Juxtaposing Sexist and Feminist Understandings of Pro-Life: An Analysis of Reproductive Rights Rhetoric

By Caroline B. Connor
2016, Vol. 8 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Near the end of 2015, in the midst of recent presidential and congressional debates, House Republicans proposed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, blocking all of the organization’s federal funding, after the release of videos discussing Planned Parenthood allegedly selling fetal tissue. Sources suggest that after the release in these videos, there was also a rise in death threats against abortion providers, which has been primarily linked to the rhetoric revolving around the fetal tissue controversy (Alter). After a shooting in a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in November of 2015, the Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Dawn Laguens, released a statement condemning the political rhetoric that surrounded the controversy. Laguens wrote,

One of the lessons of this awful tragedy is that words matter, and hateful rhetoric fuels violence. It's not enough to denounce the tragedy without also denouncing the poisonous rhetoric that fueled it. Instead, some politicians are continuing to stoke it, which is unconscionable (Laguens).

In the ongoing controversies surrounding the women’s reproductive rights debates, and specifically abortion debates, Planned Parenthood has consistently been at the heart of the issue. The abortion debate exists primarily in the political and legal sphere and heavily relies on rhetoric to defend respective sides in the argument. The members of the movement in support of abortion are also generally in support of Planned Parenthood, the organization that is identified as “a trusted health care provider, an informed educator, a passionate advocate, and a global partner helping similar organizations around the world” (Planned Parenthood “Who We Are”). Members of the opposing group, against abortion, are also typically against Planned Parenthood. The group, frequently referred to as anti-abortion or pro-life, has been in support of the government defunding Planned Parenthood, which would terminate the organization’s services. The group in support of Planned Parenthood and reproductive healthcare services is typically referred to as pro-choice and can generally be categorized as feminists because they are in support of women having autonomy in regards to their reproduction.

Feminist writers play a large role in representing the pro-choice movement and expressing its beliefs, especially in terms of women’s reproductive rights. Because the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy is so distinct, writers supporting their respective sides are constantly putting the opposing groups into conversation in an effort to defend their own positions. Through the analysis of an article published in Elle magazine, I apply a feminist critique to examine how feminist writers use rhetorical strategies to present their perspectives on women’s reproductive rights.

In the article titled “Defunding Planned Parenthood is the Opposite of ‘Pro-Life,’” Jill Flipovic argues that supporters of the pro-life movement are contradicting their supposed beliefs by voting to defund Planned Parenthood. Flipovic writes from a feminist perspective and expresses how being both pro-choice and pro-Planned Parenthood juxtaposes the dominating conservative male perspective that claims to be pro-life. Through a feminist critique of the artifact, I argue that the writer calls into question the skewed perspective of the pro-life movement by creating an association of pro-life and male dominance to contrast the female voices in the rhetoric of the Planned Parenthood perspective. Additionally, the analysis reveals how certain rhetorical strategies employed in concert result in producing effective feminist rhetoric supporting women’s reproductive rights. Because feminist writers make up the majority of voices in the pro-choice movement, this article exemplifies how feminist writers in the reproductive rights movement present and em their positions.

Literature Review

Scholars have long since examined the rhetoric associated with Planned Parenthood as it pertains to the abortion debate, which dates back much further than the creation of the organization. Recent studies have shown that efforts to regulate and control birth are not limited to Western perspectives (Ruhl 4). In examining these historical debates, many scholars have focused on the rhetoric used to support or oppose Planned Parenthood. In the pre-Roe v. Wade era, rhetoric fueling abortion debates addressed “not the wish to plan one’s births, to intervene in an inherently ungovernable process, but rather the obligation to do so” (Ruhl 4). This rhetoric emphasizes and supports women’s autonomy in controlling their fertility, but it also focuses on the concept of population control; however, with the legislation of Roe v. Wade, rhetoric endorsing abortion began to focus less on population control and more on policy and rights issues (Ziegler 307). In the 1970’s, Planned Parenthood identified preserving Roe v. Wade and abortion rights as a priority, which they supported by employing “rights-based arguments” as their main rhetorical strategies (Ziegler 312).

Just as organizations, like Planned Parenthood, in support of abortion began to emphasize rights-based movements, so did anti-abortion organizations. These organizations employed rhetorical strategies that advanced the anti-abortion movement by developing positions intended to foster support (Halva-Neubauer, Zeigler 102). These strategies resulted in identifying the movement opposed to abortion as the pro-life movement, in support of the right to life.

Much of the literature regarding Planned Parenthood rhetoric focuses on Supreme Court rulings and how these rulings have affected social and cultural understandings of abortion debates. Ziegler claims that pro-life and pro-choice advocacy changed the way anti-abortion and abortion reform activism was fundamentally understood after, and because of, Roe v. Wade (Ziegler 329). But as more recent debates regarding abortion and Planned Parenthood are more frequently focusing on fiscal issues of government funding and appear on a greater variety of platforms, the organization and its supporters have needed to employ a variety of different rhetorical strategies beyond rights-based arguments in order to address the most pertinent issues facing women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

As increases and platforms are more accessible than ever, it is imperative that organizations take advantage of the many different ways they can present their messages. Scholars such as Deana Rohlinger have addressed some effective strategies, explaining, “Social movement groups choose media tactics in response to a particular set of political conditions that is comprised of opportunities and threats as well as allies and opponents, who are also working to forward their own goals” (Rohlinger 539). In this particular case, “social movement groups” such as Planned Parenthood, rely on their allies, such as feminist writers and journalists, to address and advocate for their causes. This analysis examines the particular rhetorical strategies allies of Planned Parenthood employ to further garner support in the unceasing reproductive rights debate.

Methods

Many scholars have addressed the importance of rhetoric in social movements and have examined the relationship between and power. The women’s rights movement in particular has been a focus in theoretical and rhetorical analysis surrounding power dynamics inherent in society. In Jane Ward and Susan Archer Mann’s explanation of the development of feminist theoretical perspectives, they address how postperspective feminists call for the demise of binary and patriarchal ways of thinking. Ward and Mann reference Foucault’s warning suggesting, “‘we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse or between dominant discourse and the dominated one’” (Ward, Mann 221). Foucault alludes to traditionally male-dominated discourse having prevalence over female discourse. Foucault’s warning exemplifies feminists’ need to alter understandings of rhetoric so that their voices do not fall into the “dominated” category of discourse. According to Foucault, effective feminist rhetoric is thus able to dismantle the binary of divided discourse that separate ideas and essentially groups in social movements.

Through a feminist rhetorical analysis, I am able to critically apply the concepts of through a rhetorical lens. I have chosen this method of analysis in order to examine the effectiveness of the rhetoric involved in recent debates regarding women’s reproductive rights, and specifically Planned Parenthood. Scholars have attempted to define and categorize this method of analysis throughout a number of works. Kristina Schriver Whalen and Donna Marie Nudd explain in Feminist Criticism that feminist thought has always been diverse in both theories and practices and they illustrate how feminist rhetorical criticism “attempts to foreground how gender is operating or being sculpted in particular ways by language choice” and suggest that “alternative, yet equally valid forms of producing symbolic meaning exist” (Whalen and Nudd 5). This analysis allows for an examination of how the writer uses language to position certain sides of the reproductive rights movement into gender-dominated categories. I also examine how the writer employs language to construct alternate forms of symbolic meaning that redefine key phrases in the abortion debate.

In order for feminist writers to deconstruct the gendered discourse binary, authors must employ rhetorical strategies to take control of dominated discourse. Whalen and Nudd explain that one of the many approaches of feminist criticism is “redefining,” which allows feminist critics to “create new language that will give non-patriarchal dimension to people’s lives or a language to effectively demystify patriarchy” and also “reclaim words used to straightjacket masculinity and femininity and thereby infuse them with new meaning” (Whalen and Nudd 7). I will use this method of redefining to examine how the author in the article takes terms that are associated with the male-dominated political party and reclaims them in an effort to argue that the term’s meaning is actually more suitable for the opposing movement. I examine how the writer’s redefining strategy works to call into question the perspectives of the opposing group and their underlying patriarchal motives.

While feminist rhetorical strategies can work to disempower an opposing perspective they can also empower the perspective in favor. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell explains in The Rhetoric of Women's Liberation: An Oxymoron that feminist rhetoric, particularly in the women’s liberation movement, attacks the entire psychosocial reality of the cultural context in which it occurs. According to Kohrs Campbell, feminist rhetoric employs certain stylistic features that function as strategic adaptations in rhetorical situations. She explains that “the paradigm that highlights the distinctive stylistic features of women's liberation is ‘consciousness raising,’ a mode of interaction or a type of rhetorical transaction uniquely adapted to the rhetorical problem of feminist advocacy” (Kohrs Campbell 78).

This stylistic strategy makes the personal political by creating awareness of shared experiences that were thought to be personal, in an effort to bring women together. Kohrs Campbell upholds that the women’s liberation movement is characterized by rhetorical interactions, which allows rhetorical analyses to provide critical examinations of aspects of the movement, such as the abortion controversy. I use Kohrs Campbell’s method to examine how the writer in the article applies stylistic strategies, such as consciousness raising, to enhance her own feminist perspective and agenda for the women’s reproductive rights movement.

The claims made in my analysis use these feminist rhetorical methodologies to critique not only how the writer in the Elle magazine positions herself in relation to the argument at hand, but also how she categorizes the opposing groups in the abortion controversy and federal funding debate. The analysis shows how the author’s specific language choice presents a feminist argument empowering the pro-choice perspective, which is supported using a variety of feminist rhetorical techniques.

Findings

The article “Defunding Planned Parenthood is the Opposite of ‘Pro-Life’” was written by Jill Flipovic and published in Elle magazine on August 3, 2015. Flipovic is a senior political writer for cosmopolitan.com and frequent speaker and on-air commentator on gender, political and legal issues. Elle is a magazine and online media source targeted at women, covering a variety of topics including fashion, beauty, , life & love, and horoscopes. The particular article about Planned Parenthood is categorized under the “Culture” section, within the subcategory of “Power & Politics.” The article discusses the debate over pulling federal funding from Planned Parenthood and claims that defunding the organization is about more than just abortion, but about preventing women from receiving necessary and life-saving healthcare.

The writer introduces a woman’s narrative of her experience with Planned Parenthood at the beginning of the artifact in order to enhance the female voices in the pro-choice and pro-Planned Parenthood perspective. The narrative offers an emotional story of a woman with breast cancer that had no other healthcare options but was in need of medical attention and “without that Planned Parenthood checkup, Luther says ‘I think it’s a very real possibility that my prognosis would not have been as good as it was. I may not be here. My daughter may not be here’” (Flipovic 2).

The story reveals a situation where Planned Parenthood essentially saved a woman’s life, which works to highlight the importance of the organization and the array of services that it provides. The author uses an example of a woman who is able to share her voice because of Planned Parenthood to represent the viewpoints of the majority of the organization’s clientele. This rhetorical strategy enacts a level of consciousness raising by presenting a shared experience that addresses a political problem on a personal level in order to “create awareness (through shared experiences) that what were thought to be personal deficiencies and individual problems are common and shared, a result of their position as women (Kohrs Campbell 79). Though Flipovic claims that she has also benefited from the services of Planned Parenthood, offering additional female perspectives to emphasize the influences of the female-dominated pro-Planned Parenthood group enhances rhetoric associated with the organization and the support of Planned Parenthood.

In the following paragraph, Flipovic changes the focus of the artifact to illustrate the opposing party’s beliefs and concerns so that she can later call them into question. The writer acknowledges that after false allegations of Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue have been dealt with, the “anti-abortion, fiscally conservative Republicans” want to cut funding for the organization that would ultimately save the government money (Flipovic 2). The writer characterizes the group opposing Planned Parenthood by only identifying the political party in terms of their stance on abortion and finances. By choosing to only acknowledge beliefs that do not specifically address women’s health care, Flipovic alludes to the patriarchal ideologies of the Republican party and in doing so, positions the party in greater opposition to the pro-choice and pro-Planned Parenthood perspective.

Furthermore, Flipovic develops an association of male-dominance and the anti-abortion and Republican Party by only using male perspectives in the artifact. In support of the party, the writer provides quotes from male representatives that speak against Planned Parenthood, such as a male representative and presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul R-Ky., who said, “when something is so morally repugnant to so many people, why should tax dollars go to this?” (Flipovic 2). The conservative male perspective situates the Republican Party in opposition to Planned Parenthood on both a moral and economic level. Using a quote from a male that refers to the organization as “morally repugnant,” Flipovic emphasizes the party’s extreme opposition to Planned Parenthood, which is primarily based on only one of the many services the organization provides: abortion. The writer uses male voices to represent the anti-abortion and Republican Party placing monetary value on a “moral” act regarding women’s health. By illustrating only males’ perspectives, the writer strengthens the association of male-dominance in the party.

Flipovic’s emphasis on the fiscal importance of the controversy illuminates the patriarchal beliefs of the male-dominated Republican Party. As the author responds to the claims made by the male Republicans, she explains how federal funding is truly allocated to Planned Parenthood claiming, “the government gets a lot of bang for its buck” (Flipovic 3). While breaking down the actual percentages of federal funding that go toward the organization’s healthcare services, the writer presumes that the party supporting the defund is primarily concerned with the financial aspect of the problem, as opposed to the well-being of “life” and particularly women’s lives. The concern over financial implications as it relates to the Republican Party furthers the emphasis of masculinity and male-dominance inherent in patriarchal ideologies that value males’ social, political, and economic power.

In response to the male-dominated Republican concerns, Flipovic redefines terms that are typically associated with anti-abortion movements to question the legitimacy of the coined phrases by using them in support of Planned Parenthood. After explaining how continuing to fund Planned Parenthood would actually save the government money, she maintains, “It’s about the most fiscally conservative policy around” (Flipovic 3). Using the phrase, “fiscally conservative,” which Flipovic previously used to refer to the Republican Party, in a different context in support of Planned Parenthood, the author reclaims the term in order to create new language that offers a non-patriarchal understanding of the concept. By redefining the phrase associated with the Republican Party, the author questions the party’s actual motives. Continuing, Flipovic argues “And that funding is pro-life in every sense of the word” because the funding would essentially be saving thousands of lives per year (Flipovic 3).

The writer’s particular word choice works to call into question the motives of the anti-abortion group by positioning these phrases in support of Planned Parenthood. In positioning the terms that are generally associated with the pro-life movement in support of the pro-choice organization, Flipovic develops alternate forms of symbolic meaning by redefining the phrases. The author reveals how the meaning of these terms have been manipulated to represent anti-abortion beliefs but in actuality, the meanings of the terms are better suited for supporting the values of the pro-Planned Parenthood and pro-women’s healthcare perspective. Creating the new meaning of these phrases allows the writer to effectively call into question not only the phrases, but the underlying patriarchal ideologies of the male-dominated Republican Party. By calling into question these ideologies, Flipovic is able to discredit the opposing group and simultaneously empower the pro-choice movement.

In the ongoing debate of defunding Planned Parenthood, the voices of the male-dominated Republican Party have attempted to overpower the work and services provided by Planned Parenthood. The author in this article employs a variety of feminist rhetorical strategies to continuously question the skewed perspective of the anti-abortion Republican Party to argue how the feminist pro-choice perspective that supports Planned Parenthood is ultimately more pro-life.

Discussion

Flipovic’s article is just one example of rhetoric in the reproductive rights debate that positions pro-choice and pro-life groups in extreme opposition to one another. The author uses Planned Parenthood as a platform to express feminist ideologies that are supported by the organization, but ultimately makes a greater claim about the opposing group, specifically in the abortion debate. Writing from a distinct feminist perspective, the writer uses rhetorical strategies that are frequently associated with women in feminist movements. Other writers, like Flipovic, have recognized how effective such strategies can be in supporting their motives in debates such as abortion.

Flipovic’s rhetorical strategies not only disempower the pro-life movement, they also exemplify vilification characteristics. Marsha L. Vanderford in “Vilification and Social Movements: A Case study of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Rhetoric” illustrates how opposing groups in the abortion controversy utilize vilification as a tactic to delegitimize their challengers. Vanderford defines vilification as “a rhetorical strategy that discredits adversaries by characterizing them as ungenuine and malevolent advocates” (Vanderford 166). In an effort to delegitimize opposing groups, Vanderford claims that vilification functions in four main ways allowing writers to: formulate a specific adversarial force, cast opponents in an exclusively negative light, attribute diabolical motives to adversaries, and magnify the opponent’s power. Writers can apply any combination of the forms of vilification to achieve the ultimate goal of taking away the opponent’s credibility.

Vanderford explains that “pro-choice rhetoric magnifies enemy power,” which Flipovic does by identifying the opposing group as male-dominated, fiscally conservative Republicans who are attempting to use their power to take away accessible healthcare to a majority of women (Vanderford 169). Vanderford continues that pro-choice rhetoric also “attaches corrupt and ambitions motives to their adversaries” (Vanderford 170). Flipovic demonstrates this rhetorical strategy by calling into question the motives of the fiscally conservative Republicans and arguing that the meaning of their fundamental beliefs are more appropriate for the pro-choice movement. Flipovic further separates the opposition by redefining their own terms to empower the pro-choice and pro-Planned Parenthood perspective. By explaining how the motives of the pro-choice group actually save more lives compared to those who identify with the pro-life group, Flipovic enhances the feminist pro-choice perspective. In this situation, Flipovic utilizes a variety of rhetorical strategies that cohesively create an argument against the pro-life movement and empower the pro-choice movement. The author exemplifies one approach to effectively positioning opposing groups in the rhetoric surrounding women’s reproductive rights.

Although the findings in my analysis cannot serve as a generalization for the vast array of rhetoric involved in the reproductive rights and abortion debates, the rhetorical analysis illustrates how the generally feminist perspective of the pro-choice group effectively responds to and disempowers the male-dominated majority of the pro-life group. In the debate over women’s reproductive rights, and specifically abortion, language is integral in identifying and positioning pro-choice and pro-life groups.

In analyses of previous eras of Planned Parenthood rhetoric, scholars have found that abortion debates evolved from centering on population control to “rights-based” arguments relating to choice and privacy (Ziegler 330). Today, the main concerns in the reproductive rights debate focus on women’s access to healthcare, the implication of abortion, and the financial concerns associated with organizations that provide these services to women. By raising consciousness, reclaiming, and redefining terms that are associated with these contested topics, feminist writers are not only able to effectively support and promote their own motives, but simultaneously disempower their opponents. With this understanding, writers are able to identify the many fronts that affect women’s reproductive health and capitalize on the issues of importance. In the expansive issue of abortion and reproductive rights, employing rhetorical strategies that serve a double-purpose of supporting a perspective and delegitimizing the opposing one provides authors with the ability to advocate for their group. These strategies are specifically important for feminists supporting Planned Parenthood whose fight for women’s reproductive rights have recently become more complex.

Conclusion

The controversial debate over abortion that almost always includes discussions around the healthcare provider, Planned Parenthood, addresses a variety of issues that invoke gendered perspectives. Because supporters of the pro-choice movement are also proponents of Planned Parenthood and are overwhelmingly women, going against pro-life advocates who are generally male, feminist writers must focus specifically on strategies that address the gender binaries that are inherent in the debate. Ultimately, the most effective approach in addressing these issues is rooted in rhetoric. The debate invites opposing groups of pro-choice and pro-life movements to utilize rhetorical strategies to empower their own stance while simultaneously disempowering their opponents. Feminist writers apply strategies specific to their movement in an effort to call into question the ideologies and motives of their opponents.

In order for feminists to support their positions on reproductive rights, they need to be able to apply these rhetorical strategies so that they continue to progress their movement. In the debate that has lasted centuries, it is imperative that feminists utilize every strategy necessary, particular rhetorical ones, to achieve their goal of overcoming the pro-life opposition and enact the change they have tirelessly proposed through rhetoric.


References

Alter, Charlotte. "Threats Against Abortion Providers Spiked After Planned Parenthood Videos." Time. Time, 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. .

Flipovic, Jill. "Defunding Planned Parenthood Is the Opposite of 'Pro-Life'" ELLE. 03 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. .

Kohrs Campbell, Karlyn. "The Rhetoric of Women's Liberation: An Oxymoron." Quarterly Journal of Speech 59.1 (1973): 74-86. Web.

Laguens, Dawn. "Planned Parenthood Condemns Political Rhetoric Around Recent Tragedy."Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 29 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. .

Rohlinger, Deana A.. “Friends and Foes: Media, Politics, and Tactics in the Abortion War.” Social Problems 53.4 (2006): 537–561. Web.

Ruhl, Lealle. Dilemmas of the Will: Uncertainty, Reproduction, and the Rhetoric of Control. The University of Chicago Press. 27.3 (2002). 641-663. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/337940

Ward, Jane. "Chapter 6 Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Queer, and Transgender Theories."Doing Feminist Theory: From Modernity to Postmodernity. By Susan Archer. Mann. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 211-55. Print.

Whalen, Kristina Schriver and Nudd, Donna Marie. “Feminist Criticism.” The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006). Print.

"Who We Are." Who We Are. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. .

Vanderford, Marsha L. "Vilification and Social Movements: A Case Study of Pro‐life and Pro‐choice Rhetoric." Quarterly Journal of Speech 75.2 (1989): 166-82. Web.

Ziegler, Mary. “The Framing of a Right to Choose: Roe V. Wade and the Changing Debate on Abortion Law.” Law and History Review 27.2 (2009): 281–330. Web.

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