Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change
by celeste michelle condit
university of illinois press, 236 pages, $24.95
Students of Western thought have long understood the correlation between public discourse, conviction, and practice. Even as far back as the fifth century B.C:. Democritus said, “Word is the shadow of deed.”
But less obvious is the impact of words and story on public policy, the drift of statutory and judicial development, as played out In a democratic environment. The late Yale law professor, Robert M. Cover, explained this dynamic as “a system of tension between reality and vision.” He wrote that “no set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture.”
The dynamic that Professor Cover described has taken particularly significant form in the debate over abortion. For that reason. Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change has come at a timely moment, helping partisans on either side of the issue to understand bow linguistics, imagery, and story affect the way we think, believe, vote, and live.
Celeste Michelle Condit, who teaches speech communication at the University of Georgia, calls rhetoric “the most immediate source for the flow of social meanings.” She traces the story lines developed by the right-to-life and right-to-abortion “rhetors” from the early 1960s to the present, explaining the tactics used by each group to control the public debate on the issue. Her analysis embraces public interest pronouncements, television drama, legislation, judicial opinions, and private discourse.
Condit promises “not to buttress any particular position,” but her failure to include information necessary to put many of her examples and interpretations in a proper context skews her analysis in a prochoice direction. That tendency is emphasized by disproportionate focus on the tactics and failures of the prolife side of the abortion debate.
But it is the author’s lack of discussion about the news media—the dominant channel of rhetoric in support of the abortion license—that raises the most serious question about her objectivity. One wonders if Professor Condit recognizes the possibility that even she, a presumably dispassionate student of public communication, might have been swayed by the rhetoric of the abortion debate. But whatever her blind spots, her study effectively highlights the link between public conversation and public policy.
The analysis begins in 1962 with the TV Romper Room host, Sherri Finkbine of Phoenix, who had taken a Thalidomide tranquilizer while pregnant with her fifth child. Once Finkbine learned that her baby might be deformed, she sought not just an abortion, but one that would be legally sanctioned. When she could not secure legal approval, she flew to Sweden to find, as one newspaper put it, “a more civilized attitude toward her plight.” The episode of Sherri Finkbine, a woman whose career and private life both indicated a deep love of children, helped shape a prochoice mythology that pitted decent, desperate women against an uncaring legal system that denied them access to necessary abortions.
Condit might have explored the discrepancies between public myth and fact in Finkbine’s story, as Marvin Olasky has done in his Press and Abortion. She could have mentioned that Finkbine’s baby had only a 20 percent chance of being deformed, or that people from around the United States offered to adopt the baby no matter what. And in a study of rhetoric it would have been appropriate to note that in the early stages of the story reporters referred to Finkbine’s unborn child as a baby, but over time shifted to the term fetus.
In any case, the Finkbine case marked a major turning point in public attitudes toward abortion. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the incident (which goes unmentioned by the author) indicated that 52 percent of Americans believed that Finkbine had done the right thing. That was the first recorded instance of majority support for a woman seeking an abortion. Though the circumstances had been extreme, the shift was nonetheless significant.
Although her account is incomplete, Condit provides an orderly description of the phases in abortion discussion over the past thirty years. She shows how Judge John Noonan early on used Judeo-Christian themes of love, sacrifice, and protection of the weak to argue that condemnation of abortion was “an almost absolute value” of Western Civilization. She then notes Lester Kinsolving’s counterargument that the idea of life beginning at conception was a contemporary invention, “denied by three of the Roman Church’s most prominent saints and by two of its popes.” (The author should in accuracy have noted that the Catholic church has in fact consistently maintained a proscription against abortion since the first century and that it is the argument to the contrary that is a modern invention.)
By the 1960s, pro-abortion language achieved full expression. The various streams supporting it came together in the word “choice,” a term that has remained effective up to the present. But Condit overlooks another shift within the theme of choice: from “freedom to choose” to “who will decide.” The latter point plays off public fears, even among many of those who consider themselves opposed to abortion, of state control of personal matters. This in turn strengthens the rhetorical link between a constitutionally protected right of privacy and a fundamental right to abortion.
The author’s analysis of figures of speech, in using examples solely from the prolife side of the debate, reveals a bias of selection. Thus she defines the ideas that “the fetus is human” and that “abortion is murder” as metaphor, and sees the symbol of the tiny feet of fetuses as synecdoche. Why not, for balance, include the illustration of “abortion is a right” as metaphor, or of “rape-and-incest pregnancy” as synecdoche (a tiny part of the whole class of women using the abortion license)?
Condit’s discussion of the dynamic between ideology and rhetoric again uses almost exclusively prolife examples, but prolife advocates seeking a more effective public rhetoric would nonetheless do well to attend to it closely. The author notes that the rhetoric of partisans succeeds insofar as it convinces the general public that particular partisan interests “are in the general interest.” Both the actions and the language involved in the Gideon Project abortion clinic bombings in Pensacola, Florida, on Christmas morning, 1984, did just the opposite, and their negative impact continues to this day.
The bombers described their action as being in accord with “God’s will” and as “a gift to Jesus on his birthday.” Such language reinforced the activists’ own ideological commitment, but as Condit notes, “the act of persuading . . . requires activists to abandon their own narrow views of the world, to address the audience in its own terms.”
Some of the more strident activists of the prolife movement have yet to understand this. Their efforts may well militate against achieving their goal of restoration of the public consensus on protection of the unborn. Even as Molly Yard advances the prolife cause when she affirms China’s coercive abortion policies, so Randall Terry advances the pro-abortion cause when he advocates what sounds a lot like theocracy to humanistic and otherwise pluralistic ears. Such behavior serves the opposition’s stereotyping of prolifers as religious zealots and extremists, a gang of fanatics led by bullying white males indifferent to the needs and concerns of women.
Terry and other high-profile activists should recognize that the media probably do not have the prolife movement’s best interests in mind in choosing them as spokespersons. Condit’s discussion of public expression of insular ideology could prove helpful in restructuring the rhetorical strategies of prolife partisans.
Mention of the media returns us to the greatest weakness in Condit’s work: its lack of analysis of the crucial role of the press (broadly understood) on the abortion story. Journalists themselves have recognized the pro-abortion bias in news coverage, as in David Shaw’s recent comment in the Los Angeles Times that “the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.” John Leo noted similarly in U.S. News & World Report “that since so few editors and reporters seem to know anybody who is anti-abortion, abortion protestors have been relatively easy to demonize.”
Condit partially compensates for her failure to discuss the news media by her useful exploration of the treatment of abortion in television drama. Such treatment is obviously important. As Condit notes in quoting David Thornburn, “Television is the contemporary medium of ‘consensus narrative,’ the primary source of ‘shared stories’ that explain ‘life as an American.’“
A single television drama can provide a broad range of viewpoints and cultural images on the abortion question. One of Condit’s examples is an episode of Cagney and Lacey, in which Detective Sergeant Chris Cagney, who is Catholic, protects an indigent Hispanic woman seeking an abortion and tracks down an abortion clinic bomber.
A number of prochoice themes are sounded. Cagney’s father urges his daughter to get off the case, because the “big boys” downtown (predominantly Irish Catholic) will not like her involvement in this abortion activity. Similarly, the woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion are treated in a highly sympathetic manner. She is poor, she explains to Cagney, and her husband is on disability. “I don’t want to be on welfare, I want to finish business school.”
But a dialogue between Cagney and her partner, Mary Beth Lacey, at least offers some ambiguity on the question. Cagney says of abortion. “I don’t know when it’s murder.” Lacey insists that “abortion is not murder. It’s not even a person yet.” But Cagney responds: “Tell that to your belly.” Condit summarizes the episode as “circumscribing the cultural meaning for the practice of abortion, supporting legal choice as a pragmatic necessity but defining abortion as a morally undesirable act.”
The author also compares differences in private and public discourse in terms of justification for abortion decisions, relying on a book called Pregnant by Mistake, a collection of interviews with women who have had abortions. For example, the reference to a “mother’s life” in public language in defense of abortion bas to do with physical survival. In private discourse, that reference is broadened to encompass the whole matter of a woman’s identity, the “everything I was” before pregnancy.
Moreover, the “wants” of women as discussed in private discourse may offer acceptable non-public warrants for a decision to abort. But, according to Condit, in the public realm “want” did not seem to offer “a comfortable or successful social defense of abortion.” Therefore, the term was transformed in public discourse into a concern over “unwanted children.” Condit asserts that it was the Zero Population Growth movement that made it possible to relate “unwanted children” to a greater good offering benefits to “wanted” children and to society at large. In this way “individual wants... became social choices.”
Since a majority of Americans do not agree that ZPC or personal advancement justify abortion, exposing these discrepancies between public and private meanings could have a favorable impact on the public debate from the prolife perspective.
However, the book’s greatest contribution comes in the discussion of how prevailing rhetoric affects not just public opinion but legal and constitutional understanding of the issue as well. Condit points out that “because the law must be able to control the public behavior of government officials and private individuals, legal discourse occurs, necessarily, in public space.”
In reference to Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade, Condit asserts that “the Court decided that the prochoice vocabulary was constitutionally legitimate. . . . Blackmun repeatedly employed the precise vocabulary from the prochoice discourse, citing a ‘fundamental right to choose’ and ‘freedom to choose.’“ The dissenting justices, for their part, “described abortion and motherhood precisely within the characterizations used by the prolife movement,” referring to the pregnant woman as a mother and indicating that it was the issue of her survival, not the conduct of her life, that presented an issue of fundamental freedom.
Perhaps most significant here is the Court’s assumption of the authority to decide the question in the first place. According to Condit, “the procedural matter of accepting the case had breathtaking consequences: it allowed women to bring pregnancy (perhaps our single most important issue as women) into the judicial process in a definitive way.” This gave an enormous rhetorical advantage to prochoice women, since, as Condit says, “fetuses could not bring such cases” nor shape the public discourse on the issue in the direction of their right to exist.
For partisans and non-partisans alike, Decoding Abortion Rhetoric adds much to an understanding of the flow of public language and story in the abortion debate. In the aftermath of the Webster decision, with major cracks appearing in the structure of Roe, the stress on public consensus has increased dramatically. Each side recognizes the need to build a legislative cathedral, if you will, that shelters either emerging human beings or women’s right to abortion.
Within the architecture of democracy, the group that is successful is the group that builds the sturdiest flying buttresses of public and judicial conviction. Leaders on either side who attempt to build their structure without both of the buttresses solidly in place will risk its collapse. In the end, as Condit recognizes, it is rhetoric and its impact on both public conviction and judicial interpretation that will ultimately determine whose structure will stand.
Guy M. Condon is Executive Director of Americans United for Life.