Sunday, June 14, 2009

re-branding abortion rights

i've tried a number of times to get this op-ed published, but since that's looking less and less likely, i'm finally going to post it on the interwebs. i still think it's timely. please share if so moved.


In the wake of Dr. George Tiller’s murder, abortion rights are back in the public eye. Though his death saddens me, I hope reproductive rights groups will seize upon this opportunity to reinvigorate the movement. Because as an advertising professional, and perhaps even more as a 29-year-old woman, I can see nothing in more desperate need of a branding overhaul than the pro-choice cause. It’s dated. Off the radar. And out of touch with young people.

Like so many consumer products, reproductive rights groups must re-package and re-present themselves to stay relevant to that ever-elusive young target. That’s not to say they aren’t trying. Every major abortion rights group has online presence on Facebook, Myspace, and YouTube. They still have pockets of young activists, as seen recently on the campus of Notre Dame. Pro-choice groups are even getting provocative by sponsoring college events like the Vagina Monologues. And by piggybacking onto less controversial issues such as affordable birth control and comprehensive sex education, they’re aiming to broaden their support base.

But these efforts have done little to evoke the same passion in protecting reproductive rights that opposition groups have evoked in shutting them down. Anti-choicers have figured out how to connect on a deeply visceral level to galvanize young people towards restricting and eventually outlawing abortion. Through activist summer camps, political internships, and organized youth groups, a growing number of minds are being won over. In 2008, a Pew survey found that 22% of young adults support a total ban on abortion, compared with only 15% of their parents’ generation.

Unlike their parents’ generation, who remember the struggles surrounding Roe v. Wade, these so-called “millenials” have never lived in a time when abortion was illegal. So even if support for legal abortion in some or all circumstances still sits in the majority, the sentiment is latent at best.

On the other hand, anti-choicers see themselves as heroic crusaders, saving lives against the bastion of an immoral practice. George Tiller “was a mass murderer” who “reaped what he sowed,” said Randall Terry, founder of anti-choice Operation Rescue. "The thought of him leaving this life with blood on his hands for having killed so many thousands of children and not having been prepared to meet his maker is a dreadful, terrifying thought."

Yikes. How do you compete with a damning sentiment like that? You don’t.

Every movement needs a villain. The pro-lifers have theirs, and they’re well-funded and mobilized to fight it. Where’s the pro-choice villain? Something young women like me can rally against? Something to get us mad, and get us moving?

It may not be as obvious, but it’s just as potent. Our villain is hypocrisy. My generation can’t stand bullshit. In our young lives, we’ve seen an election stolen, a war started under false pretenses, and ridiculous cases of corporate greed. It’s hardened us. We like calling people’s bluffs. We take nothing at face value. And understanding how we think is the key to winning us over.

One of the most successful public service efforts of our lifetime is the anti-smoking truth® campaign. Its genius was not in getting moralistic about whether smoking was or wasn’t bad, but in bringing the tobacco industry and its underhanded lobbying, marketing, and pseudo-scientific research practices to light.

Reproductive rights groups have an even bigger opportunity to expose ugly truths about their supposedly morally-driven opposition. Pro-life organizations habitually spread unfounded or over-exaggerated health myths, claiming abortions contribute to breast cancer, psychological damage, and infertility. They set up “crisis pregnancy centers,” which use misleading and intimidating tactics, including agenda-driven movies, slideshows, and lectures, under the guise of legitimate health information. Worse yet, these pregnancy centers often receive state and federal funding.

NARAL Pro-Choice America reports that some of these crisis pregnancy centers do not have any medically trained or medically supervised personnel at all. And even in cases where centers are overseen by medical professionals, there are no regulations to ensure women receive complete and medically accurate information. According to the Pearson Foundation’s How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center manual, staffers should “[b]e put off by nothing… Let nothing stop you. The stakes are life or death.” Said its author, Robert Pearson, in 1994, “[o]bviously, we’re fighting Satan… A killer, who in this case is the girl who wants to kill her baby, has no right to information that will help kill her baby.”

More women need to know about the underhanded tactics that threaten their reproductive health. Do they need to know the full picture, the ethically complex, medically accurate, and unbiased health facts as well? Of course. But they’ll never seek that information without a much more pointed motivation.

Here’s one way to point them. Go into any Planned Parenthood. Sit by a phone, regardless if it’s the most senior doctor’s or the lowliest intern’s. As a former volunteer, I can almost guarantee that right above that phone is a protocol for when a bomb threat is called in. Run a picture of that protocol with the headline, “Still think women’s rights aren’t under attack?” Even before the Tiller murder, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 82% of large abortion providers experience some kind of harrassment, vandalism, or threats, sometimes at staff members’ homes.

This kind of simple but poignant messaging gives young people a reason to give a damn, not only to save reproductive rights, but to shine a light on the hypocrisy of a movement whose extremists will kill in the name of “saving life.” Because if there’s anything my generation hates, it’s bullshit. And in the anti-choice camp, there’s plenty of it.