Frame Game

Roe vs. Wade

“Frame Game” is an occasional Slate department based on the premise that who wins in Washington is often determined by how the issue is framed. The author neither endorses nor condemns any of the views expressed, however laudatory or repellent.

The 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade has arrived, and activists on both sides are eager to tell you what the debate is all about. It’s about 25 years of struggling to protect babies, say the pro-lifers. It’s about 25 years of defending reproductive freedom, say the pro-choicers.

Actually, the debate has been about persuading you what it’s about. Most of us are ambivalent. For example, we may agree with pro-lifers that abortion is wrong while agreeing with pro-choicers that people are entitled to make their own reproductive decisions. Where we ultimately come down on the issue–and how the political war turns out–depends on which group can get us to focus on the viewpoint we share with them. This debate revolves around three fundamental axes.

1 Realism vs. idealism: This axis dominated the debate in the 1970s. Several lines of argument hinge on it.

Legal pragmatism vs. legal moralism: Pro-lifers regard the law as a moral teacher. Roe infuriates them in part because they think it teaches kids that abortion is OK. Conversely, they think that an abortion ban, even if it can’t be enforced, will teach kids that abortion is wrong. Unfortunately for them, the past 25 years have destroyed the public’s faith that government can do much of anything, let alone improve our morals by passing laws. Nixon resigned a year after Roe. Then Carter screwed things up. Then Reagan persuaded the country that the government always screws things up. Now we’re more susceptible to the pro-choice argument that banning abortions would just divert them to the black market.

Illegal abortions vs. legal abortions: When abortion was illegal, pro-choicers focused national attention on the gore and repugnance of coat hangers and back alleys. After Roe, pro-lifers turned our attention to the gore and repugnance of many legal abortions. The longer abortion remains legal, the more people read about casual abortions, the more they forget how gory and repugnant abortion was when it was illegal. That’s why pro-choicers constantly moan that Roe is in jeopardy and that abortion will soon be banned again. To gain the upper hand, each side needs to convince you that the other side has the upper hand.

Traditionalism vs. radicalism: Pro-lifers equate the American way with traditional ideas, threatened by relativism. Pro-choicers equate the American way with pluralism, threatened by radical fundamentalism. Pro-lifers had the better of this argument in the late 1960s and 1970s, because pro-choicers got mixed up with the sexual revolution and the anti-war movement. Spiro Agnew called Democrats the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” As Roe took root, however, pro-choicers became defenders of the status quo, and pro-lifers resorted to protest-movement tactics such as civil disobedience. Nowadays, pro-choicers call pro-lifers “radicals.” The association of abortion rights with tradition and national stability helped persuade the Supreme Court to reaffirm Roe in 1992.

Capitalism vs. socialism: Most pro-choicers make an economically rational argument. A woman’s inability to spare the time or the money to raise a child properly is an acceptable reason for aborting her pregnancy. Such practical logic helped draw mainstream civic organizations into the pre-Roe movement to relax abortion laws. By contrast, many pro-lifers insist that society protect and sustain life at any cost. They apply this argument to neonatal hospital care, lifelong disabilities, and assisted suicide, as well as to abortion. Absorbing this pro-life socialism is a long-term problem for Republicans.

Technology vs. self-restraint: Pro-choicers count on technology to prevent unwanted consequences of sex. Pro-lifers reply that self-restraint is the only effective solution. This debate began with birth control in the late 1960s (George Bush earned the nickname “Rubbers” for sponsoring family planning legislation) and continued through abortion in the 1970s to AIDS in the 1980s. Today, pro-choicers advertise drugs such as RU-486, Norplant, and Ovral as solutions to the abortion problem, while pro-lifers depict abortion as a culture of callousness that drugs can only obscure.

2 Woman vs. fetus: In the 1980s, the focus of the abortion controversy shifted to the relative rights of the prospective mother and her potential offspring.

Zoom-out vs. zoom-in: Ever since Roe, pro-life posters and pamphlets have depicted isolated fetuses. The public-relations masterstroke of the 1980s, a pro-life film called The Silent Scream, featured ultrasound pictures of the dismemberment of a fetus. In the 1990s, pro-lifers have used fetal diagrams to illustrate the horror of “partial birth” abortions. Pro-choicers point out that these close-up images literally cut the fetus’s context–the woman–out of the picture. They offer alternative pictures–in the “partial birth” debate, for example, they used a photo of a woman who had gone through the procedure, surrounded by her husband and kids–to emphasize the woman’s humanity and obscure the fetus.

Equality vs. motherhood: In the 1970s, pro-choicers attached the abortion issue to the emerging feminist movement. In the 1980s, this combination proved doubly vulnerable to the New Right’s critique: Women’s careers bore the bloodstains of abortions. Today, feminism remains a bad word, but Republicans have adjusted their philosophy of motherhood to accommodate women’s political power (hence their attention to “soccer moms”). Accordingly, when pro-lifers advocate measures that would make clinics give women information designed to dissuade them from having an abortion, they call these measures “women’s right to know” bills. Conversely, pro-choicers accept the culture of motherhood and accuse pro-lifers of defiling it by forcing women to bear the offspring not of their husbands but of their rapists.

Persecution vs. civil rights: Many women who seek Medicaid-funded abortions are black or Hispanic. From this, pro-choicers conclude that restrictions on Medicaid-funded abortions are racist because they target black and Hispanic women. Conversely, pro-lifers argue that pro-choicers are racists because they use Medicaid, and abortion, to exterminate black and Hispanic fetuses. Pro-choicers defend the right to abortion as an extension of the “civil rights” granted to blacks and women. Pro-lifers reply that “civil rights” should be extended not to women seeking abortions but to their fetuses, “the most defenseless members of the human family.”

Slope vs. slope: Much of the debate turns on which issues are associated with abortion. Roe was based in part on Griswold vs. Connecticut, a 1965 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right to use contraceptives. By arguing for abortion rights in the context of birth control, pro-choicers persuaded the court to treat it as a sexual-privacy issue. In subsequent cases, they have argued that anti-pregnancy measures (such as high postcoital doses of birth-control pills) blur the distinction between birth control and abortion. This raises the specter of a slippery slope toward regulating sex. Recognizing this trap, the National Right to Life Committee refuses to talk about birth control. Pro-lifers focus instead on the “partial birth” procedure and discuss abortion in the context of “life” issues such as assisted suicide. This raises the specter of a slippery slope toward decriminalizing murder.

Murderer vs. murder: Half of all Americans say that killing a fetus is murder, but few regard the woman who participates in the killing as a murderer. In Roe, the Supreme Court skewered Texas for enshrining this contradiction in law. Nevertheless, each camp continues to exploit one end of the paradox while ignoring the other. In a 1988 presidential debate, George Bush portrayed the fetus as a human life but said he hadn’t “sorted out the penalties” for taking it. His pro-choice opponent, Michael Dukakis, ignored the question of the fetus’s humanity and instead accused Bush of threatening to treat women like criminals for choosing abortion.

3 Who decides vs. what’s done: While the other lines of argument continue, in recent years the question of whose judgment should count in the abortion decision has come to the fore.

Medicine vs. morality:Roe struck down abortion laws in part on the grounds that they interfered with doctors’ professional judgment. This scientific veneer neatly obscured the ethical dimension of abortion decisions. Over the years, pro-choicers have continued to invoke medical expertise, particularly by rigging polls to ask whether “a woman and her doctor” (as opposed to a woman alone) should be entrusted with the abortion decision. Pro-lifers, seeking to reassert the priority of morality over medicine, always describe physicians who terminate pregnancies as “abortionists,” not “doctors.” They also dismiss “medical” allowances for late-term abortions, such as “mental health,” as pseudoscientific loopholes that let doctors authorize abortions for any reason. The medicine/morality argument has become central to several battles of the 1990s. Pro-lifers have driven abortion out of mainstream medical facilities and into specialized, stigmatized clinics. But in 1993, pro-choicers won passage of a federal law protecting clinics from obstruction, on the reasoning that they’re legal medical facilities. In 1994, pro-choicers tried to insulate abortion from moral challenge by enveloping it in the Clinton health-care plan, but pro-lifers thwarted them. In the “partial birth” debate, faced with embarrassing data about the nature of late-term abortions and the reasons for them, pro-choicers again are falling back on the argument that doctors know best.

Families vs. government: Beginning in the late 1980s, the National Abortion Rights Action League executed the most important framing maneuver of the post-Roe era. Guided by pollster Harrison Hickman, NARAL used ads, candidate manuals, and other media to disseminate a new message: “Who decides?” This message changed the focus of the abortion debate from the morality of the choice (e.g., how late into a pregnancy abortions should be allowed, and for which reasons) to the identity of the chooser. Whereas the medical-expertise argument is defensively neutral, the “who decides” question is aggressively political. By rhetorically stacking their side of the question (to include husbands, doctors, and clergymen, along with women) and defining the other side as “the government,” pro-choicers have won the sympathy of voters who dislike big government more than they dislike abortion. Throughout the 1990s, this message has deterred pro-life politicians from trying to ban abortion.

The “partial birth” abortion ban, on which Congress will soon vote again, represents a shrewd countermaneuver by pro-lifers to push the abortion debate away from “who decides” and back toward “what’s done,” toward the humanity of the fetus and the repugnance of legal abortion. Pro-choicers call the ban a cynical ploy designed to regain political advantage, not to prevent abortions. But is it any more cynical than liberal pro-choicers campaigning against big government? The 25 years of debate since Roe have settled only one thing: An issue that’s supposed to be all about principle has become all about positioning.