Jackie Speier - Toward a Better Pro-Choice Rhetoric

(Video Credit:  CSPAN)

Last week, I wrote about some striking historical and cultural shifts in anti-abortion rhetoric.  Namely, I argued that the pro-life movement has been so persuasive largely because in their verbal and visual rhetoric, they have successfully turned babies into the primary object of the viewer's identification and sympathy.  I also argued that a successful pro-choice rhetoric would return women in need of abortions to the center of the frame.  I was heartened by Representative Jackie Speier's (D-CA) speech on the floor of the house, this week, where she talked about her own experience.

It is probably unsurprising that others are trying to make sense of the erosion of public support for the pro-choice movement.  Frances Kissling published a column in The Washington Post last week that reveals a drop in support for abortion from 56% in 1995 to 54% in 2009, and she argues that the problem is both a policy problem and a rhetoric problem.  While I do not agree with Kissling that tight restrictions on late-term abortion are the answer here, I find her argument about the place of the fetus in pro- and anti-abortion rhetoric compelling:

The fetus is more visible than ever before, and the abortion-rights
movement needs to accept its existence and its value. It may not have a
right to life, and its value may not be equal to that of the pregnant
woman, but ending the life of a fetus is not a morally insignificant
event. Very few people would argue that there is no difference between
the decision to abort at 6 weeks and the decision to do so when the
fetus would be viable outside of the womb, which today is generally at
24 to 26 weeks. Still, it is rare for mainstream movement leaders to say
that publicly. Abortion is not merely a medical matter, and there is an
unintended coarseness to claiming that it is.

Which makes me think that T-shirts like this one aren't really helping.  The argument that a fetus is not scientifically a viable human being simply has not worked, as someone can always insist that in their gut they know it is. 

Blue T-shirt depicting a fetus wearing a hunting cap and carrying a weapon.  Text says:  "Grizzly Fetus too young to vote Republican."

(Image Credit:  Tiger Beatdown)

Academic blogger Historiann suggests, much better than I did, perhaps, that Speier's speech represents a real opportunity for pro-choice advocates to recapture the pathetic appeal in this debate:

Here’s my idea for pro-choicers:  what worked for the movement to decriminalize abortion in the 1960s were appeals to emotion based on real women’s experiences.  For
too long, the professional pro-choicers have thought abortion advocacy
is an intellectual proposition rather than an emotional one, and for too
long, women have been acquiescent in our silence while the forced
pregnancy crowd has effectively and freely used emotion to erase the
human incubators of fetuses to make abortion all about the murder
of cuddly little babies.  Telling stories like U.S. Reps Gwen Moore and Jackie Speier did on the floor of the House of Representatives last Thursday night, in newspapers and magazines, on television and blogs, etc., is a lot likelier to move the needle on reproductive choice. 

Think about it:  Abolitionists wrote tirelessly about the injustice
of slavery and the evils it perpetuated among white and black Americans
alike, but Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dramatic rendering of Eliza’s escape
with little Harry across the semi-frozen Ohio River did a lot more to
put free readers in the mind of the enslaved mother and her heroic
determination not to let her master sell her little boy away from her.  I
think some ugly stories about women bleeding out and nearly (or
actually) dying as their physicians sought a non-Catholic hospital, and
stories about women forced to endure a stillbirth or horrific,
life-threatening late-term miscarriage (for example) might wake people
up to the stupidity of permitting state control over our lives and
bodies.  Because the truth is that if you are a heterosexual woman, it really could happen to you, too.

Comments

Moveon.org ad

Your post made me think of this ad, which certainly draws on emotion, but in a somewhat different way; I feel like it has a degree of shock value, although it does address the desperation and fear that women would feel if they were forced to find alternatives to safe, legal abortions. I can't get it to embed, but I am including a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zCJigrTb9Q&feature=player_embedded

Recent comments