In The Performance of Politics, Jeffrey C. Alexander argues that “the discourse of civil society is divided into either/or binaries” (p. 10, 2010). In order to be successful, he argues that politicians and interest groups must design images for themselves that can be “clearly and cleanly organized, put into boxes in neat and tidy, black-and-white ways” (p. 11, 2010). For example, candidates must paint themselves as all that is good, honorable and in line with American values, while simultaneously casting their opponents as the embodiment of all that is evil. While he admits that the actual “relationship between moral category and political action is arbitrary and fuzzy,” Alexander sees this black-and-white, good-and-evil messaging as a crucial part of winning public support in American politics, which he sees as largely based on emotion and preexisting judgments, rather than rational discourse.
Traditionally, this has been has been true for interest groups and organizations on both sides of the abortion debate. Anti-abortion groups describe themselves as “pro-life,” thus framing their opponents as anti-life or pro-death. Life, on the other hand, is commonly accepted as an undeniable right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence’s famous reference to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Meanwhile, groups that support access to abortions refer to themselves as “pro-choice.” The concept of personal choice is one of America’s most sacred ideals. The term “pro-choice” implies that their opponents are against freedom and support the overbearing government control of women’s health decisions. Both groups have sought to create messaging that convinces the public that their opponents are on the wrong side of morality and stand in opposition to American values. Interest groups, such as Planned Parenthood and the National Right to Life Committee, help reinforce and sustain the “symbolic discourse” that rules the modern public sphere (Alexander, p. 11, 2010).
However, recent polls have revealed that the majority of Americans’ actual feelings about abortion do not neatly fit into Alexander’s (and these interest groups’) black-and-white perceptions that drive political decision-making. While 7 out of 10 Americans support Roe v. Wade at the decision’s 40th anniversary, a closer look at this poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal reveals that Americans actually have very mixed feelings when it comes to the abortion debate:
Planned Parenthood conducted a similar poll, which discovered important problems with the two terms, pro-life and pro-choice, that have shaped the abortion debate thus far. The portion of Americans that label themselves “pro-choice” has fallen from 56% in 1996 to 41% today. However, at the same time, support for Roe v. Wade is actually increasing. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the polling firm Hart Research revealed that more than one third of self-described pro-lifers do not believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
One of these “middle-grounders” summed up the issue pretty accurately, “There should be three [labels]: pro-life, pro-choice, and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances. It’s not just black or white–there’s gray.”
As a result of these poll results, Planned Parenthood is now opting to move away from the “pro-choice” label in its communication strategy. In doing so, the interest group hopes to better appeal to the large portion of American voters who do not have absolute views on whether or not abortion is immoral. The organization plans to frame abortion as a “decision” rather than a “choice,” thereby focusing on the complexity of the issue and making the organization more relatable to people in the middle of the abortion debate. Planned Parenthood recently released a YouTube video, “Not in Her Shoes,” to introduce this new approach.
“A growing number of Americans no longer identify with the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ labels that they believe box them in,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a recent article by The Washington Times. “Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the decisions women and their families make.”
The Washington Times reports that anti-abortion groups have no plans to change their brand or messaging.
“We will remain pro-life regardless of what the other side wants to call themselves,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, to The Washington Times.
I applaud Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights groups for their decision to move away from the inflammatory, emotional, oversimplified terms that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have become. I see it as a small step toward Jürgen Habermas’ ideal vision for discussions in the public sphere based on truth and rational justifications, rather than emotional appeals. However, in order to make more progress toward the creation of a rational abortion debate in the American public sphere, anti-abortion groups must follow in Planned Parenthood’s footsteps and turn their backs on emotionally-charged language and appeals.