Perhaps it's time to retire the phrase “pro-choice?” That was an interesting thread dangled at a panel at the National Press Club on June 22, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Washington, D.C. Ostensibly the talk was about the South Dakota total ban on abortion that was passed by the state legislature last March, and is currently up for a repeal on the November ballot. However, as Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota pointed out there is only one clinic in South Dakota—located in Sioux Falls—that performs abortions. So basically there’s not much left to ‘ban.’
I asked Stoesz in the Q & A portion whether it wasn’t a bit of a “risk” to put the repeal up on the ballot? After all, the pro-choice side could lose. And wouldn’t a loss give abortion opponents a great new talking point that which says when you put abortion up for “popular vote,” the voters do decide they don’t want legal abortions.
Stoesz acknowledged that they could lose at the ballot, but also pointed out that if the pro-choice side is going to win on the issues, these battles need to start being fought outside the judicial arena. She specifically said that Planned Parenthood didn’t want to “take the bait” in South Dakota by fighting it in the courts. A battle which could set up a decision that become a legal framework to ban abortion—which is why they decided to go the route of the statewide ballot. (Although Stoesz also said that should the statewide repeal fail at the ballot, Planned Parenthood will pursue a court case.)
I suspect that this idea—the cultural battle to convince women to keep their reproductive rights as their own—is going to be far more important in the next decade, especially with an increasingly anti-abortion Federal judiciary stacked with Bush appointees.
Al Quinlan is a pollster who’s been working with Planned Parenthood in South Dakota and sat on the panel. While he thought they would win in November he also said that he thought it would be a pretty close race.
Still Quinlan offered, what I thought, was a good idea for the national pro-choice movement. Stop using “choice” as the movement’s message.
“South Dakota people don’t see it as a choice … they view it as a right they should have… ‘Choice’ carries a meaning that works against us,” he said.
Quinlan suggested that using the term “right”—as in inalienable rights—is a frame that works much better, and can have appeal to Libertarian side of both parties.
Robin Shavitz, who lobbies the Maryland state legislature on pro-choice issues, thought using the terminology of “rights” would also be good for helping to link reproductive issues to civil rights, something that the movement doesn’t do enough to emphasize.
No one got into the specifics of exactly how to condense the term—certain using the slogan a woman’s “right to an abortion” doesn’t seem to be exactly the correct phrasing—but switching from the word “choice” seems to be the right step. Especially since there is a perception that the issue of “abortion” is one that only concerns white, “pampered” women. A few questioners to the panel pointed out the black woman-white women divide on the issue of abortion. (Not that black women aren’t demographically pro-choice, but that they view it in a spectrum of issues of concern, such as health care in general.) Jatrice Martel Gaiter, who is the president of Planned Parenthood of D.C. and moderated the panel—and is black—agreed that the pro-choice movement hasn’t done enough to link reproductive rights to civil rights and “human” rights in general, which is why changing the slogan may help shift the debate.
The point that panel invitees wanted to raise was that South Dakotans’ perceptions of abortion aren’t unique. They aren’t just some hicks whose views should be dismissed by blue staters who are certain that most people think like them. The majority of Americans do still want abortions to be legal, but we are slowly losing the rhetoric wars, enough so that 10 states are currently considering abortion bans like South Dakota’s and others signing “trigger bans” at a fast pace (with the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, being the most recent signee).
So it’s worth listening to what kind of language works when talking to people in South Dakota about abortion because it probably will work everywhere else.
--Rachel Joy Larris
| Monday, June 26, 2006 4:31 PM