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The Pro-choice PR Problem | The Nation

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The Pro-choice PR Problem

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Plati looks at organizing to protect reproductive choice as a grassroots affair. The process is this: Choice USA's staff of ten women makes as many campus visits as they can. They network with existing organizations, conduct sixty or so leadership trainings annually and emerge with a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, new and well-trained organizers every few years. Those organizers then train more people in their communities, who in turn train more people. In this way, the force of dedicated pro-choice activists increases multifold, much in the way Amway gets its salespeople.

Research support for this article was provided by a grant from the Open Society Institute.

About the Author

Jennifer Baumgardner
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author, with Amy Richards, of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and...

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At American University, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (better known as the rock/folk duo the Indigo Girls) and Karen O'Connor, a professor at AU and author of a book about the abortion struggle, joined Plati on the dais, fielding questions from a knowledgeable crew of students. The Q & A and the fundraising concert later that night drew a sizable crowd. "The students' association that we spoke to told me they want to start a chapter of Choice USA here," Plati said later, clearly pleased. Choice USA currently has twenty-five chapters in different stages of development.

"I think we need a lot of different tactics--media and organizing need to go hand in hand," said Plati the day after she got back from conducting leadership training in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "Look, I'm going to be really honest," she says. "The bottom line is that all of this money is going to a PEP ad campaign, and we are competing for that same money, just to get information into the hands of women who need it." Choice USA--which has a handful of staffers who all make in the $26,000 to $35,000 range, and fifteen interns some of whom get small stipends--had its plate full that month. They were helping to launch CARE, a coalition-based Campaign for Access and Reproductive Equity, which focuses on prohibitive measures that keep poor women from getting abortion and contraception services. In other words, CARE is an activist campaign built around limited access. (CARE has one staff member--the activist Leslie Watson--and has organized eighteen campus chapters.)

A few days after I met with Plati, Ellis Verdi screened a sixty-second commercial the agency had just completed for PEP. The idea was that commercials would "take PEP up to the next level," in terms of message and medium. In a room stuffed with industry awards, I viewed their minutelong masterpiece: A college-age biracial girl walks while Beth Gibbons from the trip-hop band Portishead sings plaintively, "We got a war to fight here." She is shadowed by three dour patriarchs who look a lot like Congressmen. As she goes about her business, every channel, meal and garment the woman selects is changed by the gang of old white guys to what they think she should have. In the final image, the girl is standing in a very frumpy Laura Ashley dress the guys chose for her. She looks trapped. The ad was amazing. Too bad it isn't on TV. In fact, it was rejected by NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS. According to an article by Jennifer Pozner in Extra!, all four offered similar explanations: that it was too "controversial" and that advocacy is not appropriate on network television. (The networks did, on the other hand, accept the anti-choice ads in the early 1990s.) To date, the PEP ad has aired only on one Fox affiliate in San Francisco.

Even if it had been shown nationwide, would a TV ad intended to raise consciousness have had any lasting effect on the political reality of choice? Doubtful, especially since ads don't address the incremental encroachments on choice that affect women in the age of Roe. The PEP ads aren't about being unable to pay for an abortion or how parental consent laws might be at the root of the grisly "prom mom" cases. "The problem with these ad campaigns that don't directly relate to organizing is that there is no way to follow up or build on them," Chrystal Plati told me. You have your Hallmark moment, "but then what?" NARAL president Kate Michelman concedes, "It's not effective by itself, without the follow-up and grassroots piece." But, she argues, "if you don't reach them, then you can never really count on activating them."

The trouble is that the "grassroots piece" often ends up being an afterthought. The DeVito/Verdi posters were made available to local affiliates to use, but merely having fresh propaganda is unlikely to do much to swell the ranks of, say, Planned Parenthood of Appleton, Wisconsin, nor did it succeed in electing the pro-choice presidential candidate. And, although the PEP television spot is powerful to watch, without an activist pro-choice grassroots beneath it--without even the ability to get on the air--it can't have the impact to justify its steep price tag. The biggest difference between the anti-choice ads and the pro-choice ones is that the former came after a visible, militant anti-choice movement had emerged. PEP is approaching the problem from the other direction: trying to create a movement from ads, hoping to invigorate the couch potatoes.

Efforts to engage young women more directly in the struggle for abortion rights and to learn from them are therefore essential.This past October, for instance, an intergenerational group of feminists called History in Action sponsored an intergeneration abortion speakout and teach-in at New York's Judson Memorial Church, the site of a historic abortion referral service. Thirty years ago, young radical feminists known as Redstockings organized a legendary speakout after interrupting an "expert" abortion hearing (consisting of fourteen men and a nun). Their novel idea was that the women who have to get abortions are the "real experts." At the recent speakout, well-known activists like Rosalyn Baxandall and Florence Rice revisited their own illegal abortions (hideous experiences, all), and Ellen Willis, an original Redstocking, explained that it wasn't until women organized on their own behalf that New York abortion law was liberalized. Then younger women talked about their post-Roe procedures. The legal abortions were, of course, safer, but the difficult experiences these women described surprised the women who had fought to legalize abortion. One of the last speakers was 20-year-old Lebwah Sykes, the membership/network coordinator of the Third Wave Foundation, one of the three national organizations that fund abortions for women, devoting $18,000 directly to grants for that purpose last year. (Third Wave funds only women under 30.) The majority of calls Sykes gets are for second-trimester abortions; the reason these young women wait is that they have to raise the money. "Often the woman has already gotten a second job," says Sykes, "but realizes a month or two later that she is not going to earn the money fast enough, and then we get called."

Meanwhile, some new ads appeared in the New York City subways this past fall. This time the anti-choice organization that sponsored them didn't go for happy grownups relishing the cozy wonder of having children. They went for pictures of fully-developed fetuses.

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