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The Pro-choice PR Problem | The Nation

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The Pro-choice PR Problem

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A bout a decade ago, the DeMoss Foundation commissioned the "Life. What a Beautiful Choice" advertising campaign. The commercial spots themselves were deliberately uncontroversial, going for gorgeous Reagan-era images of happy kids and unharried parents rather than the more familiar anti-choice portrait of gored nine-month "fetuses." They associated joy, family and fulfillment with the antiabortion position. The word "abortion" was never uttered; the American "value" of life was. They ran in heavy rotation on big networks like CBS and ABC, not to mention CNN and scads of local affiliates.

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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Feel-good images aside, the ads had a calculated political purpose. They were lobbed at the kind of semiconservative areas that could go anti-choice with a little nudge--like Arizona in 1992, during a ballot initiative campaign that aimed to outlaw abortion. It's impossible to gauge the precise impact, but the "Life. What A Beautiful Choice" ads reflected and supported a surge in grassroots anti-choice activism, from the Lambs of Christ 1991 siege of Fargo, North Dakota, to Operation Rescue's 1991 Summer of Mercy in Wichita, Kansas.

The pro-choice movement didn't have anything like that--until 1999, that is, when a coalition called the Pro-choice Public Education Project (PEP) hired the prizewinning New York agency DeVito/Verdi to design a series of ads illustrating the American "value" of choice. PEP is a consortium of more than fifty women's rights organizations, with a steering committee that includes NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the Ms. Foundation. If you live in New York City, you can't have missed its first set of ads--posters consisting of a black and white image with red type, prominently displayed in subways and on buses throughout the city. (DeVito/Verdi got the pro-choice artist Barbara Kruger's permission to imitate her style.) The ads illustrate the sexism and apathy behind the erosion of abortion rights. For example, "77 percent of anti-abortion leaders are men," reads one poster, featuring a photo of dour old white patriarchs. "100 percent of them will never be pregnant." Another, in which a tattooed and pierced 20something gazes up at the camera, asks provocatively, "You think you can do what you want with your body? Think again." A new series of subway posters just about to be launched contains images that vividly recall the back alley.

These campaigns are one response to what could be described as the pro-choice movement's growing PR problem: The number of young people who say they support abortion rights has declined every year except one since 1990, according to a well-regarded annual UCLA study of incoming freshmen. There are more pro-choice than anti-choice Americans, yet many of the people who support abortion rights don't appear to feel the need to fight to insure those rights. For example, nearly two-thirds of the respondents to a Lake Snell Perry survey conducted in late 1999 strongly favored Roe v. Wade. Yet when asked if they'd be "worried if the next President tried to overturn Roe v. Wade through Supreme Court appointments," less than half said they'd lose any sleep over it. Chads and butterfly ballots aside, that carefree attitude was confirmed in the last election. One of Bush's first acts as President was to reactivate the global gag rule, cutting off US aid to overseas clinics that provide information on abortion. And, the National Abortion Rights Action League reports, more than 435 restrictions on abortion were brought before state legislators in 2000.

PEP ads attempt to reckon with the biggest gripe having to do with young people and abortion today--that young women tend to view reproductive freedom as their "birthright." This statement needs some deconstruction: Most younger women were born after Roe and thus with the right to an abortion (ergo, it is their birthright). The problem is that young women are asked to get anxious about what is, in many ways, a hypothetical situation. What if Roe v. Wade is overturned? What if your only choice was to bear a child you don't want or go to a back-alley butcher? "You can't just go out and say to young women and men, 'these are the threats, it's so awful, go do something about it,'" says Marion Sullivan, a former pollster and legislative aide who directed PEP until this past summer. PEP's survey of 1,000 women age 16 to 25 suggested that young women are more likely than the population as a whole to call themselves pro-choice, yet also very likely to define choice broadly--and to tolerate restrictions. "We have to reach young women where they are," says Sullivan. "If they say they are pro-choice for others and 'pro-life' for themselves, it's our job to educate them that supporting these restrictions makes them 'pro-life' on behalf of others, too."

"I don't have a gripe with the ads--who would?" says Annie Keating, a staffer at Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health who worked at NARAL-NYC for many years. "It's the priorities. Frankly, ads and electoral work are not going to sustain a movement, and no one will fund an activist campaign around limited access."

Indeed, in a movement with scarce resources, the cost of placing even a few prime-time ads can be a huge drain, crowding out critical organizing projects. "The actual cost per ad is incredibly high," confirms Marion Sullivan. "It's a multimillion-dollar campaign, and it costs a lot to have a great firm." DeVito/Verdi did pro bono work for eight months, but the printing of the subway posters alone cost $15,000. Typically, a single thirty-second TV spot costs around $300,000 to produce (although the PEP ads were done for "considerably less," according to Ellis Verdi, the president of DeVito/Verdi). That's before buying the expensive airtime, magazine and newspaper real estate, or space in subways and on the sides of buses. NARAL alone spent $7.5 million during the last election cycle, including $1.5 million for an ad opposing Ralph Nader (targeted to the half-dozen or so states in which he was endangering Gore).

Meanwhile, other pro-choice organizations, eschewing the blare of advertising, are dedicating themselves to the grassroots organizing techniques that have worked for the feminist movement in the past. Last April, the day taxes were due and the A16 protesters were raising a ruckus in our nation's capital, Chrystal Plati addressed a room of forty alternative-looking female students at American University, testifying about an urgent campaign for access to reproductive choice. Plati is a 27-year-old Cypriot-American with glossy brown hair and apple cheeks. She is employed as the executive director of Choice USA, a nonprofit public education organization founded by Gloria Steinem and others in 1991, the year after Rust v. Sullivan imposed the gag rule on US clinics that received federal funds, meaning abortion couldn't be mentioned as an option.

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