In the continuing tussle over abortion rights, battles can be won or lost by condensing complex arguments into a few well-chosen words. Few may understand a law named the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, but most would agree that a “partial birth” abortion sounds gruesome. A “prolife” campaign may appeal to voters, while an “antichoice” campaign might not.
Conservatives have often seized the advantage in the rhetorical joust by claiming moral high ground. The Supreme Court “affirmed the value of human life,” said Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, after the court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act on April 18.
Now the prochoice movement is attempting to win back this war of words by talking values themselves, with the goal of reducing abortions. The aim is to connect core American values to the issue of reproductive rights by taking the emphasis off abortion rights and focusing on more universally accepted goals–preventing abortions through a broader agenda that includes better healthcare and comprehensive sex education. By circumventing the divisiveness of abortion, the prochoice movement intends to bring forward real legislative changes regarding reproductive health and rights.
“You want to be very clear about what your values are,” says Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Over the years we have had to work harder to communicate those values–dignity, parental responsibility, the value of family and when the time is right to have a family.”
A values-oriented, prevention-based prochoice agenda has gained traction with the new Democratic Congressional leadership. However, the prevention rhetoric has been largely drowned out by the familiar clamor over abortion, growing in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision and the upcoming presidential race.
Prochoice advocates say their message has always been about more than just abortion rights. The public, they say, will respond to words that unify people. Yet with the prolife movement continuing to push to outlaw abortion, is a prevention-based message strong enough to maintain and improve reproductive freedoms?
The Supreme Court’s validation of the abortion ban was a resounding confirmation of the right’s polarizing rhetoric. The name of the act itself had the prochoice community up in arms: NARAL Pro-Choice America refers to it as the “Federal Abortion Ban” rather than the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban.”
“It is not a medical term, it is not a legal term, it is a political term,” says Nancy Keenan, NARAL Pro-Choice America president.
Since the ruling, abortion has reclaimed its spot as a top media buzzword. Yet prochoice politicians have used the decision as an opportunity to stress a broader women’s agenda that includes reproductive rights.
John Edwards in particular has used prevention-based rhetoric to tie women’s health with other issues that he champions, such as poverty. On May 15, he launched his “Women for Edwards” agenda, which features a comprehensive set of “women’s issues” as well as notable support from female leaders.