Winning the War of Words

Winning the War of Words

Prochoice activists are taking a page from the right by applying a values-driven strategy designed to prevent abortions.


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.

Edwards is advocating for “women who remain on the margins, for whom the benefits of the women’s movement have not quite materialized yet because society has failed them,” says Michelman, who now is a senior adviser for Edwards. “He is dedicated to ending poverty and ensuring healthcare–both of those affect women most–and focusing on low-wage jobs, which render women in a vulnerable situation.”

The decision, after years as a leader in the prochoice movement, to support Edwards “was one of the most important political decisions of my life,” Michelman says. “Hillary’s race is an extraordinary opportunity for women.” But Edwards, she says, “is speaking for the women who have no voice, who reside in the more silent corners of our nation–and that to me is most inspiring.”

The two other Democratic frontrunners have also specifically addressed women voters on their websites and in their campaigns. Barack Obama’s “Women for Obama” page promises to “engage women, enlist women and empower women.” It lists the Illinois senator’s positions on “women’s issues” and notes he is a co-sponsor of the Prevention First Act, introduced by prolife Senate majority leader Harry Reid and prochoice Democratic Representatives Louise Slaughter and Diana DeGette. The measure provides more funding for family-planning services under Title X, calls for public-awareness programs on emergency contraception as well as programs for teen pregnancy prevention, and ensures equity in prescription and contraceptive insurance coverage.

Clinton describes herself as a “champion for women” on her website, where she notes that as First Lady she helped found the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, which aimed to reduce teen pregnancies. She also is a co-sponsor of Prevention First.

Clinton’s history shows the prevention agenda is nothing new–but the emphasis in Congress does mark a change. “The prevention agenda is giving a proactive solution to a very divisive debate in this country,” Keenan says. “It provides elected officials an opportunity to go on the offense.”

Other bills offering middle-of-the-road, prevention-focused reproductive health legislation include the REAL Act, which provides for federally funded comprehensive sex education, and the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, which would expand Medicaid eligibility to family-planning services, expand adoption services and create programs to reduce teen pregnancy. “Now that we’re in the majority, we think we have a real chance to move something forward,” says DeGette, who co-chairs the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. The Prevention First Act, which DeGette calls the “gold standard” of the new agenda, has been referred to three committees, including the Energy and Commerce Committee, which she vice-chairs.

Supporters say the Prevention First Act is a measure that both prochoice and prolife advocates–Democratic or Republican–should be able to get behind. But of the bill’s 136 co-sponsors, there are only four Republicans. In the Senate, no Republicans are co-sponsoring the measure.

Meanwhile, President Bush has stood firm in his opposition to family-planning services that might give advice on or provide abortions. In a May 3 letter to Congressional leaders, he wrote, “I will veto any legislation that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion…. The standing pattern is that appropriate conscience protections must be in place for health care entities.”

However, DeGette says votes on prevention bills could still be useful in revealing how extreme the Republican Party has become on reproductive rights issues.

“The people who push against this agenda are also anti-birth control,” she says. “It has the added benefit of smoking those people out on this issue.”

Polling continues to show that most Americans have moderate to liberal views on abortion. A May 10 Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans think abortions should be legal under some circumstances. Ninety-three percent of Americans favor the use of birth control, according to a 2005 Harris poll.

Michelman cites the defeat of a 2006 antiabortion ballot initiative in South Dakota as proof of how the prevention agenda appeals even to voters in more conservative states. Fifty-five percent of voters rejected the measure, which nearly banned abortions completely. Some voters expressed concern that, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the pregnant woman, the measure was too draconian.

“For the first time, we put the decision a woman makes in the larger context of a woman’s decision to protect her health, her ability to regain dignity,” Michelman says. “I am certain South Dakota was the first time the issue was discussed as openly and as deeply as it was.”

While prochoice advocates are maintaining their prevention focus, there is pressure after the “partial birth” court decision to revert back to a simpler, more assertive message. Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the Freedom of Choice Act on April 19, the day after the court announced its ruling, to provide federal protection for a woman’s right to choose to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. “It really is going to draw the lines come election time,” says Keenan. “Whether or not [a candidate] signs onto the Freedom of Choice Act will tell us a lot–who is going to protect women’s freedom and privacy.”

But refocusing the debate and adjusting the language of the prochoice movement will not count for much if it does not result in firmer support for reproductive rights. After all, President Bush was not so far off from using prochoice rhetoric himself in his last State of the Union address when he said, “In all we do, we must remember that the best healthcare decisions are made not by government and insurance companies but by patients and their doctors.”

In spite of Bush’s previous statements and his continuing veto threats, Congress could pave the way for legislative change with hearings and debate on the prevention-related bills that have been introduced.

Representative Tim Ryan, a prolife Democrat from Ohio, foresees a future in which Democrats can appeal to both prolife and prochoice voters by passing prevention legislation. “In a year or two, we will see a decline in abortion rates, and then you’ll see the results and have proof for the American people,” he says. “Can you imagine–the Democrats who brought abortion rates down? That’s a significant thing to tell your constituents.”

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