How to Reframe the Abortion Debate, Part One: the Good Frames
How we talk about it, how we should be talking about it, and how to re-set the agenda.
(Note: this column pre-dates the actual overturning of Roe v. Wade.)
It is time to take a good hard look at the public debate on the issue of abortion: how we talk about it, how we should be talking about it, and how to re-set the agenda.
The debate on the issue of abortion has been dominated for decades by the “Fetal Personhood” frame, by the question of “when does life begin?” We have accepted a defensive position in the debate, in part because we thought we had the protection of Roe v. Wade.
Reframing this debate requires that we assert our own beliefs rather than focus on defense against the arguments of our opponents.
More than with almost any other issue, the subject matter of this debate is more important than what is being said. If the subject matter of the debate is the fetus, we lose. If we can focus the attention on women, we win. The subject matter is what puts the debate in the right context and gets people to think about it from the right perspective.
We can focus the debate on women by using language that evokes two key frames:
1. Freedom and Equality for Women, and Involuntary Pregnancy: People have the right to control what is done to their own bodies. Bodily autonomy is the first and most essential condition of freedom. For women to be free and equal, they must have sole authority over their physical selves, just as men do. Using the government to force women to endure pregnancy and childbirth against their will is a massive violation of that right to bodily self-determination.
2. Freedom of Religion: We live in a pluralistic society where people practice many different religions. The question of “when does life begin?” is answered differently by different religions. Restricting abortion on the basis of religious beliefs is using government to force some people to live by other people’s religious beliefs. Laws that respect reproductive rights allow everyone to live by their own religion.
These values-based frames are not “progressive” or “centrist.” They are solidly American. We do not have to compromise to take positions that can appeal to moderate voters. When framing advocates talk about “values-based messaging,” this is what we mean.
Framing note: Attack equals attention. We tend to scrupulously avoid being attacked. This is one reason why we struggle to control the agenda of the public debate. When you say something non-controversial, such as “Joe Biden has created a ton of jobs” the response is “Ok, fine” and on to the next subject.
Conservatives draw attention by saying things that are designed to provoke us to respond, and we do just that, keeping the topic on the front burner. This means that their messaging, no matter how absurd, dominates the “brain-share” of the American public.
We have to say things that are true, morally right, and controversial in the context of our current public debate. When conservatives attack our position, our position will become the subject matter of the debate. The longer they continue to attack us, the more ‘brain-share” our frames will get.
Part 1: The Good Frames
Bodily Autonomy, Freedom and Equality for Women
It is ironic that the issue of bodily autonomy has been front and center in the public debate, in the form of protests against mandates for masks and vaccines. I almost have to wonder if some strategic genius out there in the conservative machinery deliberately fomented conservative outrage around this issue, knowing that we would take the opposite position. They manipulated us into making arguments against absolute bodily autonomy just as they were cruising in to deliver the final death blow to Roe v. Wade. Did they know this was our strongest case? Whether intentional or not, they backed us into a corner.
Now, we are arguing that they are being inconsistent. I have bad news for you. Pointing our where they are being inconsistent also points out where we are being inconsistent, while totally failing to communicate to the American public where we actually stand.
We should be making the unequivocal case that each and every person has the absolute right to control their own bodies. As I said earlier, bodily autonomy is the first and most essential condition of freedom. We should also point out that this belief is so universally accepted in our society, that even in the case of a pandemic, we never made it mandatory to get vaccinated. There were always testing alternatives.
Imagine that there is a young child in need of a kidney transplant, and that they have a neighbor who is a perfect donor. Do we commandeer the neighbor’s kidney in order to save the child’s life? An actually already definitely alive child? We wouldn’t dream of it. We don’t even take organs from corpses without their consent.
The right to have sole authority over your physical self is one that we do not even question when it comes to men. Until the advent of birth control, this right was not even available to women. If we believe that women should have the same rights as men, if we believe that men and women must be equal before the law, then we have to believe that women also have the right to absolute physical autonomy.
Bottom line: Without absolute bodily self-determination, women can be neither free nor equal in our society. There is no way to get around that. Using the government to force women to remain pregnant and go through labor against their will is a massive violation of their most fundamental rights.
The Constitutional Case: The right to privacy may not be spelled out, but the ban on “involuntary servitude” most certainly is, right there in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Some legal scholars have made the case that forcing a woman to endure pregnancy and childbirth for the benefit of another person qualifies as a medical form of involuntary servitude.
Key trigger terms for the involuntary pregnancy frame: involuntary servitude, forced pregnancy, against their will, medical servitude, medical slavery, bodily or physical self-determination, essential condition of freedom. We need to develop more trigger terms for this idea.
By the way, does making cultural or visual references to the “Handmaid’s Tale” effectively trigger the “involuntary servitude” frame? Only if you are familiar with the book or TV show and understand what the imagery refers to. In other words, no, it is not an effective trigger of the involuntary servitude frame when it comes to influencing the public debate.
Framing note: Frames are clumps of neurons in brains that hold sets of related knowledge around a particular subject. You can’t “switch on” frames in people’s brains unless that frame is already there to be triggered. The public debate doesn’t give us time to educate people. We have to activate things they already know and already have feelings about. It’s like a joke. If you have to explain the punchline to someone, isn’t a very effective joke.
Setting the Agenda: We on the Left have to learn that sometimes we have to risk losing battles to win the war. Is the “involuntary servitude” frame controversial? Would people pitch a fit if we drew parallels between forced pregnancy and slavery? You betcha. Would it get people thinking about what it means to be free and what control over your own body has to do with it? Yes, indeed.
Framing note: We don’t even have to make controversial claims. We can pull a “Tucker Carlson” and merely “ask the question” or say, “people are saying…” as in “Does this law mean that women will be put in jail for having miscarriages?” Let conservatives explain how that’s not going to happen. Controlling the debate is about not about saying things that everybody agrees with. It’s about drawing the right kind of fire.
Freedom of Religion
Once again, conservatives have tried to flip the script on key American freedoms, this time, by getting us to argue against the use of freedom of religion to justify discriminatory actions by individuals.
Rather than let them take the issue of religious freedom from us, let’s fight back against the real attack on religious freedom in America: efforts by religious extremists to enshrine their religious beliefs in law.
When I say “fight back” I don’t mean, attack Christian conservatives. I mean take a strong positive stand for religious diversity in a pluralistic society, and build common ground with people who are strongly anti-abortion yet still believe in the separation of church and state.
I once had this enlightening conversation with a family of Christian Conservatives in Texas. It went kind of like this:
Me: Is your belief that abortion should be illegal based on your religion?
Them: Absolutely yes.
Me: Do you accept that many people in this country have religious beliefs that are different from yours?
Them: Of course.
Me: Would you want those people to use the government to force you to live according to their beliefs?
Them: Of course not.
Me: Did you know that both the Jewish and Muslim faiths have different beliefs than Christians about when it is okay to terminate a pregnancy?
Them: No, I didn’t.
Me: When you advocate for banning abortion, do you realize that you are asking the government to force other people to live by your religious beliefs?
Them: I never thought about it that way.
Me: Did you know that the laws that we call “pro-choice” are actually about freedom of religion?” Reproductive choice laws allow you to practice your religion and allow me to practice my religion.
Them: Hmmm. While I will always be pro-life, maybe I need to re-think my position on these laws.
We don’t need to change everybody’s mind about abortion. People will still hold on to religious beliefs. We can respect those beliefs and still get them to see the situation from our perspective by framing reproductive rights as a question of religious freedom.
Bottom line: Laws that ban abortion are a violation of people’s right to act in accordance with their own religious beliefs. Opposition to abortion is a religious belief held by some, but not all, of the religions practiced in our pluralistic and free society.
The Constitutional Case: Restrictions on abortion are a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, particularly the “establishment of religion” clause. To have our government restrict people’s reproductive rights is forcing some people to act in accordance with the religious beliefs of others, in violation of our freedom of religion.
Why this case is stronger than ever: Conservatives have claimed in federal court that their opposition to abortion is a protected religious belief, and the Supreme Court upheld their position in the “Hobby Lobby” ruling. They can’t have it both ways. If opposition to abortion is a protected religious belief, they can’t argue that it is not a religious belief when they try to impose it on others.
Key trigger terms for the religious freedom frame: religious pluralism, pluralist society, religious coercion, everybody gets to practice their own religion. We definitely need to develop more trigger terms for this concept.
Setting the Agenda: Is the Freedom of Religion frame controversial in and of itself? It doesn’t seem so to me. Fortunately, we can rely on conservatives to act as though everything we say is shocking and beyond the pale. Do we win if the public debate is focused on the question of whether or not anti-abortion laws violate our freedom of religion? We do. Bring it on. In order to fight against it, people will have to argue against freedom of religion and make the case for having laws based on their religious beliefs.
Bottom line: In this debate, we are the champions of freedom and American values. In making our case, we will undoubtedly be attacked. The key is to not back down. By getting them to attack us on our terms, we make our frames the subject matter of the debate and keep the attention of the American public focused on looking at the situation from our perspective: we believe that laws restricting women’s reproductive rights violate core American values and fundamental human rights enshrined in our constitution including bodily autonomy, equality before the law and freedom of religion.
This debate needs to stay focused on women having the sole right to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. There are many other valid issues involved, but if we want to dominate this debate (the way usually conservatives do) we have to zero in relentlessly on our core value statements and not let conservatives bait us into changing the subject.
How Americans believe in freedom and how bodily self-determination is the first and most essential condition of being a free person.
The fact that men and women are equal and that without the civil rights that men have, women cannot be truly free or equal.
The fact that we live in a pluralistic society where people practice different religions that have different beliefs about when or whether it’s okay to terminate a pregnancy.
How Americans believe in freedom of religion and that it’s not right to have government force some people to live by the religious beliefs of others.
For what NOT to talk about, read:
How to Reframe the Abortion Debate, Part Two: the Bad Frames
The Unintended Consequences of Defensive Messaging
Thank you for reading! I hope this is of practical use to you as you fight the good fight. I welcome your comments, questions and ideas!
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