The Evolution of Pro-Choice Messaging
S1: Hey, everyone. Just wanted to give a special welcome to all of our new listeners from over at Spotify. Yeah, we see you guys. Welcome. And just make sure you go and click that follow button. It’ll make sure I am sitting in your feed day in, day out. You won’t miss a thing. All right. On with the show. So and I’m curious how closely you’ve been following what Joe Biden has to say about abortion right now?
S2: Pretty closely. Sort of my job.
S1: Anat Shenker-Osorio is the kind of political consultant who tells Democrats what to say and how to say it. I called her up because I was wondering what Democrats should start saying about abortion. What do you see there?
S2: I see a mix of things, which I think is my perennial answer to the question of what I see in Joe Biden. I see claiming the moral high ground, which is an incredibly important thing to do in any issue area, this one arguably more than others. And then I also see trepidation. I see caution, I see concern.
S1: Anat doesn’t love this trepidation. But it was on full display when President Biden got pressed to respond to the Supreme Court’s draft opinion just hours after it leaked. Biden was standing on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base when reporters started peppering him with questions.
S3: What they think of the draft. BLITZER First of all.
S1: He talked about he used the words abort a child.
S3: So the idea that we’re going to make a judgment that is going to say that no one can make the judgment to choose to avoid a child based on a decision by the Supreme Court, I think goes way overboard.
S1: And I think for a lot of abortion activists, it like was this cringe moment of, oh, is this how we’re going to be talking about this now?
S2: Yeah, I think that that’s incredibly problematic language. I think that by definition, if you are seeking abortion care, then you are not talking about a child as you rightly sort of signaling with your question, it implies a certain level of development, it implies a certain level of relationship that already exists between a caregiver, a guardian parent and a young person.
S1: And then immediately after this blunder about aborting a child. Biden got asked what this Supreme Court opinion could mean for the upcoming congressional midterms.
S3: What does this mean for the Democrats argument in the midterms? I haven’t thought that through the U.S..
S1: In case you didn’t catch that, he said he hadn’t thought it through yet. One thing I learned about after I read about this moment was that this little moment on the tarmac was the first time Joe Biden had actually used the word abortion while in office. And I wonder, like when you hear that, does that concern you?
S2: The first thing that I would say about it is that, generally speaking, you never want to have messaging about your messaging when you’re the president or you’re an office holder of any kind. You want people to actually be responding to what you are saying, not having a meta conversation about the historic nature of words you are or aren’t using. That’s already kind of in and of itself because you’re taking yourself away from what is he arguing for? Why is he arguing for it? How does that make me feel?
S1: So if he was using the right words, we wouldn’t be talking about like the history of those words.
S2: Right. If he was actually conveying an emotionally resonant concept that was making people feel, have an understanding and engendering or sustaining a desire for action, then people would be responding to that.
S1: So how should Joe Biden or anyone who cares about abortion rights talk about abortion now? Today on the show, Anat says changing minds on this topic is still possible, but Democrats are going about it all wrong. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. Recently, Anat tweeted out this ad campaign that caught my attention, both because it sounded so different from how Americans usually talk about abortion and because it really got me an okay, I’m a softie. But still, it seemed like a message that a lot of people in this country could get behind.
S4: Someone you love may struggle with a pregnancy, a pregnancy they longed for that couldn’t survive, that would endanger providing for the children they already have. That comes too soon after giving birth. That they were too sick to carry. That wasn’t right for them. Someone you love might need it.
S2: Basically, the essential idea in that storyline is two things. Number one, it situates the abortion care conversation within the context of relationships, which is a pretty stark contrast to how abortion has generally been talked about in argued in the United States.
S1: Yeah, I think about the U.S. We talk about abortion as an individual, right?
S2: That’s right.
S1: It’s almost by definition separate from the community.
S2: Separate from the community, separate from relationships. And it has historically been argued in a libertarian framework. US out of my uterus. Get your laws off my body, my child, my choice. And what happens with that individual choice language is in policy terms, we get the Hyde Amendment right.
S1: Which bans Medicaid from covering abortion.
S2: It bans government funding from abortion. It doesn’t force insurance providers to include it in their coverage. Essentially, it creates what reproductive justice scholars and leaders have been arguing for a generation, and rightly so, that you can have the, quote unquote, legal right to an abortion. It can be a codified law. But if you live in a county and a community, which many, many, many people do in which there is no provider, so you have to travel for, you know, a day or days and then you have to come back again because of certain laws that make you go to, you know, the appointment more than once. Then the right is empty, right? It’s hollow without access.
S1: It’s so funny because listening to you talk, it’s almost like making a woman seeking an abortion kind of into, like, the Marlboro Man, like Alone on the Prairie, just getting it done. But you’re showing all the ways that that’s problematic.
S2: I would go a step farther. I believe that it paves the way to what we have in our society today, which is essentially why should I pay for X public school that park, that library, that program? Why should I pay for X? You chose to have that child. It basically reduces children to the status of pets, the responsibility of the, you know, one or two single individuals who are the guardians, when in fact, as we know, children are future adults. There’s a reason why that choice framework lends itself so well to anti social behavior. And so what someone you love does is that it sends you into a projected future as opposed to talking about past examples of abortion. It gets at one of the root issues here, which is stigma and a false notion that there are two kinds of people, people who abort and people who don’t. When, in point of fact, there’s one kind of person at a different point in their life, the exact same person who at one moment makes one decision may later go on to make a different decision. I think that talking about this projected future and utilizing loss aversion, which is one of the most persuasive tools in our arsenal, we know through research loss aversion is the feeling that is evoked when a thing that you feel like you have is being taken away from you. Look, for example, at what happened when Trump and the Republicans were contemplating getting rid of Obamacare. People literally putting their lives on the line in Senate and congressional offices, because once you have a thing, having it taken away provokes a much more visceral response than the promise of a new thing.
S1: You’ve done this deep dive into other places that have framed abortion differently. Not in this kind of libertarian freedom way and where abortion activists have found success in changing people’s minds. So I want to if we can do a little bit of discussion about exactly what happened there. And I want to start with Ireland, which is a country that repealed an abortion ban just recently, like 2018. How did abortion become illegal in Ireland in the first place?
S2: Yeah, so bookended ballot initiatives. There was a ballot initiative in the 1980s that made abortion illegal and that was passed with overwhelming margins, around two thirds of the voting population. Interestingly, the 2018 repeal of that ban was passed with pretty much the identical margin.
S1: So interesting that like voters did it both times.
S2: Yes, it was direct democracy in both cases. And so in the Irish case, I mean, obviously there are a million things that lead to victory. But their core slogan, they called it the three C’s and those three C’s work, care, compassion, change, notably not the other see choice, winner choice. If you look at the way that choice occurs in common speech, both within the United States and in Ireland and in other English dominant or English speaking countries, it tends to co-occur with consumer things. So vanilla or chocolate, decaf or caffe, we tend to use the word choice in situations in which we’re making inconsequential decisions without much deliberate thought.
S1: It makes women look careless.
S2: Makes women look careless. Feeds the opposition notion that women are using this as, quote unquote, contraception, and it cannot stand up to the rhetorical weight of life.
S1: When you were reporting on what happened in Ireland, you played this ad that was used to talk about repealing the abortion ban there. And it was so interesting for me to listen to because of what it said and also what it didn’t say.
S4: On May 25th, we come together for our wives, girlfriends, sisters, friends, daughters and granddaughters together. Let’s finally do better together. Let’s be caring and compassionate all together. Let us be proud to live in a progressive Ireland together. Let’s vote yes.
S1: Tomorrow. It never used the word abortion. Yeah. It’s notable to me in terms of how different it sounds from what you might hear on American airwaves.
S2: Yeah. That ad that you referenced and Care Compassion Change argues for this in a creation of good versus an amelioration of harm frame in framing it as this is what a forward looking country has and does. This is what a modern, caring, compassionate country does. It recognizes that you just don’t know, like none of us know as human beings, the path that a pregnancy could take.
S1: It also makes the listener the hero. Like you’re going to be the one who carries this country forward. So let’s do it together. And I realized as I listen to this ad, that in the US, this whole caring argument that you’re talking about, which seems to have been very important to what happened in Ireland, the left just kind of not entirely, but a little bit ceded it to the anti-abortion folks who are you know, you can say what you want about how they express that caring and what they say about it and who they’re prioritizing. But they’re at least dressing up what they say as caring about women and babies.
S2: And in fact, from the opposition in the United States, they’re constantly, as you said, providing a role for the audience. They’re directing their audience to be the hero. They’re directing their audience to, quote unquote, save babies. In contrast, for a long time. The job of the listener on the quote unquote pro-choice side was to mind your own business. It was to stay out of it. That’s what it means. And when you don’t provide within your storyline agency for the people that you’re trying to either persuade or mobilize, then what you have is an. Asymmetrical response. The smaller group of people for whom this is like, you know, needs to be illegal in all cases, no exemptions, no allowances, etc. This is their issue. And then for the greater majority of U.S. voters who don’t harbor those beliefs, this is not their issue.
S1: It’s just life. It’s just something that happens.
S2: It’s just something that happens. And their issue, understandably, is making ends meet, filling up the gas tank, being able to like see the dentist, etc., etc., etc..
S1: That seems harder to overcome. The fact that you may not know you need this right until you need it.
S2: Correct. It’s basically growing that choir by saying to people, Hey, this thing that you think has nothing to do with you, you’re going to need this thing because your daughter is going to need it or your neighbor is going to need it, or your cousin is going to need it, or your colleagues are going to need it. And then what’s going to happen? This issue that you think has not been your issue? It’s your issue.
S1: Yeah. And notably, one of the people you interviewed was a woman who voted to ban abortion in the eighties. And then when this came back up in 2018, her own daughter had just had to get an abortion and she realized, oh, man, this could happen to anyone and voted yes to pull it pulled the amendment out.
S2: I can put an even finer point on that. We see in testing that the mere switch from the mass down to the singular changes people’s views. So when we ask people, do you think that women should be able to have abortions, we get a lesser response. Then. Do you think a woman should be able to have an abortion?
S1: So not even like your daughter or your sister. Just a woman.
S2: A woman.
S2: Because when you ask about women, it evokes that stereotyping. When you ask about a woman. You are more likely to unconsciously make the listener think about a specific person in their life.
S1: When we come back. Activists in Ireland aren’t the only ones who’ve changed minds here. We’ll talk about what happened on the ground in Argentina. Let’s talk about what happened in Argentina. Argentina had allowed abortions in the case of rape or incest, but there were still real barriers to access. And abortion was legalized in 2020. So how did this campaign differ from or learn from the campaign in Ireland in 2018?
S2: Yeah, there’s so much incredible to say about the Argentina example. What I would say that I want to lift up most concretely about that is the interplay between different messages. One, to engage the base. One to persuade the middle. And another to marginalize the opposition. So that engaged the base message. It was la revolucion de la casa revolution of our daughters. And it was the green handkerchief which inspiringly we’re seeing now in protests in Chicago, in New York. I’ve seen it.
S1: What is the green handkerchief?
S2: The green handkerchief was originally a symbol that was adopted in Argentina in sort of a homage to the white handkerchief that the mother de de la Plata, they might show them, the mothers who would walk around during the Argentinian dictatorship protesting the disappearance of their loved ones, often their children, when the reproductive rights, health justice movement began in formation and first began actually as a response to intimate partner violence and to the killing of women by partners. They adopted this handkerchief, but instead of making it white, they made it green. And they wrote on it a very particular three phrase slogan, which you can see over and over again in Spanish. And essentially it translates to a call for sex education so that we have knowledge over our bodies, contraception, so that we don’t need to have abortions and abortions so that we don’t die.
S2: But they understood because they had done their research that the people most likely to need to be persuaded didn’t live in Buenos Aires. I still lived in the provinces. And so what they did is they used as their messengers, medical providers, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners from the provinces. And the message that they utilized was Salvini must stay with us. We will save thousands of lives that was deployed by making short social media digital ads of these medical care providers.
S4: Since we look at medical economics in a lot of innocent care.
S2: The providers spoke in really, really, really short clips about cases that they had had obviously anonymizing. They didn’t reveal people’s identity where they had had to treat somebody who had attempted to induce abortion themselves. And they would have to deal with the fallout.
S3: In a condition of having the ultrasound effect on Othello.
S2: And so they conveyed these stories again, doing that first person storytelling over and over and over again. And they encouraged people.
S1: Sounds like shock therapy, like just to sort of expose people to like, this is what’s actually happening.
S2: Right? This is this is present day, what is occurring. And by making this change, actually what we will be doing is saving lives.
S1: I noticed something looking at both Argentina and Ireland, which is that they legalized abortion but not anywhere near the parameters that were set forth under Roe. Ireland legalized abortion up to 12 weeks in Argentina, up to 14. It’s restrictive, more restrictive than we have now in the U.S. Is that something American activists need to pay attention to?
S2: Yeah. I mean, let’s just be clear. These are situations in which abortion was presently either entirely or kind of pretty much practically speaking, illegal.
S1: So you’re not going to shoot the moon, right?
S2: They were making it legal. The United States exists in a different situation. We’re trying to do something different.
S1: So one thing that’s on my mind is that I think it’s a different question to ask how Democrats can kind of win the messaging war on abortion versus will talking about abortion help Democrats get elected? And I think a lot of people, including you, probably are looking ahead to the midterms in November and thinking about how those are going to play out. Do you think talking about abortion is going to help Democrats win in November?
S2: Yeah. I think that like everything else, the devil is in the details and I think that it depends how you talk about it. Many of us know all too well the pain of seeing a loved one struggle with a pregnancy, whether that was miscarriage, whether that was infertility, whether that was, you know, just a situation that was not right for them for any and no reason at all. Many of us have seen that, have experienced it or have helped someone, supported someone through that. And we know that this is the real world, not the make believe world, and that people need to be able to make decisions with their loved ones, with the people they trust for what is best for themselves, their families and their futures. And that is what the majority of American voters believe. And when we see a handful of Republican lawmakers play judge, jury and decide and impose upon us, most voters respond very poorly to that.
S1: But the strategies you’ve laid out here do seem long term. And when I think about how, for instance, Joe Biden is talking about abortion, which we talked a little bit about, he doesn’t seem to be speaking the same language that you’re laying out from these campaigns in Ireland and in Argentina. He talks about compassion. Of course, I think that’s a big thing for him to talk about. But somehow making the connection with compassion and abortion doesn’t seem like something that many mainstream Democrats have been able to do. And politicians in general in the U.S. seem much more comfortable with politics as a kind of blood sport, not about creating community.
S2: Yeah, I think that that’s certainly true on the right. I think that on the left all too often. Many politicians, not all of them are terrified of stepping outside of what they believe to be this perfectly curated, triangulated box, because they have a fundamental misapprehension of the way that people come to political judgments. And they have been steeped in a long debunked fiction called median voter theory, where they’re supposed to kind of pitch their message toward some imagined, quote unquote, median voter. From my vantage point, I don’t think that Democrats see politics as a blood sport. I think that what they see is the opposition says those people are baby eating, flesh crawling monsters. And we say we’ll work with those people. We’re going to make bipartisan solutions. And that’s nonsense, right? If you want people to come to your cause, you have to be attractive. And if you want people to believe that you’re going to fight for them, you have to demonstrate some sort of resolve.
S1: If you were going to tell American activists to do something similar that called back to previous movements, like what’s the American version of the Green Handkerchief?
S2: I think it’s the green handkerchief.
S2: It calls back to this idea that there is a shared global struggle for the recognition of the equal rights and the full humanity of people who can get pregnant. And that is something that we have never accepted in the United States, just as we have never accepted it in other parts of the world, that this isn’t a U.S. specific issue. This is a broader issue. Not that I was use this language in messaging, but it’s a broader issue of patriarchy. It’s a broader issue of attempting to hold a certain class of people subservient and under the thumb and control of other people. It’s also really importantly, a thing that you wear. Hmm. When you don’t just believe a thing, but you actually wear it on your body. What you’re doing is you’re making an identity symbol to other people. And then other people are like, Oh, that’s what a my kind of a person thinks. That’s what a my kind of a person wears. And so what a green handkerchief or a red hat or any other kind of visual symbology that you actually wear on your body transmits is a continuous message that this is the dominant cultural idea.
S1: Well, if it’s worn by everyone, if it’s worn by the people you like, I mean, I’m probably not going to go buy a MAGA hat.
S2: Correct? Neither am I. But when you are trying to understand what your identity affiliation is and you’re trying in this case with abortion, to grow the choir, that’s what that kind of a symbol does. It just transmits, hey, this is a widely believed thing.
S1: It lets you, like, dip into it. Like, I’m going to try this identity on literally as a piece of clothing and see how it feels right. Anat Shenker-Osorio. I’m really grateful for you joining me in telling me about these two countries and also just messaging in general.
S2: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
S1: Anat Shenker-Osorio is the founder of Astro Communications. She hosts her own podcast, too. It’s called Words to Win By, and it’s pretty great. Go check it out. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson, Alena Schwartz and Carmel Delshad. We’re getting a ton of help these days from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova, and we are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. I’m Mary Harris. We will be back in this field bright and early tomorrow morning. I’ll catch you then.