Reviews | Forget “abortion”. Bring back ‘Relief for Ladies.’

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(Ellen Weinstein for the Washington Post)
(Ellen Weinstein for the Washington Post)

Last month, after news broke that the Supreme Court apparently intended to strike down Roe vs. WadePresident Biden said the word ‘abortion’ out loud for the first time in his presidency. Officially, he supports the right to abortion, but he prefer to use terms such as ‘reproductive choice’ and ‘women’s health’.

Biden’s hesitation may reflect personal discomfort. But he is not the only one to avoid the term.

Proponents of abortion rights often stumble over the word itself, choosing “choice” as something more acceptable to be “pro.” It is only recently in the long history of the abortion debate that advocacy groups have begun to tap to use the word “abortion” and ask people to “scream” their abortions, like a campaign the dish.

But it is clear that the word still makes people uncomfortable. So I think we should try to use another – a word that describes abortion not as the termination of a pregnancy but as the restoration of a pregnant person to health and agency. “Abortion” refers to pregnancy, after all, not to the person who does not want to be pregnant. “Abortion” refers to what happens to the developing fetus, not what happens to the person who does not want to be its host.

There is a precedent for this. In fact, the practice of reframing abortion in terms of women’s health and well-being is deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.

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In the 18th and most of the 19th century, before abortion became the preserve of the medical establishment and the courts, the procedure was generalized, and abortifacients – drugs that induce abortions – were widely marketed. But there was no advertising for “abortions”.

Instead, there were advertisements for “Relief for ladiessuffering from “obstructed periods”. “Female Enhancer Pills” treaty “all cases where nature has stopped for any reason whatsoever.” Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription promised to dissipate “all the troubles and evils which make a woman’s life a burden for her. It is relieved, healed and restored.

“This invaluable medicine,” read an ad for Sir J. Clarke’s female pills, “moderates all excess, removes all obstructions, and brings the monthly period into regularity.”

another promise this “Beecham’s pills taken as directed restore women’s health.”

The woman-centered language was a kind of code. Advertisers encrypted the word “abortion” to evade moral censorship and—after the Comstock Act of 1873 criminalized the distribution of abortifacients – to avoid legal consequences as well.

Women knew what it really meant to get “regular” back, just as today we all know that a “cleanse” or “detox” most likely includes a laxative or diuretic. The first Viagra advertisements said “love life again– not “chemically induce your erection”.

But even if marketing Dr. Peter’s French Renovating Pills as “a blessing to mothers” was an understatement, it sent a powerful message about women’s perfectly reasonable desire not to be pregnant. A desire they sought to fulfill since at least the Roman Empire.

Many of the pills, powders and potions of yesteryear were either impotent or toxic or both. Now, fortunately, abortifacients are more than 99% effectivesaid sure by the Food and Drug Administration and responsible for more than half abortions in the United States (and three quarters of those in Europe). No clinic or surgery needed. Just a reset (possibly painful, probably uncomfortable, probably brief).

As in “We weren’t ready for the kids yet, so I ordered some reset pills.” As in, “I went for a reset as soon as I found out I was pregnant.” As in “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll help you reset.”

Some abortions, of course, are absolutely not “resets. They are tragedies of pregnancies doomed by biology: acts of mercy for wanted children who would otherwise experience severe suffering, or acts of maternal self-defense.

These tragedies are, however, by far the minority. Most abortions are safe and simple medical procedures performed soon after a woman knows she is pregnant; two-thirds occur at eight weeks or earlier.

Renaming them “resets” would remind us of what abortion is really for: it allows a person who does not want to be pregnant to retrace their steps and resume the path they have chosen. To return her body to its natural state – the one she had never wanted to change. To return to normal.

We should defend the reset. We should embrace the medical advances that have brought us mifepristone and misoprostol and telehealth, advances in technology that allow us to buy anything from anywhere and have it delivered to us quickly and discreetly, and the effectiveness of good old-fashioned advertising copy. Such as …

Do you feel bloated, nauseous, tired, and anxious that your future might be derailed? Our ultimate reset diet will get you back on track in days.

Or, more simply: “Love life again.

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