Frame Game

The Life Issue

A month ago, when Vice President Al Gore announced his candidacy for president, he promised to defend the right to abortion. “Some try to duck the issue of choice,” declared Gore. “Not me. American women must be able to make that decision for themselves. I will stand up for a woman’s right to choose.” To which the wags at National Review replied: “No, [Gore] won’t duck the issue; he just won’t say what its name is.”

Abortion rights advocates have ducked the A-word for years. First they said they stood for “choice,” then they changed their name to “pro-choice,” and finally they obliterated the debate’s physical substance by renaming it “the choice issue.” For this, they were skewered by abortion opponents. But now the anti-abortion folks, too, are dropping the A-word. Abortion is becoming “the life issue.”

“Life issues” aren’t new. The Catholic Church has long discussed abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty under the rubric of “life issues,” and a former president of the National Right-to-Life (i.e., anti-abortion) Committee, Dr. John Willke, has been running the Life Issues Institute for years. What’s new is the conversion of the plural phrase “life issues,” which sensibly connected topics relating to mortality, into the singular phrase “the life issue,” whose only purpose is to replace the word “abortion.”

This verbal conversion is being driven by a political conversion. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes supported the right to abortion and was ostracized by Christian conservatives. This year, Forbes has made up with these conservatives, largely by coming out against legal abortion. He seems just as uncomfortable railing against abortion in this election as he was defending it in the last one–perhaps because he’s faking it, perhaps because he worries that pro-lifers think he’s faking it, and perhaps because he worries that pro-choicers think he’s not. To avoid the dreaded word, he has renamed it.

Two months ago on Fox News Sunday, host Tony Snow asked Forbes about “abortion.” Forbes responded with a long lecture on “the life issue,” his “pro-life” position, “partial birth,” and “parental consent.” Not once did he mention the A-word. Last month on Crossfire, co-host Bill Press asked Forbes about “abortion.” Forbes replied, “On the life issue, Bill, I’ve laid out a plan of action to move the issue forward.” Last weekend on Late Edition, Forbes bragged that in 1996 he had “put out a plan of action to move the life issue forward.” Host Wolf Blitzer, understandably puzzled, asked, “On abortion rights, you mean?” Forbes answered: “In terms of … preserving the sanctity of life.”

“The life issue” seems to be catching on. Two weeks ago, Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer stood in front of a Louisiana abortion clinic and challenged his rivals “to get a lot more serious about the sanctity-of-life issue.” Last Thursday, a Bauer press release castigated other candidates for refusing to litmus-test judicial nominees on “the pro-life issue.” The word “abortion” didn’t appear until the end of the release.

Euphemisms reveal as much as they obscure. Abortion rights advocates adopted “the choice issue” because they concluded the public didn’t like abortion. If abortion opponents adopt “the life issue,” it will signify that they have concluded the public doesn’t like attacks on abortion, either. It will also liberate Steve Forbes to change the subject to tax cuts, school deregulation, and Social Security privatization–or, as he prefers to call them, the “choice” issues.