The Pro-Choice Caucus's Abortion Messaging Guidelines Are Good, Actually!
On Thursday, the Pro-Choice Caucus, led by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), released new messaging guidelines to help their colleagues address abortion more effectively. So far, there's been a lot of pushback from a lot of people (mostly cis men who will never need to have an abortion themselves) who are mad about it for one reason or another. For some, it's because we shouldn't be talking about words and messaging at a time like this, for others it's because they are particularly attached to some of the messaging that this messaging is meant to replace.
The interesting thing here is that the messaging guidelines have moderates complaining that the new terms will alienate people who aren't totally into abortion but might be okay with it under some circumstances and those on the opposite end who feel that these terms are probably focus-group-tested changes invented by "messaging gurus" that are even less direct than the terms they are replacing. As if Barbara "Literally The Only Member of Congress to Vote Against Letting Bush Invade Afghanistan" Lee has any history at all of that.
And of course there are those complaining that this is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and we shouldn't be doing this, we should be doing some other thing.
One thing that is very much worth understanding is that these are not "focus group" tested changes. Rather, many of them are changes that have been asked for and encouraged by actual abortion rights and access activists for a long time now, working within a reproductive justice framework and geared towards destigmatizing abortion and addressing the realities of today rather than those of 1973.
Another important thing to understand is this was meant to be an internal memo for politicians writing bills, not for literally everyone discussing abortion, ever.
But hey, we've got them now, so let's discuss.
Choice vs. Decision
So! While many of us still use it a lot (in my case mainly due to the fact that it doesn't take up much headline space), "choice" has largely fallen out of favor among reproductive freedom advocates for a variety of reasons — a big one being the fact that even with abortion being legal, not everyone has access to it.
The language of “choice” centers one person’s decision to get an abortion or not; a choice is something one person makes. Focusing on someone’s “choice” erases the structural, societal factors that determine how and if someone can get health care, and the quality of that care. These factors are not incidental or insignificant: they leave many people with no choices at all..
“Choice” assumes that everyone can get an abortion, and someone just has to choose whether or not they want one. Not everyone can get an abortion when they want one. Black feminists and feminists of color have pointed out that this isn’t the case: the legal right to choose to have an abortion does not always mean someone can actually get an abortion. “Choice” ignores the lived realities of people, especially Black people and people of color, who face barriers that are often compounded by racist and classist policies that keep them from the care they need.
Generally speaking, we've moved away from choice and towards terms like pro-abortion, pro-abortion access, reproductive freedom, reproductive justice, etc.
That being said, "decision," as a term, has a certain amount of gravity and finality that choice doesn't necessarily have, and is more consistent with the view of abortion as a health care issue. It also includes the many people who have abortions not because they want to, but for their own health or because of a fatal foetal abnormality.
Reduce abortion/"safe, legal and rare" vs. Safe, legal and accessible
The reasoning for this should be obvious — it reduces stigma. It's also some pretty crappy language to use when, again, not everyone has access even when it is legal.
But it's also particularly contentious among moderates who believe that this is a magic phrase that makes people who are not comfortable with abortion more likely to support it being legal. This is some deeply flawed logic.
When people are excessively self-deprecating, it's often because they want to soften what they imagine is an incoming blow to their self-esteem. It's wanting to make the joke first so no one else can. Except that it actually also reinforces whatever terrible thing you say about yourself in the mind of the person you're talking to, because you are the foremost authority on yourself and if you think you suck, who are they to disagree?
It's the same deal with policy. The people who want to say "safe, legal and rare" think they are softening the blow from those who believe it should be entirely non-existent while also sounding very reasonable, but everyone else, whether consciously or in their lizard brain, hears it as "Wow, even those who think it should be legal admit that it's bad, so it must be really bad." If you think something is good, say it's good.
Abortion is GOOD.
Unwanted pregnancy vs. Unexpected pregnancy
It's better because it's just more immediately relatable, is all. There's the fact that anti-choicers have had too long to work with it and create a narrative around those who have an "unwanted pregnancy" as being selfish and cruel for not wanting it — not to mention feeling like they can reasonably respond to it by telling the pregnant person to just give the baby up for adoption and ignore the fact that it is also entirely reasonable to not want to be pregnant or give birth.
Conscience clause/Protections vs. Refusal of care/Denial of care laws
Well this one should be obvious.
Back-alley abortions/Coat hangers vs Criminalizing healthcare
This is another one people had a big problem with, especially one guy who just would not stop arguing with me about it. I get it, because when I first heard this from Robin Marty, I was highly skeptical. Admittedly, I had used the scene from Mommy Dearest in more than a few articles (though really, given that I also think Christina Crawford was kind of full of shit — for reasons which are well known to me — it wasn't that big of a loss).
There is a reason why those whose primary concern is the safety of pregnant people and access to abortion have been the ones leading the charge on this — no one wants anyone to think that their first option if they have an unwanted pregnancy in a state where it is illegal is a wire hanger or throwing themselves down the stairs. There are safer options for self-managed abortions, particularly in the first trimester, and it's important that people are aware of that. We have medication abortions and there will be ways of getting it to people.
The reality of abortion in 2022 is very different from the reality of abortion in 1973. This is not to say that it is not dangerous to make abortion illegal, because it absolutely is, but we don't need to make it more dangerous than it has to be.
Any value that this has rhetorically is just vastly outweighed by the potential danger it might cause.
Times have changed with abortion, and as we rise up against those who would oppress us and take away the right to abortion, I ask you to not use the coat hanger as a rallying cry, because that is the symbol of my era, a time when a pregnancy could only be ended with a procedure. The symbol for this era is a pill. And while it may be hard to get, and we need to work on improving access, we don’t want to give people the idea that in desperation a coat hanger or injecting Lysol or throwing themselves down the stairs is the best option. Because they’re not. If people are going to access a self-managed abortion that may be clandestine as far as the State is considered, the best option for many may be misoprostol.
Mifepristone and misoprostol together is ideal, and while I think everyone should have that option, it may not be possible for everyone to access. So it is important that people know how effective misoprostol alone is and where they can get it. And as I have written here, there is no way any doctor or nurse or police lab can determine if you have taken it as long as you take it under your tongue or place the tablets against your cheek.
Everyone needs to know this.
Additionally, sending people to prison for having or performing abortions, for getting any kind of health care, is also horrific in and of itself.
It feels really important to note that Barbara Lee herself actually did have a "back alley" illegal abortion in Mexico before Roe v. Wade passed. This is not some hypothetical for her, it is her lived experience.
The way we talk about things is important, the way we frame things is important, and it just can't always be about what is personally satisfying for those saying it.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse