The shifting narrative of the abortion debate
Abortion rights demonstrators at the Minnesota state Capitol earlier this year. Photo by Grace Deng/Minnesota Reformer.
When someone is trying to sell you something, pay attention to the language they’re using. My long years in advertising taught me that.
We’re a year-out from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning the longstanding precedent of Roe v. Wade, and the constantly shifting arguments of the anti-abortion side of the debate have been catching in my ear.
The 1973 Roe decision made an uneasy embrace of abortion rights the law of the land, and for a half-century the anti-abortion movement centered its opposition to the decision on three simple words. Abortion is murder. You could agree or disagree, but there was no mistaking the moral clarity of the argument. It made abortion a troubling proposition, even for many of us who agreed more generally with Roe as a governing policy.
They also came up with a simple, clear and effective slogan: “Pro-life.” Which meant if you disagreed, you were anti-life.
When the Supreme Court upended Roe, it also upended the moral clarity of the anti-abortion argument. To me that’s one of the more intriguing bits of collateral damage to come out of the court’s bombshell decision.
After all these years of arguing for the need to protect unborn babies, a good number of anti-abortion politicians are finding themselves stuck trying to define what is or is not a baby. If you listen, it sounds like they’re working through a stubborn math problem.
Ohio’s six-week abortion ban was put into effect immediately after the Dobbs decision came down, but is on hold by the courts for now pending litigation.
Arizona bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Florida passed a 15-week ban. Then, thinking that might be insufficient to pad the hard-right resume of the state’s governor for his presidential run, the legislature there passed a six-week ban.
Nebraska went the opposite way, passing a 12-week ban after a six-week ban failed in the legislature.
In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers are describing their newly enacted 12-week ban as “mainstream” because 90% of abortions are performed before 12 weeks and would therefore still be legal — language that seems to be gaining some traction among politicians mindful of the voter backlash to conservative abortion policies.
You might wonder, is that really what all this was for? The 50 years of shouting at one another, the polarization, the vitriol, the attacks on women’s health and women’s rights, the killing of doctors, the lies, the legal chaos, the corruption of the U.S. Supreme Court by oceans of right-wing dark money — all to put some small percentage of abortions out of reach?
Strip away the all the language, and the cold logic of abortion law is what it has always been. How do we balance the state’s interest in protecting fetal life with a woman’s interest in protecting her own life? The women in this equation are asked to give up much. Dignity. Careers. Constitutional rights. Health. If those seeking to compel such a sacrifice can’t come up with a clear description of what they mean by fetal life, you see why their moral case is running into problems.
That’s one important part of the story, but speaking even louder is the actual harm experienced by people in the states that have new abortion bans. Truly horrific stories of life-threatening complications left untreated because doctors feared prosecution under the new laws. Women forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term. A ten-year-old rape victim forced to travel to another state to have her pregnancy ended.
It adds up to a larger narrative that the abortion laws getting passed by states are proving unworkable, chaotic, cruel, unjust, dangerous. The sympathetic pictures of unborn babies on anti-abortion billboards along rural highways are being replaced in the public mind by actual stories of the suffering inflicted on expectant mothers.
Medicine has not stood still during the 50 years we’ve spent arguing about Roe — the care available to people have become infinitely more powerful and complex. It’s impossible to enumerate all that medicine can now do, or all the ways a pregnancy can go terrifyingly wrong. And we can’t say when life begins without falling back on constitutionally fraught religious teachings. Taken together, all this means that the abortion policy decisions the Dobbs ruling sent back to the state legislatures will always struggle to produce anything but a toxic mess.
On the other side, the argument for abortion rights — now under threat in a broad swath of the country — is about freedom, and no longer in the abstract. Which is usually the ground upon which you want to be debating in American politics.
As a result, the moral high ground in the debate has shifted. We see this in the polls, with growing numbers of Americans supporting abortion rights. A majority now say abortion is “morally acceptable.”
I learned early on in my career if you can own the high ground in your audience’s minds, it makes persuasion more powerful and enduring. The moral high ground is even better. Harder to ignore. Harder to deny.
So for those trying to figure out how much influence abortion might have in the upcoming election cycle, analyzing it from a communications perspective suggests it may be just getting going, as voters see how the effects of all the abortion laws enacted in the past year play out.
Abortion rights may be an enduring issue, and also part of an emerging moral platform supporting progressive viewpoints. Not something I would have predicted two years ago.
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