think outside the frame

Or, why "reframing" to appear more moral (by someone else's standards) will only only back us further into a corner.

Or, reason #62 of Why I Hate The Democrats.

I'm referring to the drive to "reframe" the debate on abortion. George Lakoff's ideas on how to present abortion in terms supposedly more palatable to the mythical center, though well meaning, are regressive and dangerous. If we fight on the other side's turf, with their language and their weapons, we can only lose.

As many of you know, I stand unapologetically on the militant end of the pro-choice spectrum. (Yes, I hate babies! Abort them all!) Abortions are a necessary medical procedure. In all societies, but especially in one without access to affordable, reliable contraception, many women will need an abortion at some point in their lifetimes.

I say "need" and not "choose". Yes, it is technically a choice, in the same sense that taking antiobiotics for strept throat is a choice, or using insulin is a choice when you have diabetes. Splitting hairs, everything is a choice. One could choose to refuse all modern medication, as some religions dictate. That's a choice, but most people don't exercise it. Unintended pregnancies, like strept throat, are a fact of life. Most women choose abortion in the sense that people choose antibiotics.

Women need abortion, just like they need reliable birth control, affordable prenatal care and child care. Not every woman will need all of these. I don't have children, so I don't need child care. Women who don't have sex don't need birth control. But these are all part of women's general reproductive needs.

Many women who need and choose abortion, by the way, are Christian conservatives who campaign for restrictive abortion laws and picket clinics. But that's another story.

The Democrats could stand up for American women. They could say, the government has no place making these intimate decisions for its citizens. Period. They could say, anyone who chooses not to have an abortion, that is their choice, but women must be free to choose abortion. Period. They could say, without access to safe, legal abortions, women die, and that is unacceptable.

The Democrats could stand up. They could walk proudly. Instead, the party of "reframing" runs alongside the conservative Christian agenda, panting and dehydrated, frantically trying to catch up. In sports, this is called running the other guy's race. It's what losers do.

Katha Pollitt addresses this in her recent column in The Nation.
In the wake of the 2004 election, Democrats have embarked on an orgy of what the linguist George Lakoff calls "reframing"--repositioning their policies linguistically to give them mass moral appeal. Prime candidate for a values makeover? Abortion, of course. It's as if the party, with its longstanding, if lukewarm, support for reproductive rights, were a family photo with Uncle Lou the molester right in the middle. Maybe if we cropped it to put him way off to the side? Or Photoshopped a big shadow onto his face? Or just decided to pretend he was nice Uncle Max?

In "The Foreign Language of Choice," posted on AlterNet, Lakoff writes that he doesn't like "choice"--too consumerist. In fact, he doesn't even like "abortion"--too negative. He wants to "reparse" abortion in four ways. Dems should talk about it as an aspect of personal freedom from government interference, and as the regrettable outcome of right-wing opposition to sex ed and contraception. They should reclaim "life" by talking about the fact that "the United States has the highest rate of infant mortality in the industrialized world," thanks to poverty and lack of healthcare, which are the fault of conservatives, "who have been killing babies--real babies...[who] have been born and who people want and love" and damaging their health through anti-environmental policies that put toxins in mother's milk. Finally, they should talk about the thousands of women each year who become pregnant from rape: "Should the federal government force a woman to bear the child of her rapist?"

George Lakoff is really smart and eager to help, so why does this way of talking about "medical operations to end a pregnancy" make me want to reparse myself to a desert island?

. . .

Perhaps I'm naive, but I keep thinking that reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center--precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables. I keep thinking that people are so disgusted by politics that the field is open for progressives who use plain language and stick to their guns and convey that they are real people, at home in their skin, and not a collection of blow-dried focus-grouped holograms.

. . .

Still, reframing proceeds apace. Hillary Clinton talks about abortion as sorrow, while calling on Republicans to join her in passing the Prevention First Act promoting contraception and, with Patty Murray, going after acting FDA head Lester Crawford for failing to make emergency contraception available over the counter. Howard Dean says he wants the "pro-life" vote, and before you know it anti-choice Democrats get the nod to run for the Senate...

. . .

There's a word that doesn't show up much in the new abortion frames: women. [Emphasis mine.] Maybe it doesn't poll well. "Reframing" abortion is actually a kind of deframing, a way of taking it out of its real-life context, which is the experience of women, their bodies, their healthcare, their struggles, the caring work our society expects them to do for free. Lynn Paltrow, the brilliant lawyer who runs National Advocates for Pregnant Women, thinks the way to win grassroots support for abortion rights is to connect it to the whole range of reproductive and maternal rights: the right to have a home birth, to refuse a Caesarean section, to know that a miscarriage or stillbirth--or simply taking a drink--will not land you in jail. The same ideology of fetal protection that anti-choicers wield against abortion is used against women with wanted pregnancies.
Please read the full column here.

And please remember, as always, this blog is not a forum for debate on abortion. If you want to discuss the immorality of abortion, please do so elsewhere. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

That's a good post - enlightening. Myself I'm definitely on the choice side of the argument - still not sure of the 'need' argument entirely - but I do agree that it is a woman's right to choose what is best for her. I do agree that sometimes abortions are necessary, and that the choice to do so is always a right.

Thanks for the insightful articles - it is great to be able to visit your site and learn so much each day!

:-) G

laura k said...

Thanks G!

I don't mean to make an argument for need vs choice. I only mean to say that the choice of what to do with an unintended pregnancy is not like the choice of breakfast cereals or whether or not to get a tattoo.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the option of abortion - the right to safe and legal abortion - is a need, and exercising that option is a choice.

Anonymous said...

the right to safe and legal abortion - is a need, and exercising that option is a choice.

I agree - what an excellent way of putting it! Thank you!!!

(and I know you weren't trying to present the need vs choice argument at all - was just outlining where I stand on the issue, that's all. I think you hit it on the head in terms of the right being a necessity and exercising it being a choice.)

laura k said...

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

Sometimes our most deeply held beliefs are the most difficult to express. That's what I find, anyway.

Rognar said...

OT, but interesting. Canada's newest commercial venture, gay tourism.


zydeco fish said...

I'm with you all the way. And, I just can't believe that there are people who would criminalize abortion. It's basic human rights, I think.

Anonymous said...

It is. Absolutely.

Hell, one could make the argument that using a contraceptive is the same thing and just circumvent the whole fetus/life debate. Well, I guess some churches already do that.

To me it just makes the point that the right to an abortion is, in a sense (and I stress in a sense) similar to the argument for the right to use a contraceptive during sex. There's really little difference - it's an action against an unwanted pregnancy, just a bit more pre-emptive. And yes I know it's basic, but sometimes the basic approach is the easist to understand.

On that note, I must say: I wonder how many anti-abortion activists use contraceptives when they have sex? Oh, the irony ... removing something that may become a fetus is bad, but preventing a potential fetus from ever becoming is somehow okay ... sorry, but that's just too funny to me.

Crabbi said...

I'm so disappointed in Lakoff. Everything you just said, and in addition, this type of parsing makes progressives objects of ridicule and gives the fundies and neocons more ammo. If we start using terms like ""medical operations to end a pregnancy" we're saying we're ashamed.

I certainly don't advocate pandering or adopting the other side's methods, but we can look at why these guys are so effective. Part of Bush's appeal is the plain-spoken, non-nonsense image he supposedly projects. At least half of Americans have always known this is bullshit, but imagine if the Dems grew a collective spine and started speaking plainly and honestly? No smarmy marketing language, no spin, just the truth.

Great post, L. I'm not going to write off Lakoff entirely, but he is dead wrong aboutt this issue.

laura k said...

ZF: Thank you so much. Truly.

Oh, the irony ... removing something that may become a fetus is bad, but preventing a potential fetus from ever becoming is somehow okay ... sorry, but that's just too funny to me.

G: I know! Even more bizarre are the anti-abortion people who oppose the use of contraception. Birth control "stops the possibility of life".

In fact, by this logic, we should all be having rampant, unprotected, procreative sex - constantly. Because every time a woman ovulates and there's no sperm there to meet and greet, she's stopping the possibility of life.

Or is she stopping the possibility of stopping the possibility of life...? I get so confused!

Crabbi: Thanks for saying this. It's so disappointing when someone we admire lets us down this way. (Howard Dean, are you listening?)

What you say about strategy is exactly right. Redsock was just saying this to me the other day. The Dems could learn a lot looking at the other side. Get a message, get everyone on it, repeat it a million times, do not stray from it, do not apologize for it.

But then, that would require a spine...

Jason said...

What Lynn Paltrow suggests is reframing. As a couch political strategist, I think some reframing is a good thing. The reason that conservatives have been successful is precisely because they have framed the debate with their own words. They've made progressives look like immoral outsiders while they, the conservatives, are for protecting human life, family values, etc.

But the progressives can win the values debate by proving that abortion is a human right, that progressives care more for human life because they want life to be worth living by raising the social circumstances of people.

Progressives shouldn't change their beliefs but they do need to change how they express their beliefs. Why? To get the swing voters. They're the ones who deside every election, both in Canada and in the US but especially in the US.

laura k said...

What Lynn Paltrow suggests is reframing.

Yes, I see what you're saying. But I don't see her perspective being offered as an alternative.

Progressives shouldn't change their beliefs but they do need to change how they express their beliefs. Why? To get the swing voters.

I think the reframing Lakoff suggests actually translates into changing beliefs. That's what I mean by running the other guy's race. We start using their language, we cannot win.

Even the new emphasis in the US on the word "progressive" is a capitulation to the right tarring the word liberal. Now, I have always called myself a progressive, to distinguish myself from liberals, because I am left of liberal. But liberals being afraid to use the word - instead of standing up and explaining what it actually means - strikes me as spineless. Spinelessness reframed as reframing.

laura k said...

Let me explain that better.

The problem with gearing everything to the mythical swing voter is that - and I can only speak for US politics - it has caused the Dems to move farther and farther to the right, where they believe the center to be.

This in turn causes them to become "Republican Lite" - and usually not all that lite. In other words, it has caused the two parties to be almost indistinguishable.

Then, American voters look at their choices and think, which seems more genuine, real Republicans or imitation Republicans? The Dems lose, and liberal values are out the window.

The chase for the supposed swing voter may be a losing proposition. Maybe it's better to be truly liberal and work on persuading people of liberalism's greater benefits.