Ever seen a bumper sticker that says something like “What about Civil Rights for Unborn Children?”

Why phrase it that way?

For decades now in the U.S., civil rights has had a specific meaning in political speech. Civil rights means the African American struggle for legal equality in the 1960s, and the ongoing struggle for African American social and economic equality ever since. African American organizations compose the civil rights community. Civil rights leaders are African American politicians, clergy, and community leaders. Regardless of whatever definition might be derived from a dictionary search, this is the obvious meaning of the phrase civil rights in political speech.

So what was going on in the mind of the person who came up with this bumper sticker?

Surely the person is anti-abortion. But using the words civil rights here suggests they have civil rights on their mind. Otherwise, why bring it up?

In other words, why would someone make a right-of-center argument – about restricting or ending abortions – using a left-of-center political term?

Here’s my guess: The creator of this bumper-sticker is in an internal debate with left-of-center straw-men. In the imagination of the bumper sticker creator, the straw-men never shut up about civil rights. And this bumper-sticker is his response – “All you people who won’t shut up about civil rights – What About Civil Rights for Unborn Babies!”

That’s not to say everyone with this bumper sticker hates black people. But rather I am suggesting that people with this bumper-sticker are irritated by claims based on civil rights, much the same way that talk of “family values” irritates a lot of Democrats who nonetheless love their families.

The intent is clear – the bumper sticker is there to proclaim opposition to abortion and irritate people who identify with the modern political definition of civil rights, and accuse them of a sort of hypocrisy.

Its closest analog on the progressive side might be the bumper sticker “Hate is Not a Family Value.” These stickers are proudly displayed on the cars of people who are generally appalled by the commonly understood meaning of the phrase “family values”. They recognize that the “family values” message is openly opposed to women’s rights and gay rights. So they slap on the bumper-sticker as an oh-so clever way of mocking the hypocrisy of those who speak of “family values.”

Maybe it feels extra delicious to use one’s opponents’ own terms to skewer them. But isn’t this another form of hypocrisy? We all know what the phrase “family values” means. The deeply conservative, anti-woman and anti-gay meaning of “family values” is clear to proponents and opponents alike. Yet to put that bumper-sticker on your car is to engage in the pretense that “family values” might mean something different than what it clearly means, so that you can then criticize the opposition for being inconsistent in their understanding and application of “family values.” In other words, by putting this bumper-sticker on your car you are being dishonest, just to be cute, which doesn’t seem like a very good trade-off.

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