All over the country, student and activist pro-life groups regularly meet to discuss the intimidating task of developing a sound messaging program to effectively reach members of their communities. Which key words will connect with women the most? How do we handle the most difficult questions with the appropriate amount of care? Often overlooked in all this is that simultaneously, as a foil to this work, abortion rights advocates are meeting in these very same communities, discussing these very same issues of messaging. Just as pro-lifers grapple with how to message about issues such as restricting reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy, and abortion in the case of rape, conversely, abortion rights activists are laboring to present their views on parental consent, late-term abortion, and public financing of abortions in the most palatable terms to the general public.
Out of a desire to better understand our opponents’ viewpoints and be prepared for the types of messaging young women at risk for abortion may be hearing, our Students for Life group decided to secretly infiltrate a NARAL training session in California. What we encountered there was a pro-choice movement that is both shrewd in its marketing and emboldened in its goals.
The messaging tactics seem to be emotionally aware and politically savvy. The issue of abortion was highly shrouded in the language of social justice. The “lived experiences of women” and “meeting women where they are at” were highly emphasized. It seemed that the objective question of “the morality of abortion” was countered with the subjective “lived experiences” of women obtaining abortions—as if obtaining an abortion was a form of identity, that could not be understood or questioned beyond the person experiencing it. Euphemisms were also used abundantly. As the trainer noted, while many Americans do not mind abortion being legal, a clear majority of Americans have strong ethical qualms with abortion. As such, the word “choice” can lose its power if many people view the choice as immoral. Therefore, incorporating more universal terms such as “economic security” can be more effective. As pro-lifer writer Jill Stanek has noted, “The pro-choice movement has been reduced to euphemisms about euphemisms.”
In a moment of shocking honesty in a portion on parental notification, the trainer noted that many parents do not feel that their children should have rights to abortion, prioritizing their child’s safety over their child’s personal privacy. She added that it’s important to relay to the parents, that of course their kid will come to them, but what about children who are more unfortunate and don’t have anyone to trust? Never mind that they’re advocating for the right of all children to circumvent their parents; at least the parents they’re talking to feel good about their kids. For someone willing to be so disingenuous with parents, she was strikingly honest with us about these tactics.
|Above: Pro-abortion signs with "access" messaging|
Another component that jumped out at us was how far the conversation has shifted as the pro-choice has become more dissatisfied with the status quo and more emboldened in their policy goals. Long gone are the reverence for the trimester regime of Roe, the regulations provided for by Casey, the consensus of Hyde and the cautious verbiage of the 90’s which sought to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” In their absence, “accessibility” has become the catch-all word. The NARAL spokeswoman made it clear that this prioritization of accessibility is the main driver behind 2018’s SB 320 in California, and the 2016 Democratic party platform, explicitly including the overturning of the Hyde Amendment. When directly asked about this by one of our members, the spokeswoman said that assuming a Democratic victory in 2020, the overturning of Hyde will be a top legislative priority in 2021. She also acknowledged that she never imagined a day when two national candidates would both advocate overturning Hyde. How far we’ve come. It is clear to us, that within the next 5 years it is highly likely that the battle over Hyde will be the front lines in the abortion debate.
The Litmus Test
Being as the training was held at a county Democratic Party office, it was only natural that the infamous “litmus test” question to arise. Ever since Tom Perez’s well-known snafu, Democrats have been contentiously debating whether their big tent can tolerate the presence of pro-lifers. It was here that the level of extremism was made evident. The NARAL spokeswoman said that if they feel confident their candidate can maintain the Democrat seat in question, then they would primary the only three Democrats that voted for the 20 week abortion ban. She also noted that NARAL endorsed Hillary over Bernie. This is rather remarkable, given that they did not endorse Hillary in 2008; but Bernie, who has a 100 percent voting rating from NARAL and a 0 rating from the National Right to Life, made the unpardonable sin of endorsing a pro-life Democrat from Nebraska. Apparently it is not just pro-life Democrats who will not be tolerated by NARAL, but also stalwart pro-choicers who merely wish to co-exist with pro-life Democrats.
Having discussed the abortion issue for over 10 years now, I felt a strange connection with the people there. I could relate to their passion and excitement about the issues being discussed. I myself have been in many similar pro-life talks and have the same types of conversations they have with the public week in and week out. It was interesting to think that these people have devoted their lives to defending that which my moral intuition tells me is the greatest moral wrong. In that moment, I realized perhaps they view me and my friends as doing the same and being equally misguided.
Although, I can say that the evening did not end with moral ambiguity. As the training was wrapping up the spokeswoman did a brief Q&A. Answering one question she tongue-in-cheek replied “We’re very live and let live here” and then belly-laughed saying, “Sorry, I have a very dark sense of humor.” Dark indeed.
At last: something we can agree on.
[Today's guest post is by Jeremy R.]