Is It Rhetorically Useful?

Jessica and Amanda are reporting from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women conference in Atlanta. The stuff they report isn’t especially encouraging; much of what they write about is attempts by some participants to make pronouncements about how to properly argue, based mostly on what is non-divisive and non-oppressive. Says Jessica,

Paltrow spoke a lot about the myth that there are different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies [emphasis in original]. The fact is, of course, that we’re all the same women. (After all, 61 percent of women who are going to have abortions are already mothers.)

But because of the pervasiveness of that myth, we haven’t been working together. And the thing is, we need to be. Because the same rhetoric that say women are murderers for having abortions also says that women are murderers for not giving birth appropriately.

Shifting the emphasis to general pro-woman rhetoric could work. If it couldn’t, Feminists For Life would probably not exist, with emphasis on “probably.” But it could also backfire by associating abortion with feminism too much. In the US, the term “pro-choice” is one of the most strongly positive frames available to the entire left. When asked to choose between the two most common frames, American prefer “pro-choice” to “pro-life” by a margin of 53 to 39. When asked what restrictions on abortion they want, it drops to 51-46, and of the 51, 20 want stricter limits.

Most of that is due to infrastructure. Pro-choice Americans have had 34 years to build up a movement around the choice frame, so they’ve saturated mainstream culture with arguments about choice rather than about motherhood. It’s entirely possible that building a motherhood-oriented movement for reproductive rights from the ground up could work.

But then again, it might not. Feminists have built a movement separately from pro-choicers, with far less success. Besides, the current cycle of the American abortion debate has a shelf life equal to John Paul Stevens’ life expectancy plus about three months. Planning ahead is important, but doing something that could backfire when it matters the most makes no political sense.

Amanda has more on that hyperopic view,

SisterSong is also hosting a conference soon that warmed this sex-obsessed feminist’s heart—called “Let’s Talk About Sex!“, the idea is to get away from the dreary anti-sex attitudes on the right and the unfortunate due that the left gives them by advocating for sexuality as a positive value, a life-affirming and enhancing thing. I’m really excited to see a major feminist organization revitalize this issue, because I think one of the most troubling tendencies amongst pro-choicers is a tendency to frame reproductive rights as necessary to manage the inevitability of sex. Better would be to take the genuinely pro-life position and say, “We stand for people having fulfilling lives that are actually worth living, and an important part of ensuring that this is possible is respecting the importance of sexual pleasure.” Period. Even the all-too-true point that sex is an important part of intimacy-building for couples still has the subtle tendency to undermine the idea that sexual pleasure is valuable for its own reasons—and subtly can reinforce the notion that some women aren’t as deserving of their full rights as others.

The first question when deciding what frame to use shouldn’t be, “Is it oppressive?”. It should be, “Is it rhetorically useful?”. Except in overly blatant cases, such as certain isolationist arguments against Iraq, utility is the only valid concern for frames.

In fact, many earlier frames successfully used language that was later construed as oppressive, once the original overarching concern disappeared. Abolitionists argued against slavery using a form of black inferiority. Civil rights lawyers argued against trumped-up rape charges by emphasizing false accusations and corroborating evidence. Right now, gay rights activists are arguing for SSM by showing that homosexual relationships can be perfectly traditional in all aspects except gender.

Since the late 19th century, successful rhetoric for equal rights centered on showing that one narrowly conceived group should belong in the mainstream. Difference feminism and black separatism have achieved no good political changes. The most fruitful avenue for American atheists right now seems to be showing that they’re as culturally American as any Christian.

Now, a pro-choice analogy would probably be along the line of Lynn Paltrow’s blurring of the line between abortion and motherhood. But again, that’s in the long run. It’s impossible to create the appropriate infrastructure for that in Stevens’ lifetime. A frame needs to be ruthlessly tested and modified from its initial version to be convincing.

One Response to Is It Rhetorically Useful?

  1. I went to a talk this morning on the future of pro-choice policy and rhetoric was a big issue there too. We can’t just keep calling it a “rights issue” because it isn’t just a rights issue. It’s a safety issue, and a health issue. Safety and health DO get brought up a lot, but not as much as rights.
    It’s really sad how women who have abortions are actually treated in clinics, too. Maybe if people focused more on the health aspects, they could be improved..

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