The phrase “pro-choice” does not actually locate one’s topic at all. It seems to intentionally shift the focus of the debate by omitting “abortion” and including only choice. Freedom, of course, is a much better topic to discuss with Americans. It is in this way that the usage of “choice” and its connotation of freedom is relevant to whether “pro-choice” is a euphemism. It is not merely because proponents claim that there is a right to have an abortion, but that they claim to support freedom of choice but omit reference to the subject in which they claim to support freedom. The debate is not about freedom generally but about political freedoms regarding abortion. Thus, the term “pro-choice” can be seen as a euphemism inasmuch as it would tend to suggest the gentler and more palatable support of freedom, when its advocates are in favor– specifically– of the continued legalization and expansion of legal protection for abortion.
This can be seen with reference to other political positions. Consider Joe Conservative, the local pro-gun politician. If one is told that Joe is pro-gun, what ought one to conclude about Joe?
1. That Joe is in favor of state protected rights to gun use and ownership.
2. That Joe likes shooting robbers and thugs.
3. That Joe wants to coerce all citizens into owning and using guns.
Quite clearly #1 is the most true. It may be that #2 is true, but it is doubtful. Like the issue of abortion, people who are in favor of gun usage for self-defense tend to view this gun usage as regrettable but necessary. It is clearly not optimal to have to kill someone. Likewise, #3 would be absurd as well. Support for the legal protection of an activity is not the same as support for legal coercion of an activity.
On these grounds we may call Joe Conservative “pro-choice.” After all, he is in complete agreement with other pro-choice candidates in that he wants the government to legalize and protect an activity, and yet he does not necessarily relish the activity nor does he want to coerce others into doing this activity. The liberal and Joe Conservative differ only in the activity which they want protected. For fun, we can add Larry Libertarian who is pro- freedom of speech. He is also pro-choice with regards to freedom of speech. He doesn’t think your usage of freedom of speech is necessarily a good thing (he detests opinion columnists and wishes they would die– nevertheless, he supports their freedom to write), nor does he want to mandate that you must exercise this right. Nevertheless, he thinks that the state should let freedom of speech remain legal and that it should protect such speech against encroachment from government interference.
This reveals the problem which I’ve just discussed with regards to the term “pro-choice.” In using such a vague term it necessitates clarification. One could fix this problem with regards to vagueness by appending a specifier to it. For instance, “I am pro-choice on guns.” Or again, “I am pro-choice on free speech.” This would gain the necessary clarity but would sacrifice brevity.
In political parlance it seems to be assumed in most other areas that when one is “pro-X” that one is for that position inasmuch as one wants it legalized but not coerced, with no comment (necessarily) on one’s personal approval of usage of it. Hence, we wouldn’t expect anything different from Joe Conservative when we cal him pro-gun. But, the debate on abortion has tried very hard to co-opt the freedom angle. For this reason calling a pro-abortion candidate “pro-abortion” is seen as offensive for precisely the reason why calling someone “pro-X” ought not to be– as a political platform is means merely that it ought to be a legally sanctioned action, and that is all.
It would seem that one could have both brevity and clarity if one were to adopt the typical political formula. Hence, “he is pro-abortion.” It expresses a person’s support for legalized abortion and avoids lack of precision in a phrase such as “he is pro-choice on the issue of abortion.” It is already implied in “pro-X” that one is in favor of extending or preserving the freedom to do X to the populace. Thus, there is no need to manufacture “pro-choice” into the phrase. It ought to be already implied, just as it is in Joe Conservative’s case. For this reason the various objections to the term “pro-abortion,” either that it implies that one likes abortion or that one wants to force abortion on others, are groundless. Likewise, while it may be true that one supports the freedom to do the action primarily, and the action only secondarily, this is true on most similar subjects in contemporary democracies for legislation focuses on the rights of the individual. For this reason it is just as unnecessary to call Joe Conservative “pro-choice” as it is to call your typical liberal pro-choice.
For this reason, I reject the usage of “pro-choice” as a political label. It’s a euphemism, not a serious political descriptor. Therefore, it ought to be avoided. When one asks about the issue of abortion specifically one is “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.” This is clear and brief enough.