Misusing Metaphor in the Abortion Debates



A reader recently chided me for my use of the phrase “war on women” in my recent article about GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood, and I plead guilty to using a lazy, hackneyed and inaccurate metaphor. While I think that the current GOP is indeed advocating policies that will make life harder for lower income women, describing those policies as a “war” closes down conversation rather than opens it up. Good literature employs figurative language to explore reality in all its complexity, and a literary blog should be written in the same spirit.

Imagine if we took seriously the political metaphors that we fling around so casually in the abortion debates. Let’s start with “war on women.” A war calls for a marshaling of resources and a use of violence. Nuanced positions and moral sensitivities are overridden in the heat of a battle because it’s either win or lose. While engaging in a political “campaign” to “fight” for a cause may be part of our political process, it simplifies to a dangerous decree a vexed question such as abortion.

The same goes for the other side. Describing a fetus as “a baby” certainly adds an emotional punch to the debate, but if people took the metaphor literally, then they would need to apply the same laws to abortion that they do to infanticide—including imprisoning and in some states executing the hundreds of thousands of American women who have abortions every year, along with the medical people involved and all others who are accessories (parents, boyfriends, etc.). Some push the “baby” metaphor back so early in the birth process that, applying the same logic, women who use IUDs should be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Now, such things do occur in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fantasy Handmaid’s Tale. They also occur in El Salvador, where even a spontaneous miscarriage or a stillbirth can land a woman in prison. The closest we’ve gotten to such measures in this country is a new Tennessee law under which Mallory Loyola was arrested for fetal abuse after using meth. The assault charges were dismissed after she completed a drug rehabilitation program, which means that the authorities didn’t read the metaphor entirely literally. Had Loyola damaged her actual baby, the law wouldn’t have been as lenient.

I bring up this example, not to pursue the current debate over abortion, but to talk about the power of metaphor and how we must be careful around figurative language. A work does not live up to its literary potential if it uses cheap metaphors (what I was guilty of) to circumvent thought and elicit primal responses. To repeat my earlier point, literature at its best acknowledges reality’s complexity.

That’s why I praised Lucille Clifton’s “lost baby poem” in last week’s post, where a poor woman’s abortion is given both a context and a set of psychological consequences. If we let such literary explorations inform our sensibilities, we can arrive at far wiser public policy than by hurling simplistic metaphors. I will strive to do better.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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