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.


Wormfood33 said...

good article! maybe you can't get it published because it says "bullshit"--haha!

i think it's interesting that you call it "anti-choice." i used to be "anti-choice" (back when i was a good catholic and uninformed). it reminds me how i always hated when pro-choicers would make carefully sure to always say "fetus" or some other scientific word, while pro-lifers were always just as careful to say baby or unborn child.

i guess i don't really have a point except to say i wish there wasn't always so much propaganda surrounding issues like this. i guess it's a necessary evil. but there's something about it that feels sneaky or something. like, i completely agree with the pro-choice side, but something about saying "anti-choice" hit me the wrong way. maybe it feels unnecessarily attack-y or something. does that make sense?

another interesting angle on this (and some other controversial topics) is that one side has such an emotional argument and maybe that's why the pro-life advertising has always been more gripping. they have shocking visuals and this very dark story to tell that helps give their ads grit. whereas the pro-choice argument has always been more rational and positive. they are on the side of science and women's rights. it's kind of like the peta people versus people who like to eat hamburgers. the peta side is always going to have a more gripping argument. even though i love me some cow meat.

i think what you're suggesting is that the pro-choice side needs to find that emotional argument a little more. i think that may be smart. it will definitely be more hard-hitting. but i'd hate for it to go negative. i always see pro-choice as kind of taking the higher ground, you know?

anyway, not meant to be a criticism, just a comment. very thought provoking article!

kimberly kohatsu said...

thanks for the read, grundo. yeah, you're right about the higher ground thing. but sometimes you just gotta get down and dirty. i would have used the term "coz ad" except no one would know what the fuck i was talking about :)

i guess i'm just sick of feeling like the other side somehow gets the moral ground. THAT is bullshit. and i think the term "anti-choice" is an apt one, because even if you favor access to safe and legal abortion, you are still for "life." no one is anti "life." and, tangentially, it strikes me funny how so many "prolifers" also seem to be "pro-death penalty."

but anyway, i'm glad you read it and commented. thanks!

Wormfood33 said...

that is so true about pro-life, pro-death penalty! here's to good old catholic hypocrisy!

kg said...

I want to agree with you because it's just so beautifully written, but I don't know that pointing out hypocrisy is going to win more people over to the pro-choice side. In the truth campaign, ALL tobacco companies were knowingly participating in the creation and promotion of a product that kills people. I don't think the situation is comparable with abortion. Only a fraction of the pro-lifers are engaging in bombing and campaigns of misinformation, and I would guess that most pro-lifers don't consider those extremists to be their guides on the issue. Rather, they're looking to their clergy, their family members, their beliefs. Ultimately, convincing people not to be pro-life means you have to change their deeply held beliefs about where life begins, and I don't think that discrediting a segment of pro-lifers is going to accomplish that.

I enjoyed reading this and thinking about this topic, though!

kimberly kohatsu said...

kg - i appreciate your comment, but perhaps i didn't write my argument beautifully enough. the point is not to convert people to the pro-choice camp, it's to energize the people who already agree to stand up and get angry. the thing about the other side is they are REVVED up about the issue. people who believe in choice just don't believe that strongly (in general). i think pointing out hypocrisy is a good motivator to elicit a little healthy outrage.

kg said...

Ah. Yes, there are many things that we could get more revved up about that we don't... perhaps you need to write a series of these motivational articles. The one I've been wondering about lately: Why is it acceptable for U.S. ambassadors to be appointed solely on the basis of their political fundraising? Why aren't we outraged that people are representing us around the world just because they are connected to wealth?

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Obama, but I don't understand why this works this way. And I know it isn't just him.

Sorry for co-opting your space. ;) But it is interesting what issues we as Americans choose to get excited about, and what issues we pretty much ignore.

kimberly kohatsu said...

co-opt away! maybe that will be my next opinion column :) i don't write enough, that's for sure.

Paige Olivia said...

Thanks for sharing - anytime I think about the issue I get revved up. I also like the term 'anti-choice,' because it seems that 'pro-life' doesn't describe precisely what it intends to. That is, pro-life would imply that one cares about what happens to the fetus, or person, well after birth occurs. However, the act of birth seems to be what is important to self-proclaimed 'pro-lifers.' Who cares if that fetus-person is neglected, abused, etc.? Or if the baby is born, say, addicted to crack because mom is an addict (who is sure to take very good care of the baby)... as long as it was born.

I would never, ever be anti-choice, but I might be more pro-life than most pro-lifers. It saddens me to think of babies who aren't wanted, and subsequently neglected and abused (either after birth or during pregnancy - because smoking crack etc. during pregnancy is a form of abuse.) I care about what happens after birth. One way to prevent those abuses from happening is to NOT mandate that women or girls who aren't ready or do not want to be mothers to have children.

Sigh. Thanks for letting me vent :)