How to Reframe the Abortion Debate, Part Two: the Bad Frames
What NOT to say. The unintended consequences of defensive messaging!
The Unintended Consequences of Defensive Messaging
The first problem with defensive messaging is that it keeps the attention of the public debate focused on your opponents’ frames. Even when we have excellent arguments to refute their claims, there are many ways in which even engaging in those arguments has negative consequences.
The second problem is that we often try to beat people on their own terms by saying, “Even if that is what you believe, we still think our position is the right one.” This has the unintended effect of validating all or part of their original claims.
In interpersonal conversations, you can show that you understand another person’s viewpoint and respect them personally while disagreeing with their position. In the public debate, efforts to show that you appreciate the other side’s position don’t make you look reasonable, they make you look weak. They make it look like you have doubts about the rightness of your own position while validating the core premises on which your opponents are basing their arguments.
Once again, we need to focus on clearly communicating what we believe to the public, rather than trying to get our opponents to admit that they are wrong.
The “Pro-Life” Position: Fetal Personhood
First, what is the framing being used by our opponents to control the public debate? For forty years, the conservative movement has been focused on making a single case: that a fetus is a person and therefore abortion is murder. Establishing and triggering the frame of “fetal personhood” is at the core of everything they do.
Conservatives use visceral imagery to trigger neurological frames. Words and images trigger frames, but some frames trigger involuntary physiological reactions that are particularly powerful. Almost all their messaging is designed to trigger fear, disgust or mamma-bear-level protection of children. Exposure to words and images about babies or children, especially those about babies or children being harmed, flood us with oxytocin, a powerful hormone that triggers feelings of love, attachment and fierce protectiveness. This explains a lot about the right-wing obsession with seeing child molestation in everything, now including math books.
Anti-abortion activists scored a huge hit with the term “heartbeat bill.” The second you use the term “heartbeat” in connection with a fetus, you involuntarily visualize the fetus as a living being. The same is true for “partial-birth abortion.”
What not to say: Don’t say, “It’s not a heartbeat. It’s just an electrical signal” or “the only women who need to have late term abortions are those in which either the woman or the fetus has serious medical issues.” These still trigger the same images that involuntarily trigger oxytocin.
Bottom line: Virtually every discussion that focuses on the biological aspects of abortion causes people to have an involuntary protective reaction to the fetus. Any discussion about the question, “When does life begin?” is focusing the attention on the fetus, instead of the rights of the woman. If we do our job right, the word fetus should never come up. Rule of thumb: Keep the whole conversation “above the neck.”
Gender Hierarchy, the “War on Women” and the “Woman and Her Doctor”
One of the core aspects of the abortion debate is that it obscures the real motivation behind anti-abortion laws: the preservation of gender hierarchy.
In the work of George Lakoff and in my training program, we have a series of what I call “critical dichotomies,” pairs of values held by conservatives and liberals that are direct opposites of each other. One of the most significant of these is equality versus hierarchy.
Based on our empathy-based belief in the inherent value every individual, we understand that, while human beings come in infinite variety, we are all essentially “worth” the same. For this reason, we value equality and see diversity as a strength, not a weakness.
Many conservatives believe (if only subconsciously) in a natural hierarchy, determined by God, that places God above man, men above women, humans above nature, citizens above non-citizens, and so on, and that being a good person involves respecting your place in this natural order of things.
Messaging around terms like “the war on women” and “conservatives hate women” primarily triggers backlash among people for whom men making decisions for women is understood as care and protection as opposed to oppression. You can say the same thing more effectively by flipping it into the positive: “All people have the right to physical liberty. Doesn’t matter a lick whether they’re men or women.” Say that, and you might find yourself strange bedfellows with the anti-vaxxer crowd.
What does all this have to do with the “woman and her doctor” argument? Obviously for people who want to have children but have pregnancy-related medical issues, the advice of their doctor can be critical. But for most women, the main question is whether or not they are prepared to have a child and remain responsible for that child’s well-being for the rest of their natural lives. A doctor has little, if anything to do with that decision.
So why do we keep talking about “women and their doctors?” Many people automatically visualize doctors as male. When we say “It’s a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor” I believe that we are subconsciously appealing to people who don’t trust women to make their own decisions by suggesting that “it’s okay - there’s a man there to help her make the right decision.”
Unintended consequences: Saying that the decision should be made by a woman and her doctor undermines the argument that nobody other than the woman has any right to determine what she chooses to do with her body.
Bottom Line: Women have the right to consult their doctors, best friends, partners, children, therapists, employers and even tax preparers, but the decision ultimately must be made by her and her alone. It doesn’t help to say that some people hate women. People who believe in hierarchy just don’t see it that way.
Our best approach is to say that everybody has the right to physical autonomy, and that we believe women should have that right, just as men do. In that way, rather than provoking a defensive response, we compel people to examine their own unconscious beliefs.
The Blameless Abortion
Much of our dialogue around abortion rights has to do with “justifying” women’s decisions. Women who become pregnant due to rape or incest or those who face choices between their own life and the life of the fetus have clearly unassailable reasons for choosing termination.
However, this shouldn’t imply that women who choose termination for other reasons are in any way ‘to blame.” Whether you are under-employed or depressed, or lack a supportive partner or a supportive community, or just don’t want to have children or subject your body to drastic and painful physical alteration, you don’t have to live a life of abstinence or surrender your civil rights.
We keep trying to present these women as sympathetic. Were they on birth control? Ooh - unintentional pregnancy. Do they already have kids and financially constrained? Hmm - trying to support the children they already have.
Unintended Consequences: This “it wasn’t their fault” or “they have a good reason” talk is counterproductive. It undermines our core message by implying that the right to terminate a pregnancy is in some way contingent on being able to provide a reasonable “justification” for your decision. It is a form of incremental capitulation we engage in when trying to win over people whose opposition to abortion is intransigent.
Bottom line: We do want to have a debate about whether women have the right to be free from being forced by the state to spend months being pregnant and undergo childbirth against their will. We do not want to have a debate about whether women have good enough reasons to “justify” being allowed to terminate a pregnancy.
Don’t talk about:
The fetus, heartbeats, partial birth abortions, when life begins, or anything biological, anything that happens “below the neck.”
“Wars on women” or “people hating women” or “women and their doctors.”
Whether people are “responsible” for becoming pregnant or have a “good reason” to get an abortion.
This analysis has been unusually long. Even then, I left a few things out.
I would have liked to address the demonization of abortion and the glorification of pregnancy: the portrayal of abortion as more physically and emotionally hazardous to women than pregnancy and whether that demonization is impacted by things like coat-hanger imagery or our portrayal of the seriousness of the decision.
I would have liked to talk more about the ways we pre-capitulate in anticipation of attacks by using terms like “safe, legal and rare,” and in doing so inadvertently validate conservative positions and trigger conservative frames.
I would have liked to address the ways that our argument is weakened when we say that some women “won’t be impacted” if they can afford to travel and break the law, as though it were okay that they had to break the law.
I will have to revisit these issues at another time.
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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