by Elena Souris
At the Texas Democratic State Convention last summer, I attended a pro-choice discussion forum with mostly older women. During the panel, one woman remarked about her generation, “we thought this was our issue.” For her, the abortion rights fight was settled in the 1960s and 1970s and had been finalized by Roe v. Wade. After the Supreme Court decision, she assumed that abortion was not an issue their daughters would face. To this woman’s surprise and many other pro-choice advocates of her generation, the abortion debate has continued beyond Roe v. Wade.
The debate continues to be irreparably political, with “pro-life” and “Republican,” “pro-choice” and “Democrat” effectively acting as synonyms. Today’s arguments are religious, ethical, sociological, legal, medical, and philosophical. Although they disagree on the outcome, the pro-life and pro-choice movements both pursue regulation, either as restrictive or “protective measures.”9A Ultimately, today’s debate revolves around the core issue of regulating accessibility. Should abortion access be widely available and heavily regulated, or should it be regulated as a form of limiting accessibility? Political debates often circumvent the wealth of facts on the subject. Instead, controversy is contested with rhetoric. For this reason, understanding the background composing today’s debate is important.
Roe v. Wade granted women the right to an abortion, pursuing legalization as a method to ensure procedural safety and that doctors had the right to perform abortions (Jesudason and Weitz, 2015, p. 260-261).4 However, pro-life arguments after Roe v. Wade adamantly oppose the decision. While the 1973 case says women are given the constitutional right to abortion in the 14th amendment’s implied right to privacy, pro-life supporters respond
Pro-Choice and Pro-Life advocates utilize four common rhetorical strategies
that the Declaration of Independence also grants Americans the “unalienable Right” to “Life,” as well as “Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”7 Most importantly, this side holds that life begins at conception. Therefore, a fetus should have the same rights as any living person.
In the words of the Republican Party, the pro-life movement “stand[s] up for the rights of the unborn.”3 Additionally, the case against abortion centers its arguments upon the rights of the fetus. For example, pro-life advocates argue that the greater statistical chance African-American and likely disabled babies have of being aborted is a form of discrimination. Similarly, some research shows that the fetus will experience pain during the procedure, which is ethically problematic. Most famously, pro-life groups argue that because the fetus is a human, abortion is murder and should be illegal.7
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In response, the pro-choice side has focused on emphasizing women’s rights, legally centered around the Roe v. Wade decision. Because this side generally argues that life begins instead at birth, the pro-choice movement prioritizes the rights of the woman.7 Many supporters believe that a woman should have autonomy over her own body in case of unwanted pregnancies.5, 7 Pro-choice supporters argue that some families do not have the necessary resources that raising a child requires.7 Additionally, denying access to safe, legal abortions leaves women with dangerous, illegal alternatives, which will result in more deaths.7
The debate often asks whether a fetus’ or a woman’s rights are more important. While this may be the moral foundation, it translates into policies regarding access to abortions. The Supreme Court did not address what kinds of regulations effectively protect a woman’s constitutional right nor did it elaborate on whether the state or federal government should oversee such regulation. As a result, politicians and political organizations constantly revisit these unaddressed issues, using powerful rhetoric to appeal to the morals and emotions at the controversy’s core. Likewise, rhetoric is where today’s debate actually takes place, not in the realm of academic facts.
The abortion debate after Roe v. Wade has endured major changes. The pro-life side shifted from their original, fetus-focused debate to today’s emphasis on safety and regulation. While the argument about fetal rights was morally powerful, this theme did not substantially impact public opinion regarding legality.4 As a result, the pro-life movement switched to a women-focused rhetoric, raising questions about health risks. This dialogue has been more successful, resulting in several court-applied restrictions including waiting periods and procedure location restrictions.4 Consequently, pro-life and pro-choice rhetoric today both deal with protective regulation. A dichotomy exists between pro-choice supporters who argue that their bills increase “reproductive rights” and access to healthcare while pro-life politicians portray that legislation as “radical” and eliminating important safety regulations.2A
The pro-choice movement has also seen a specific and dramatic change in discussion style. Originally, the group was seen as “anti-family” and “anti-child” who view children as “inconveniences and obstacles to career fulfillment.”5A Extreme rhetoric that described a fetus as a “tiny rapist” who “coerces a woman into pregnancy” and therefore “warrants lethal violence” did not help the group’s appearance as cold, uncaring, and disrespectful of the fetus and the difficult moral decision a woman faces.5B Resulting in many activists encouraging an open discussion of the difficulty of choosing an abortion, the reality of the painful experience, and clarifying that pro-choice supporters also value fetal life.5C
Despite their aggressive rivalry, pro-life and pro-choice groups use surprisingly similar rhetorical techniques to construct their arguments. They utilize protective framing, populism, vilification and dramatic images to win the hearts of voters.
Protective framing is the most noticeable technique used in abortion arguments, demonstrated by an analysis of arguments surrounding two California abortion bills in 2013. Framing, as a general rhetorical device is the “[construction] of meaning in the political and social domain” and “collective action frames are the beliefs that motivate people to identify a shared agenda and take action together.”4A Despite their differences, throughout the debate, “both sides argu[ed] for the ‘protection of women,’ sometimes against the women’s own agency or self-interest.4B
Protective framing and passive voice portray women as weak and lacking agency.
Where anti-abortion legislators’ language focused on protecting women from the “abortion industry,” pro-choice politicians were concerned about the evil “medical research industry.”4B To divide the groups even further, within the pro-choice movement, liberal feminists called for protection “from governmental regulation” and radical feminists wanted government regulation to safeguard women’s health and shield them from “unethical uses, exploitation, and harm.”4C
Like the pro-life movement, radical pro-choice feminists often discuss the health risks resulting from abortion and reproductive care, though no data has shown any negative side-effects.4C However, unlike pro-life groups, these pro-choice supporters are not concerned with the morality of killing a fetus. Instead, they worry that without full knowledge of the health risks associated with abortion, women cannot currently give “adequate informed consent.”4C To apply this protective frame, both groups portray doctors as dangerous and “deceptive,” while women are “passive.”4D From the pro-life perspective, doctors are “uncaring abortionists.” According to pro-choice groups, doctors and researchers “target” women.4D Both groups believe young women and women in poor economic situations to be particularly vulnerable.4D In addition to describing doctors as evil, both groups invoke the protective frame by only referring to women’s roles with the passive voice. Jesudason and Weitz list many examples found in the 2013 legislative debates. On the pro-choice side, instead of stating that “‘women take drugs’ or ‘women decide to take drugs,’ they state, ‘Egg extraction requires giving women drugs.’”4E Additionally, pro-choice California Governor Jerry Brown describes the bill as “legaliz[ing] the payment of money in exchange for a woman submitting to invasive procedures.4E On the pro-life side, politicians argued that “women’s lives are put at further risk,” which Jesudason and Weitz point out effectively “erases” women.
Because of the sentence’s passive voice, the women seem to have no autonomy but are “being acted upon by doctors and politicians.”4E Even if women actually are the active subjects in grammar, the sentences are usually very negative.4D
Though subtle, both groups’ grammar ultimately suggests that women who seek abortions are actually unknowing victims in need of society’s protection. In the public sphere, both sides represent themselves similarly.
The populist approach is another effective rhetorical strategy. This argument describes the debate as “a fight between ‘the people’ and elites” that makes it appear that the majority of voters support the legislation, while opponents act against popular demand.2B
The Populist approach oversimplifies political conflict in terms of “good” and “evil.”
Both groups portray their proposals as “common sense,” claim that the opponent’s legislation is “radical” or will cause negative impacts, and argue that the American majority supports their own movement’s goals.2C Ultimately, the populist strategy describes fights not only in legislative terms, but also a conflict between the forces of “good and evil.”2D
Although both groups use this technique, pro-life groups use it far more efficiently and effectively. Instead of only describing abortion as an “elites” versus “the people” fight, pro-life groups can also apply populism to portray the fight as the people versus an encroaching federal government. According to USC scholar Cat Duffy, lawmakers in a 2014 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for the Women’s Protection Act utilize this strategy. Republican senators argued that the bill represented an encroachment on states’ rights, as states alone should be able to regulate abortion.2A Through this combination, the representatives portrayed the states as the “people” and the federal government as the overstepping “elite” enemy. With this perspective, Republican senators combined conservative ideological principles with traditional populist strategies. This aligned Republican senators with their constituents and also made their argument doubly effective.
Vilification is different from populism in that it has a more malicious intent. But in a similar fashion to populism, it also frames a movement as a fight between the elites and the people, or a grassroots majority representing the people’s will.9C Vilification is defined as “a rhetorical strategy that discredits adversaries by characterizing them as disingenuous and malevolent advocates. Rather than differentiating opponents as good people with a difference of opinion, vilification delegitimizes them through characterizations of intentions, actions, purposes, and identities.”9A
Both sides attack each other’s intentions, purpose, and identity.
In a 2014 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican senators combined the populist and vilification techniques by portraying Democrats as dangerous and deceitful.2E Through this method, speakers are able to create a clear enemy, portray opponents as evil or immoral, show that the group’s “basic needs and values” are being threatened. Advocates attempt to prove the fight is necessary, and claim the opponent powerful enough to be a threat.9B
In 1989, M. L. Vanderford applied these ideas to two different abortion group newsletters published from 1973-1980: the pro-life Minnesota Citizens Concerned for life (MCCL) and the pro-choice Abortion Rights Council (ARC). Both Minnesota-based groups utilized vilification and the other three methods in surprisingly identical ways. To show that the opponent was a powerful elite, the ARC blamed the Catholic Church for having influential connections and special legislative access, as well as donating money, just as the MCCL claimed a group of media, political, and business elites supported their cause.9 Next, both groups claimed that the other posed a threat to basic American principles, such as proportional representation, majority rule, rational decision-making, the Constitution, civil law, and representative democracy.9D Ironically, the two groups accused each other of appealing their debates only to emotions instead of rational logic in an attempt to obscure important discussions of facts and legitimate issues.9E Finally, in their newsletters, the ARC and MCCL also portrayed their opponents as discriminating against the poor. To the ARC, the MCCL did so by trying to decrease public abortion funding. 9E According to the MCCL, the ARC supported abortion as a general plan to sterilize black citizens and women on welfare, in addition to using preexisting Catholic bias to their advantage.9 These techniques manage to both rally support for one cause and motivate a group to vote. Because vilification tactics are so effective, they can be seen not only in Minnesota in the 1973-1980 time period, but also in highly partisan modern debates.
Finally, the use of images is the most infamous rhetorical tactic employed in historical and modern abortion debates. Images can be used to either “replace narratives” or visually summarize them.1A Ultimately, images create “concrete enactments of abstract values” that can otherwise dominate debates.1A Because they appeal to our sense of sight, they have a more powerful impact on viewers, as humans have an instinctive reaction towards “seeing is believing” and a more difficult time analyzing images critically.1A Pro-life images are the most pervasive; harsh photos of aborted fetuses with violent injuries may cover churches, car windshields, and billboards.1B Pro-life supporters have even brought fetuses to hearings in glass jars.1C Additionally, the pro-life movement has introduced new argumentative tropes to the debate through images comparing abortion to the Holocaust.1D
Clever activists use metonymy to reduce complex topics into simple images.
These images have been successful because they use metonymy, a process where “a technical, precise, or denotative name for some class of things is replaced by a different name that stresses a quality, attribute, or connotative image,” ultimately a way to reduce a complicated topic, such as abortion, into a simple symbol.1C By showing only a later-stage fetus with an identifiable head and feet, giving the image “baby-like” qualities, such as a heartbeat, and representing a nine-month development process with one later stage image, the pro-life movement has applied metonymy to create a powerful icon that plays up the reality of what a fetus becomes.1E Because the portrayed fetus looks like a human baby instead of a developing specimen, the image “engage[s] empathy” from the viewer, highlighting one of the moral aspects to this debate. Additionally, some pro-life advertisements employ a direct “you,” a second-person address to connect viewers to the imagined fetus.1F
In contrast, pro-choice imagery has historically been much less notable or successful because it has not applied metonymy as well. This challenge is partially due to the complexity of the pro-choice argument. As opposed to depictions of a fetus, coat hangers and dead women lying in blood do not clearly convey the emotional, social or political arguments. Instead, they only vaguely summarize the pro-choice debate, requiring that the viewer have background knowledge of the conditions that might lead a woman to choose an illegal or unsafe procedure.1G The pro-choice movement has repurposed the Statue of Liberty symbol to represent the freedom of choice and equate it with basic American values.
Debates at the rhetorical level come at the expense of policy solutions.
Though it was a clever use of a cultural icon, the image did not have the same symbolic and emotional weight that successful metonymy offers.1H Instead of “grounding” image arguments, pro-choice images only “summarized” them. Additionally, where pro-life imaging contributed another layer to the debate, pro-choice symbols only “repeat[ed]” their claims.1G As a result, the pro-choice movement has not received the same boost from the images and metonymy they used that the pro-life side has garnered, though both groups used the same rhetorical techniques. While both groups have used images, only the pro-life movement makes consistent use of this rhetorical tactic today.
In conclusion, today’s abortion debate has less to do with the facts and more to do with the rhetorical strategies of protective framing, the populist approach, vilification, and the use of images. Activists focus upon appealing to emotions rather than logic, having huge ramifications for the abortion debate. In any discussion, rhetoric becomes an important tool, as “discourse sets the boundaries of action and determines the legitimate issues and participants in political and legal struggles.”4A
Additionally, the “‘politics of signification and the process of framing ideas and meanings are central to the social contestations that determine laws and ethics.4A Examining the abortion debate serves as an example of how crucial and complex policy decisions are condensed and distorted into partisan talking points.2 Effectively, this rhetoric then clearly shapes how the abortion debate is understood by voters and enacted by politicians. Each rhetorical strategy contributes its own unique damage.
With protective framing and the passive voice, women are subtly portrayed as weaker and incapable of acting with agency.4F Similarly, while vilification is highly effective in convincing members of the importance of a movement, motivate them to action, and justify setbacks, it creates a highly aggressive environment where groups are alienated from each other and unable to work together toward resolution.9C The brutal pro-life images have resulted in “the public fervor of the pro-life activists,” “the timidity of liberal Congressional representatives,” and the “rarity of pro-choice arguments directed at denying the Right to Life of a fetus.”1C Finally, shifting the debate to a conversation about states’ rights or an image war ignores the critical questions of women’s health: if women’s rights are being protected, if restrictions result in higher costs to taxpayers, if waiting periods result in later-term abortions, and if abortion restrictions cause more women to pursue dangerous and illegal abortions.2F Legislators owe it to their constituents to have these discussions, especially when arguing an issue as divisive and complex as abortion.
The rhetorical abortion debate will remain pervasive, divisive, and critical in U.S. politics.
Demonstrated by their powerful use of images, the pro-life movement has a much simpler argument: abortion is not only immoral murder, but also dangerous to women. While scientific research debates the second part, the first part of their debate is strictly emotional and value-based. Because this kind of argument is much better suited for attention-getting rhetoric, the pro-life movement has been much more successful in this modern debate. To resolve this debate in a manner that favors the pro-choice movement, those groups would either have to become more adept at applying these rhetorical techniques or the debate would need to move to a strictly fact-based conversation. Given that the abortion issue is so deeply based in religion, morals, personal values, and ethics, achieving this latter option would be extremely difficult. As a result, the only way for pro-choice advocates to beat the pro-life rhetorical game would be to become even better at it than they are.
The abortion question is generally raised in every election cycle, on both national and local levels. However, since most voters and politicians know where they stand on the divide, it is often not a topic of much debate. Even so, the more complex political and social components of the debate are periodically raised when specifically pro-choice or pro-life legislation is introduced and gains attention, such as Wendy Davis’ 2013 Texas legislative filibuster to block abortion restrictions. Unfortunately, this attention often fades into the political background.
Whenever a similar bill is introduced or struck down, the debate reoccurs, albeit more prominently when there is an icon leading the charge on one side. Similarly, as in Roe v. Wade, the debate could become salient again if the Supreme Court made a decision on the issue, possibly about when fetal life begins or on federal regulation and states’ rights. If a public icon spoke on the issue, a study was released with drastic statistics, or large numbers of women died due to inaccessible abortions, the debate would regain public attention and become reinvigorated.
These possibilities range from remote to extremely unlikely. However, for the time being, the rhetorical abortion debate will remain pervasive, consistently focusing on morals and utilizing these four rhetorical strategies to construct what should be fact-based arguments. The real abortion debate will probably remain contained in interpersonal conversation for the time being. It is largely impossible to conduct a pragmatic debate among such diametrically opposed groups. Abortion is likely to remain just below the surface in all levels of politics and media. Given that it is such a violent, engaging, divisive, and morally based topic, it will undoubtedly remain a crucial platform issue in U.S. politics for years to come.
Elena Souris is a senior Communication and Political Science double major at Trinity University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.