The Importance of the Political "Framing" of Abortion

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

Both leaders and strategists on the right skillfully manipulate their language and the images they use to create the context for their public education or framing of the debate. How activists who are anti-abortion frame the issue can affect whether or not people are attracted to their cause. But a frame that attracts some followers can simultaneously repel others. Some abortion-related concepts used by organizations on the right alternately unify, splinter or expand their ranks. It is useful to understand how the right constructs these ideas and uses them to attract and maintain members.

In the case of conservative Christians¾ especially conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics¾ a strict interpretation of the Bible or church dogma often drives their opposition to abortion. Many of these individuals have been influenced by the political messages of New Right strategists like Paul Weyrich , Richard Vigurie, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Beverly and Tim LaHaye, who frame the issue as one of morality. By using such a powerfully positive concept, anti-abortion strategists move people to act, whether through mainstream legislative work or more radical direct action. This device also places pro-choice activists -- their opponents -- outside the frame of morality, objectifying them as "other" in the eyes of anti-choice activists.

The more militant sectors of the anti-abortion movement, such as Flip Benham's Operation Rescue, Mark Crutcher's Life Dynamics and Joseph Scheidler's Pro-Life Action League, reflect the influence of the ultra-conservative Christian belief that the United States should be governed by "biblical law." These theocratic Christians frame abortion as murder and justify civil disobedience and other law-breaking activities as answering to a higher moral code than the US judicial system. Their frame of the issue opens the door to a frightening range of demonizing and coercive actions in the name of saving lives.

Most single-issue anti-abortion organizations associated with the New Right address abortion as separate from other reproductive rights issues such as contraception, women's health care, and access to sexuality education. Groups like the National Right to Life Committee, the Pro-Life Action League, and The American Life League resist making connections with other aspects of the right's agenda for fear of losing members or diluting the potency of their own message. Evangelical Protestants will sometimes "stray" from a single-issue focus on abortion by repeatedly referring in their literature to infanticide, euthanasia, and murder. The list strategically moves abortion beyond the narrower debate over the "morality" of abortion to associate its practice with a violation of "the sanctity of human life." It is no coincidence that this precise list consistently appears in various materials published by these groups and their supporters.

Language has always played a key role in the process of framing. Abortion opponents began to describe themselves as "pro-life," to distinguish their position from what they described as abortion activists' "culture of death." This choice of language helps position the anti-abortion movement as a force for something positive, not simply as an opposition movement. In this frame, euthanasia and infanticide become symbols of the type of heinous acts that a pro-life worldview must reject.

Rather than use scientific descriptions such as fetus or embryo, many pro-life advocates consistently use "baby," "unborn baby," "unborn child," or even "pre-born child."15 Such language makes it easier to claim that life begins at conception and reinforces the concept of the personhood of a fetus. It also makes the discussion more personal, especially to parents and women of childbearing age. And it can help an undecided pregnant woman to decide against abortion, since often women intending to bring a fetus to term refer to the fetus as a baby and feel conflict about destroying a child. In fact, much of the diction and rhetoric of abortion opponents blatantly exploit any moral ambiguity or conflicting emotions anyone may feel on the subject of abortion. Because the arguments are framed as absolute, they act as catalysts for self-doubt and uncertainty, with women as the primary target.

The frame of an anti-choice position is notable not just for what it includes but also for what is absent. Traditionally anti-abortion groups have avoided pitting the rights of the fetus against the rights of the mother, since to do so would acknowledge the validity of any argument for mother's rights. By avoiding discussion about women's rights altogether, this approach sidesteps the difficulties of resolving a competing rights struggle (between fetus and mother) and returns the ball of an untenable argument to the court of reproductive rights activists. Anti-abortion groups do this either by omitting references to the needs of the woman altogether or by trivializing the rights of pregnant women and women in general.

One of the most glaring, visual examples of this strategy is the 1984 pro-life documentary, "The Silent Scream," which portrays an abortion through the subjective lens of ultrasound pictures of a dilation and curettage, a common abortion procedure. Although extremely disturbing to watch, the film (and its video, available on the Internet) is a skillful illustration of constructed anti-abortion rhetoric. Despite multiple references to the fetus and the abortion provider, there is no mention, and no image, of the woman undergoing the procedure. She is completely absent from the scene. The focus of the camera remains on the fetus and the narrator, Bernard Nathanson, a "reformed abortionist" and anti-choice spokesman.

This strategy of removing women and their rights and needs from the debate pulls the abortion discussion away from the reality of women's lives. It thereby "erases" or makes invisible the basis for much of the pro-choice feminist position. It contributes to the general public's feeling that no real dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice proponents can take place. Further it opens the door for people - especially anti-abortion activists-to see pro-choice activists as selfish or insensitive to the life or death issues associated with "fetal rights." As medical technology advances the practice of fetal surgery and premature infant intensive care, we are experiencing more debate about the "legal rights of the fetus."

Anti-abortion activists find fetal rights arguments useful tools in constructing an analysis that eliminates a woman's own right to choose. Abortion opponents who argue that fetuses have rights are attempting to blur the legal distinctions between a fetus and an already born baby. A fetus's status as a person, they argue, allows for litigation on its behalf. At the same time, by representing the fetus as vulnerable, fragile and unable to defend itself, these activists reinforce the rightness of people other than the mother to act on the fetus's behalf, if they see her as not acting in its best interests. One important strength of the argument is that it appears secular and legal rather than religious.

But such an argument also appeals to fundamentalist Christians who, interpreting the Bible literally, often discount secular arguments and usually will reject scientific or legal arguments that are incompatible with their beliefs. Believing the fetus to have feelings and a personality -- in essence to be a person -- allows a spokesperson like James Dobson of Focus on the Family to condemn abortion as a sin, since it kills a creature of God.

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