Key To The Abortion Debate Is The Rhetorical Concept of Terministic Screens

People who are “pro-choice” and people who are “pro-life” can’t agree on anything. Except the subconscious use of this one rhetorical trick.

This article was originally written in July 2019.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed a wave of abortion criminalization. This has occurred through so-called “heartbeat bills”, many of which do not include an exception for cases of rape or incest, that ban abortion the second a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which means that abortion can be banned as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Because this time-frame can often pass before someone realizes they are with child, these bills are rightfully being called out for what they really are: an all but total ban of abortion.

Abortion has been a subject of rigorous political debate for quite some time now. Oftentimes the debate comes down to the specific number of weeks during which an abortion is permissible, and whether you’re “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice.” However, most debates actually begin before you realize you’re even in a debate, and this one begins with the taken-as-a-given terms “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice”, because those terms are defining the parameters of the debate, acting as what is known as a terministic screen.

First outlined by rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, a terministic screen, simply put, is any given term that implicitly skews perception in a specific way. Terministic screens are innately manipulative, directing our focus away from one thing and towards another, subtly, using nothing more than the word itself and the meaning it conveys. The use of terministic screens, then, takes advantage of the fact that the language we choose to use reflect and define our respective realities.

There are few examples of terministic screens and what they can do better than “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice.” Women who make the decision to get an abortion are not evil, baby-killing, witches. They don’t get abortions because they have some vendetta against babies, or because they are steadfastly against procreation. They aren’t “anti-life”. Yet, those on the conservative end of the abortion debate refer to themselves as “Pro-Life”, with the implication being that women who don’t share their beliefs are somehow Anti-Life.

Somehow, the debate is now about whether or not a human being is against the concept of Life. Somehow, it can be implied that women who decide to get an abortion do so because they’re okay with killing babies. This is all the result of the term “Pro-Life”, as the term sets the parameters of the debate as one centered around life, a parameter you automatically agree to by allowing that term to be used. This is what terministic screens do.

Take a moment to really think about “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice”, as phrases rather than a political stance. Separate those terms from the politics. Are they really in opposition? Take the gun control debate, which is often boiled down to “Gun Rights” vs. “Gun Control”, as another example. The crux of the issue is the belief that Second Amendment rights are being infringed upon if there are any legislative barriers (i.e., “controls”) preventing firearms acquisition. This conflict is accurately reflected in “Gun Rights vs. Gun Control.”

This is not the case with “Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice.” “Life” and “Choice” are not in direct conflict. If you temporarily ignore all the predetermined definitions and connotations, you may see that it’s more than possible to be both “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice.” This tells us that there is a problem with the abortion debate, specifically with the decision to frame the debate in terms of “Pro-Life” versus “Pro-Choice.”

Referring to this new wave of bills as “heartbeat bills” is an extension of this. As Anna North and Catherine Kim of Vox point out, “Some reproductive rights groups argue that the term “heartbeat” bill is a misnomer, since the fetus does not yet have a heart at six weeks’ gestation — the cardiac activity detectable at that time comes from tissue called the fetal pole, as OB-GYN Jen Gunter has written. Planned Parenthood refers to the bills as “six-week bans.”

There is evidence that human beings cannot identify blue as being different from green if their mother tongue does not have a word for “blue”, which is the case for some less-spoken languages. Language shapes reality. Wording is important. Words are symbols, and symbols communicate specific meanings, images, and ideas. Consider, for a moment, if the abortion debate was framed in terms of “Choice-First” and “Life-First.” Doesn’t that sound like a more reasonable debate?

So the next time somebody asks you if you’re “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice”, tell them you’re Pro-Talking-About-Abortion-Without-Using-Those-Terms.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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