Building A Better Frame: Reproductive Rights In the Media

Amie Newman

We have an opportunity to re-focus the reproductive rights and health public and media discourse this campaign season - let's take it.

I had the pleasure of putting together and moderating a panel at this year’s Netroots Nation Convention in Austin, TX. It was, in many ways, the panel I’ve been envisioning in my mind for most of the last ten years I’ve spent working professionally on reproductive health and rights issues.

For most professional advocates and activists working in the sexual and reproductive health arena, after learning all you can initially about the core issues, you turn your attention rather naturally to the ways in which these issues have been and continue to be discussed in the public and political arenas.  That is, after you understand exactly what’s at stake you want to communicate in the most effective ways in order to sway public opinion, educate and ultimately affect policy change. But, as most good progressives now know, it takes more than passion to do these things – and when it’s reproductive and sexual health on the table – emotion and passion run high.

It is no doubt positive that advocates for progressive reproductive and sexual health policies are passionate and emotionally invested in this work. Certainly the anti-choice advocacy organizations express intense emotion and passion in their own messages. But what has happened to the terms of this "debate" when, rather than discussing access to care, education for young people, preventative care and tools, women’s health needs, sexual autonomy, economic justice, and more – all in the context of reproductive and sexual health – we get caught up in the hamster wheel of the "anti vs. pro-choice" spiral?

Our panel at Netroots Nation, Breaking the Frame: Revitalizing and Redefining Reproductive Rights Media Coverage, aimed to address just that question.  As I told the audience in my opening remarks, the truth is, the tired pro vs. anti-choice framework that both anti and pro-choice organizations use and which the mainstream media parrots incessantly does not work – it does not work because we can’t use it to counteract so much of the anti-choice, far right’s agenda. It doesn’t work because it does not allow us to reveal what that agenda really is. What is that agenda? And what does a truly inclusive picture of repro rights reporting and public discourse look and sound like?

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Our goal for the session was to walk away from the discussion having at least partially deconstructed the extremist, anti-choice messaging and agenda and, with the help of the expert panelists, figure out what our messaging could and should look like when we all work together – professional advocates, bloggers and the mainstream media.

At Rewire, as most of you know, we like to think of ourselves as "champions of information". The ways in which we work to counter the anti-choice agenda, the "reckless rhetoric" is by working with professional advocates, bloggers and the mainstream media to give readers the information they need to empower themselves and to help advocate for those who are so often rendered invisible by this frame –  to give those who are rendered invisible by the overly simplified pro vs. anti-choice frame a voice –  young people, immigrant women, indigenous women, low-income women, women in prison, birthing women. Our goal is also to impact the mainstream media’s coverage of these issues so that the truth is out there – truths like the fact that a majority of Americans support widespread access to contraception, that most American parents would like to see accurate sexuality education in public schools, and that most Americans support access to legal abortion over illegal abortion.

When Barack Obama commented, to a Christian Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in reference to questions about "partial birth abortion" that "mental distress" should not necessarily be considered a health exemption in reference to the Federal Abortion Ban, he used this inflexible frame to respond. Instead, as Jill Filipovic noted in her post on Rewire, he could have used this new, more inclusive frame to re-focus the discussion.  Obama had the opportunity to respond, "If you want to talk about reducing abortion – which is what I think you’re getting at in your question – let me tell you – I, along with my fellow Democrats, work to increase access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education support initiatives that support our families such as federal family leave policies, subsidized day care and early education…" As Jill notes, he had a chance to say "Education, health care and contraception access are the most effective ways to decrease the need for abortion. My administration will take a comprehensive, truly life-affirming view: We will support women, men and children at all stages of life, and we will give Americans as many options as possible to make the best decisions for themselves and their families."

Our messages should allow for a broader discussion so that public discourse on reproductive rights doesn’t boil down to an exploration of how distressed a woman needs to be in order to  be allowed access to a procedure that only a minute percentage of women need access to, or how repulsive said procedure sounds to the Supreme Court Justices of our country.

Our messages should allow for a simple response when a presidential candidate is taken to task for daring to expose that he believes young children should be able to identify their body parts with correct terminology and receive information about safe touching. 

So while some in the media would like for us to think that this fight is about being pro-choice vs. anti-choice, we know that this fight is about so much more. The extremist agendas of many of the anti-choice leading organizations do not resonate with many Americans and yet seem to rise to the top of public and political discourse as definitively "pro-life" positions.

It is incumbent upon us, as progressive media producers and readers, that we shift the discussion towards this fact. It’s worth repeating: the extremist anti-choice agenda is not representative of the belief systems of most Americans.

How do we know?

Even Carly Fiorina, top advisor to John McCain, would like to see insurance coverage equity for contraception on par with coverage of Viagra for men,  and the overwhelmingly angry response to the leaked proposed regulations put forth by the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow health care providers to block access to contraception by calling it abortion show this to be true.

We know this because expert advocacy and research organizations like Advocates for Youth, The Guttmacher Institute, MergerWatch, CCMC and others have done the research and analyzed the results. Watch our panels at the bottom of this post and you’ll get an overview of what Americans of a wide swath of ages, ethnicities, income levels, ability, sexual orientations and more, believe. 

As one of our panelists noted, "…public opinion is on our side. Now we need to challenge conventional wisdom." 

We have an opportunity with panels like this one, with a powerful progressive media including sites like ours, to figure out how best, working all together, to break this frame and create a new one with the ultimate of goals in mind: to ensure that all women, men and children are afforded the respect, justice and equity they deserve.

If you couldn’t make it to Netroots Nation this year, take a minute to listen to what our expert panelists had to say about reproductive health, framing and the progressive media:

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