Commentary Sexual Health

The Disney Paradox: Advertising Princesses as Strong and Brave While Making Billions on the “Meek and Beautiful”

Martha Kempner

In an (almost) inspiring ad, Disney attempts to equate being a princess with being brave, strong, and generous. The ad is good but is it enough to counter the company's own marketing machine that tells girls being pretty is most important?

I admit it: the Disney Channel was on a lot in my house on a recent weekend. It was a long weekend, most of my daughter’s friends were away for the holiday, and I seemed to spend the whole weekend cleaning the house (first to make it nice enough for guests and then to put it back together after they left). So I let Rocky and CeCe of Shake it Up entertain my six-year-old for more hours than I should have. During one of those hours, as I tried to yet again to free a carpet from dried play-doh, I caught an interesting Disney-sponsored cross between a commercial and Public Service Announcement (PSA).

The “I am a princess” ad begins with a shot of a little girl dressed up like Snow White and continues on to show girls doing archery, surfing, balancing on the high beam, presenting science projects to judges, and helping old people. The girls (and families) featured in the one minute and 46 second video range in age from pre-school to high school and come in many shapes, sizes, and skin tones. (The casting agent took her task of finding multi-cultural talent very seriously.) On top of these images inspirational music plays and a young, but authoritative, voice-over tells us:

I am a princess. I am brave sometimes, I am scared sometime. Sometimes I am brave even when I’m scared. I believe in loyalty and trust. I believe loyalty is built on trust. I try to be kind. I try to be generous. I am kind even when others are not so generous. I am a princess. I think standing up for myself is important. I think standing up for others is more important but standing with others is most important. I am a princess. I believe compassion makes me strong. I believe kindness is power. And family is the tightest bond of all. I have heard I am beautiful. I know I am strong. (Video clip of Tangled: “I promise and when I promise something, I never ever break that promise.”) I am a princess, long may I reign.

It turns out that this commercial was released in September (I can’t believe it took me this long to see it) by Disney as part of a “…celebration of what it truly means to be a Princess, today. To be brave. To be kind. To be generous and compassionate. Join Disney as we celebrate the Princess inside every young girl. Long may they reign!”

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I loved it. It was, as it was meant to be, moving and inspiring. I actually got chills on the line, “I’ve been told I am beautiful but I know I’m strong.” I want my daughters know that being strong is more important than being beautiful.

Perhaps if I were less cynical, I would applaud this as a new direction for Disney maybe even suggesting that it’s the influence of Pixar, the makers of the Toy Story movies, which in an odd David and Goliath moment took over the larger studio a few years ago. But I am a cynic, and this is not a PSA, it’s an advertisement. 

The only reason to add the line “I am a princess,” is to tie this ad back to the brand off of which Disney has made a fortune since Snow White was released in 1937. When you watch the ad you’ll catch glimpses of many of their princesses. There’s a shot of Snow White, an appearance by Cinderella, a clip of young girls watching Tangled, and a scene in which a father and daughter are dancing in front of a television while watching Beauty and the Beast

In reframing their princesses as strong and generous and brave, Disney is clearly working to answer its critics who have been railing against the messages in princess movies for years. Many parents (including this one) have complained that the princesses want nothing more out of life than to find a prince and live happily ever after and that this is not an inspirational or aspirational message for our daughters. 

The original princesses of the forties and fifties—Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—all underscore the idea that a girl’s ultimate goal in life is to meet that one man, fall in love, and live happily ever after without ever really taking an active role in shaping her own future. Real women came along way in the next few decades but princesses seem to have gotten stuck in a gender-role rut as the 90’s entries into the genre had even worse messages. In the Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch, to give up her voice at least temporarily. She then has to get Prince Eric to fall in love with her without talking. What follows is a series of scenes in which she bats her eyelashes a lot but says nothing—and it works. The take away: shut up and look pretty and you’ll the get the guy. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle wants more than her small-town life and reads every book she can get her hands on which is admirable but as soon as the Beast starts being a little bit refined and kind of sweet, she seems to forget that he is still holding her captive. 

In the 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, best-selling author Peggy Orenstein notes her own challenges raising a daughter in our princess-obsessed culture. She points out that Disney has more than 26,000 princess-themed objects on the market and that these royal women are “…part of a $4 billion-a-year franchise that is the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created.” Orenstein doesn’t buy Disney’s argument that the company is simply giving young girls what they want. As she sees it, today’s girls have few alternatives. True, the princess phase is not unique to today’s young girls, we dressed up in tutus too, but Orenstein says there is something new:

It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations. But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.

As Jessica Bennett put it in Newsweek: “Translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty.”

Orenstein posted the “I am a princess” ad to her website last month and asked her readers if the company can really, “re-brand the princesses as being about strength of character and self-efficacy while also peddling tens of thousands of products to our daughters that emphasize beauty and consumerism?? Does the brave Rapunzel in the movie offset the one who is on the Escape From the Tower Lip & Nail Set?”

I have to say no. It is true that the newest major offerings in the Disney princess world, Brave and Tangled, have heroines who at least seem to be able to take care of themselves be it with a bow and arrow or a frying pan. But why must they still be princesses? 

Actually, there is an even newer princess out there, Sofia the First (though she may be a lesser princess, perhaps of a smaller Kingdom, as she went directly to TV). In her debut movie, which aired on the Disney Channel and ran a mere 47 minutes, Sofia is “rescued” from a perfectly fine life with her loving (and notably living) mother by King Roland who marries mom and brings the pair to the castle to live happily ever after. 

In some heavy-handed meta-text, the movie tries to be comically aware of its place in the princess pedigree. Her mother, for example, promises King Roland’s children that she will not be an evil stepmother. When Sofia gains the ability to understand the happy animals that help her get dressed, they tell her in a song that the only reason they’ve been following princesses around for generations is because the palace has good food. And as a tie-back to the rest of the brand, Cinderella shows up at the end to give an inspiring lecture on sisterhood and assure Sofia that all princesses are connected. 

Despite this self-awareness, the movie does little to rise above its genre. Sure, Sofia is already a princess with a closet full of dresses and a butler (voiced by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn) so I suppose she doesn’t have to go searching for a prince. Still, the biggest challenge facing her in this movie is being able to waltz with the King at the upcoming ball without embarrassing herself. No worries, princess school (or perhaps prince/ss school since it’s actually co-ed) will help her learn everything she needs to know. And while the headmistresses—Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather of Sleeping Beauty fame—pay lip services to teaching her how to fence and making sure she reads classic books, what we see are lessons on proper curtsying, waltzing, and pouring tea (which is apparently very difficult).

If this is the best Disney can do in rewriting the princess then I can’t accept their commercial, no matter how well done, as an accurate portrayal of what the brand is trying to tell young girls. And even if their new princesses continue get better or stronger or more inspirational to girls in the vein of Brave and Tangled, why must they still be princesses? I liked watching Kate Middleton’s wedding and I think she has a fantastic wardrobe but I don’t think becoming a princess is a realistic or worthy goal.  (For one thing she may have taken the only open spot.) 

Without the line “I am a princesss,” the Disney video would be fantastic but as it stands it’s just a commercial and a bit of a hypocritical one at that. Personally, I prefer the Sesame Street clip that we posted on Rewire a few weeks ago in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells Abby Cadabby that “princess” is not a career. Now, if only I could get either of my kids interested in watching Sesame Street

Culture & Conversation Abortion

Leading During Hostile Times: A Conversation With Yamani Hernandez and Nikki Madsen

Rewire Staff

The executive directors of the National Network of Abortion Funds and the Abortion Care Network discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced so far as leaders of abortion access organizations in the context of one of the most hostile cultural and political climates since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

In this exchange, Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, and Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced so far as leaders of abortion access organizations in the context of one of the most hostile cultural and political climates since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The two leaders also highlight the importance of working across movements to build momentum around expanding abortion care. “In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue to work with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country,” said Hernandez.

Madsen added: “Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice.”

Rewire: What brought you to a movement seeking unrestricted access to abortion?

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Yamani Hernandez: I came to the abortion-specific movement because, among other things, I was frustrated with the messaging around abortion, which I felt didn’t necessarily represent my abortion experience and was not super accessible to people in the various communities I come from. I was also frustrated with how dangerous parental involvement laws were seemingly a low priority within the broader movement. “Pro-choice” people will often shy away from advocating for young people’s unfettered access to abortion. Young people are not offered comprehensive sexuality education; birth control is hard to get; and then, if a young person becomes pregnant, they are shamed for parenting and shamed for attempting to access abortion services. I really viewed my arrival to this movement as a way to change it from the inside.

Nikki Madsen: I think a culmination of many moments in my life brought me to this movement and have kept me here for more than a decade. My parents holding open and frank conversations with me about sex; my two step-siblings becoming pregnant and parenting in their teens; volunteering for the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood as a young adult; having women’s studies and sociology professors who believed in me; taking a “history of the fetus” course in graduate school (best class ever!); volunteering as a clinic escort at a local, independent abortion care clinic; learning about my grandmother’s pre-Roe abortion; facilitating an after-abortion support group for many years and helping people access financial resources for abortion care in my prior job at Pro-Choice Resources; and planning and creating a family of my own have all shaped the person I am today and my commitment to this essential human rights work.

Rewire: What challenges do you see the movement confronting in 2016?

YH: There’s no denying that we are in a tough climate right now. While we’ve made some great strides forward in 2015, the year was also marked by attacks on abortion providers, TRAP laws, the continuation of the Hyde Amendment—which bans Medicaid coverage of abortion—and stark racism. The election is likely to set the tone for many of our health-care rights, from the Affordable Care Act to protections for or restrictions on abortion, and a lot is at stake. After five years of increased restrictions, we need more elected leaders to speak up for abortion access. Whether we’ll see that in 2016 or in the years that follow is unpredictable, and it’s hard to know whether we’re close to some much-needed victories for low-income people and people of color, or whether we’ll have to struggle more than ever to exercise our basic human rights. The safety of those seeking and providing abortions, the ability to afford health care, and the safety of communities of color are issues integral to the success of the movement. In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue working with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country.

NM: It sure would be nice to think that the New Year would bring a respite from the constant challenges of 2015. We all have anxious eyes on the Supreme Court. If the Court rules in favor of Texas’ omnibus abortion law, HB 2, we will see access diminish as more clinics are forced to close their doors, and emboldened legislatures pass more and farther-reaching laws that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to receive the care they need. We are hopeful that the Court will see the injustice and unconstitutionality in HB 2 and strike it down, but even if it does we are likely to see a continued onslaught of attacks from anti-choice extremists. The dynamics of an election year are likely to escalate already elevated rhetoric against providers and people who seek abortions, which we will see playing out not only in legislatures, but on the streets in front of clinics. I also believe we will continue to see the prosecution of pregnant people for everything from drug use to miscarriage. Attacks on pregnant people are unlikely to stop.

Rewire: What is your hope for bridging intersections between movement leaders, and in what ways do you think intersectionality brings strength to the movement?

We show up for movements that affect those seeking abortions because we don’t lead one-issue lives, and there are many ways we can make real progress in abortion accessibility by supporting economic and racial justice initiatives.

YH: My hope lies in building authentic relationships and integrating our work based on the ways that actual lives are lived. For instance, when people call abortion funds because they have to choose between paying for rent or paying for health care, there’s not only an economic issue but a housing issue. Intersectionality brings strength to the movement because advocates don’t have to sacrifice other aspects of our identity and experience in order to do this work. We know that advocates’ personal experiences actually inform the work they do, and people can bring their whole selves to work when we start connecting abortion access with other political and social needs. Activists from different movements are stronger together, and we can’t keep preaching to the choir. We need more people speaking up and rejecting the status quo, across lines of race, class, gender, geography, and issue area. We show up for movements that affect those seeking abortions because we don’t lead one-issue lives, and there are many ways we can make real progress in abortion accessibility by supporting economic and racial justice initiatives. Abortion rights activists have been showing up for Fight for $15, with national office staff members in Boston and Madison marching in solidarity with low-wage workers, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. We have also made efforts to lift up this issue up in our online and offline communications with supporters and constituents. Since then, we’ve been proud to see the Fight for $15 movement talk about reproductive rights in the context of economic justice. It’s been great to be able to lift one another up.

NM: After the gravity of the challenges we face, this is where I find hope. While Abortion Care Network is obviously focused on abortion care, we know that abortion occurs within the context of people’s lives, where there are many layers of concerns and injustices at play. People’s need for abortion care is wrapped up in their desire for healthy and safe families and communities. Abortion is the exercising of the basic human rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy. We must recognize that the threats to family and community, and the assaults on those basic human rights, are multifaceted and hit people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—from many directions and in many layers. When we see the struggle for justice in its full frame, and don’t just focus on our own little piece, we can create a more powerful and unified front against our common oppressors. In fact, it’s the only way we can. Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice. It is heartening to see a new generation of activists and organizations leading us in that direction.

Rewire: How do you think the reproductive rights movement should go about investing in new leaders?

YH: I think there are two crucial ways we can invest in new leaders. First, “new” leaders can be younger leaders and sometimes “new” leaders can be people outside of the existing movement. I think that we should invest in explicit succession plans that free up space for new people to join. It would be great for new leaders to have a standard movement-wide orientation that informs them about our history, our opposition, and the unique aspects of doing our work. Second, I could envision a formal executive director support group that these new leaders are brought into. Individual coaching is great, but group coaching could also be really useful. Taking the time to listen to the unique perspectives of each individual could be an essential part of this investment and I can envision this taking place very effectively in a group setting. Drawing strength from the relationships and dialogue we have with one another, “each one reach one” will strengthen not only each individual leader but also the movement as a whole.

NM: Oh how I wish I had the answers. I do think identifying people who will serve as movement mentors for new leaders is essential. And a support group would be lovely. I do know for certain that it’s essential we think beyond our traditional pathways to leadership and structural supports that favor already privileged people. I think much like raising a child, it’s all about your support system. I’m lucky that my position at Abortion Care Network came with a built-in support system, a network comprised of experts and compassionate individuals who allowed me to ask questions and brainstorm ideas. They have lifted me up on the toughest days. For example, just a few weeks before the Colorado shootings at Planned Parenthood, Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police officers in my hometown of Minneapolis. These two tragedies happening so close to one another left me emotionally and physically exhausted as I tried to balance my work demands, commitments to my broader human rights community, and my family. Cristina Aguilar, executive director from COLOR, reached out to me in response to my public statement on the Colorado shootings and offered support—that simple gesture made all the difference in the world.

Rewire: Reflecting on Roe v. Wade, how would you describe what has been happening since it became law, and what is your vision for reclaiming any rights we have lost?

YH: Among many other things, we’ve seen anti-choice lawmakers try literally anything to obstruct access to abortion. We’ve seen waves of clinic closures, steadily increasing numbers of people forced to carry their pregnancy to term against their will, and youth-targeted anti-abortion laws that exist in states that are otherwise progressive when it comes to reproductive health and sex education. Abortion has been stigmatized, racialized, and criminalized to the point that a person can’t have a miscarriage without facing the potential for incarceration, particularly if they are a person of color. Simply put, having something legally on the books and how it actually plays out are entirely different things.

My vision is that all people not only have reclaimed rights but also the resources and recognition to thrive. That means that they can afford the families they want and that they are safe. It also means that they can afford their health care, that it’s in close geographic proximity to them, that it is compassionate health care, and that they don’t have to wait forever to get it. Though the climate is challenging, we are seeing an impressive and powerful wave of people saying, “Enough!” Across the United States, leaders are rising to the challenge, and more and more people continue to join our movement every day. That’s in no small part due to the efforts of member funds on the ground, and providers, and those seeking abortions, telling their experiences and declaring that abortion will not continue to be a health-care option for only those with economic resources. We’re refusing en masse, and people are awake and angry because abortion is a fundamental societal good. We can’t afford to keep going back, and the urgency is spreading like wildfire.

… we must be bold in our language, unafraid to speak openly, proudly, and without defensiveness about the nature of abortion and the positive role it plays in the health and well-being of people, families, and communities.

NM: There just isn’t a simple answer to this question, but there is no doubt that we have lost ground, and I believe that is owed to a movement that has been too narrow in its focus, and too afraid to speak our truth. We have focused primarily on a narrow definition of the right to privacy and to choose, and have used language that both stigmatizes (i.e., “safe, legal and rare,” “no one is pro-abortion, we are pro-choice,” etc.) and lacks the complexity of people’s feelings about abortion. The result has been a movement that has been too quick to accept narrow political victories at the expense of broader justice and access, one that has failed to speak effectively to a broad cross-section of the U.S. public, and that may have contributed to the prevailing silence that exists around the abortion experience. Meanwhile our opponents’ attacks have been broad and their rhetoric bold. When they have been unable to attack the basic isolated right we have protected, they have effectively chipped away at access, disproportionately impacting the most marginalized people and targeting providers, which has weakened our movement at its very base. Our opponents have also effectively spoken to people’s emotions and have systematically shamed and silenced the millions of people who have had abortions. I believe the route forward lies in a broad, intersectional movement that recognizes abortion not as an isolated right, but as a piece in a broader puzzle of justice, and in a unified and coordinated movement for justice. I also believe we must be bold in our language, unafraid to speak openly, proudly, and without defensiveness about the nature of abortion and the positive role it plays in the health and well-being of people, families, and communities.

Rewire: With the case challenging HB 2 (Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole) at the Supreme Court, what is most important for advocates to lift up in conversations about the case?

YH: In the Supreme Court case, Whole Woman’s Health is challenging parts of HB 2: the regulations that require abortion clinics to make massive upgrades to convert their clinics to ambulatory surgical centers, or mini-hospitals, and admitting privileges at local hospitals for abortion providers. Fighting these regulations is extremely important in maintaining access to abortion care across the country, but we must remember that if we win the case, it’s only a bandage on the broader issue. Our callers in Texas, and across the country, will still have an extremely challenging time saving money to pay for their abortion or finding a clinic that they can travel to. They will still have to take time off of work, unpaid, because their jobs don’t offer sick leave. They might risk their immigration status to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion. They’ll have a hard time finding someone to care for their children while they make the multi-day trip to an abortion clinic, or won’t even make the trip because the logistics are too challenging. This case is very important, and we must remember that politicians have put so many barriers in the way that abortion access is becoming nearly impossible for those without economic resources.

NM: It is pretty simple: HB 2 and similar laws are thinly veiled attempts to shut the doors of abortion clinics and limit abortion care. These laws, enacted under the guise of protecting women’s health through stringent regulation, actually do the exact opposite. When clinics are forced to comply with regulations that fall outside of the standards for all other medical facilities, and that are intentionally so expensive and onerous that compliance is difficult if not impossible, many of them will be forced to close their doors. This will leave great numbers of people in this country without access to abortion care, which we know from looking around the world and throughout history is a real and dire threat to people’s health and lives.

Rewire: In 45 amicus briefs sent to the Supreme Court, many people shared their personal abortion stories. Why do you think they chose to share something so personal with the Court?

YH: People want to share their abortion stories because they want to stop the undue burdens put upon us by the state. If abortion is legal, it should not be so hard to access it. People who have abortions aren’t “victims.” Folks want to share their stories because they are taking back the narrative and showing both their resilience and also that enough is enough. They’re hoping that the listener will leave the conversation with a deeper and more complex understanding of abortion. I believe this is what the storytellers are doing in their briefs. They’re asking the Court to understand why access to abortion was so profound and important in their lives, and to maintain that care across the country.

In one of the interviews for our amicus brief, a 31-year-old Texas woman named Courtney asked if the Court wanted to know why she was having an abortion. Courtney explained, speaking about her existing family and children, “Sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from or how you’re going to pay this bill or [how you’re going to save money] to make sure they eat.” She said she’d rather have an abortion “than bring another kid into the world and make them suffer.” It’s people like Courtney who want the Court to hear their stories. They are doing their best to make their voices heard and speak up about why they decided an abortion was the right decision for them; and in Courtney’s case, it’s because she wants to ensure she is able to provide for her three children. She loves them deeply and she wants the Court to know that abortion was the best decision for her and her family.

NM:  Abortion is such a normal and common experience. And yes, it is personal, but the idea that it is something we don’t or shouldn’t talk about is part of the stigma that has been placed on people, not necessarily a universal instinct that abortion need be private. I think there is a growing frustration among people who have had abortions that their experience is both broadly misrepresented in the prevailing public dialogue, and that it is being used to take away from others the necessary access to care. In recent years, organizations dedicated to combating stigma and individuals aided by online communities and social media have created a groundswell of sharing of abortion stories. I feel a growing recognition of the power of those collective stories and resistance of that stigma and silence. Those briefs were powerful and have impact, hopefully with the Court, but also with the public. As a movement we must harness that power, but also effectively support those who are able and willing to share their stories and the personal contribution they have made.

Rewire: The restrictions placed on abortion providers by HB 2 pose a threat to safe and legal abortion access in the state of Texas. What are the national implications of the law?

A threat to legal abortion access in any state is a threat to legal abortion access in every state.

YH: Texas is the largest state where we’ve seen these harsh laws, but the laws are by no means isolated. Neighboring states like Louisiana all the way through the deep South also are losing clinics and creating a sparse patchwork of access. On the other side, we see New Mexico having to absorb a wave of overflow. During the period when HB 2 was being enforced, our Texas abortion funds reported callers having long wait times and many having to forgo their abortions due to time and logistical constraints. Our member funds in the South have had to expand to offer practical support like travel and lodging assistance when there was already not enough resources to pay for abortion procedures. It’s straining the safety nets we’re already struggling to hold together and leaving millions without affordable, accessible abortion care. Which is 100 percent the goal of those passing these laws. If HB 2 is allowed to stand, we can expect an almost immediate wave of copycat laws across the South and Midwest, creating a truly stark divide in the ability to get an abortion in the United States. A threat to legal abortion access in any state is a threat to legal abortion access in every state. We can’t sit by and watch that happen there. It’s unacceptable.

NM: Currently, 1.5 abortion care clinics are closing each week in the United States. And according to Abortion Care Network’s internal numbers, since 2005, almost half of independent abortion care providers, who provide the majority of abortion care in this country, have closed their doors. There is no coincidence that these closures have coincided with the repeated passing of sham laws (like those in HB 2) from state to state, which place restrictions on abortion care clinics and providers and do nothing to protect women and people in need of abortion care. If the Supreme Court accepts the lower court ruling, we will see many more abortion clinics close their doors. And although abortion will technically still be legal under Roe, with each legislative session it will slowly become even more inaccessible for people living anywhere other than the coasts.

Rewire: You both started in May, and the Planned Parenthood videos and the cyber attacks both came in July. How has it felt to be hired for one thing but have to navigate to do something totally different, like security?

YH: It is exceedingly difficult. As a new leader with an organization in transition, dealing with operational challenges like security can really compromise more mission-driven work. We’ve had insurance companies tell us they will not cover us for workers’ compensation because we work on abortion, and that covering our employees is a liability. Last week I came close to signing an office lease, only for the landlord to tell me that they will not rent to us. At such a politically hostile time, running an organization with abortion explicitly in its name has been a bit of a storm. I’m just trying to do my job and build the power of our member organizations. I wasn’t prepared for this, personally or organizationally—I think I’ve needed a different kind of support and I don’t entirely know where to get it. I received a lot of support from my staff, and we were still building our team at the time. Planned Parenthood also offered security support, and a couple of funders responded and assisted with funding so we could research solutions. We are continually strengthening our cyber security, and we’ll be working with our network to build theirs as well.

Recently a friend said to me, “It seems like the worst time in history to become an executive director of a national abortion rights group.” He must have sensed my response, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe it’s the best?”

NM: Recently a friend said to me, “It seems like the worst time in history to become an executive director of a national abortion rights group.” He must have sensed my response, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe it’s the best?” All of us working in the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements have felt as if we have been on a roller coaster ride over the past few six months—because we have. On days where I long to do the proactive work I was hired to do, but instead find myself responding to the new crisis, I focus on abortion care providers, clinic owners, movement allies, and people in need of abortion care and it inspires me to push forward. Well, that and red wine.

Rewire: When Planned Parenthood is under attack we are all under attack, but all of us don’t have the same resources as the national health-care organization. How do groups and leaders in the reproductive rights movement navigate this?

YH: Larger organizations really need to take smaller ones into the fold when they are dealing with a problem that impacts everyone. Some of this has happened with Planned Parenthood, but in general, there are tons of operational challenges that most of us organizations are not talking about as a group. Our victory is only possible when we are all working to our highest potential in our area of this movement, when we’re building power on a local and grassroots level. While different organizations have varying levels of resources, we’re all critical to long-term success, and we all have our own specialities and areas of expertise. In this historic moment, when we’re under constant attack, but also seeing higher levels of support than ever, we can channel so much passion into this fight. I know that we will win because we are fighting for a social good, but it will take all of us working together.

NM: Many organizations are necessary to create a healthy ecosystem of abortion care in this country. To truly reach this goal, organizations and leaders within the movement need to find better ways to share resources and support one another—especially the smallest and most under-resourced groups that are often serving the most marginalized communities. It’s essential that we create safe spaces to talk about our organizations’ vulnerabilities with our colleagues and how we can cost-share or support one another to fill the gaps. Equally important is that we encourage our own supporters to give and learn about the essential work of our colleagues. No matter how well resourced or under-resourced we are, we must at all times keep the big picture of a “healthy ecosystem” in the forefront of our mind and work toward that goal.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the timeline of the release of attack videos against Planned Parenthood.

Commentary Abortion

Eleven Inane and Insulting Anti-Abortion Arguments (and How I Shed the Shamers)

Valerie Tarico

Here are eleven shaming themes I've encountered, along with my responses, to help other pro-choice advocates prepare for the muck that's likely to get slung our way as the right wing continues its crusade against reproductive health-care providers.

Cross-posted with the author’s permission.

If recent right-wing insanity has driven you over the edge and you’ve decided to tell the world that you think Planned Parenthood is a good place or abortion care is a good thing (or even decided to share a personal story), you will need to get prepared for the muck that’s likely to get slung your way.

Fortunately, once you move beyond your inner circle of people who matter, much of what flies through the air will be ignorant comments and insults from people who don’t. As someone who is public about why I am pro-abortion, and about my own story, here are eleven shaming themes I’ve encountered, along with my responses.

1. You should be against abortion because you exist.

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How would you feel if your mother aborted you? 

How would I feel? I wouldn’t. Try this exercise: How would you feel if your mother had partnered up with someone other than your dad? How would you feel if she had a headache the night you would have been conceived? How would you feel if she had rolled over in the opposite direction after sex on that key night in history and a different sperm got to the egg first? Hint: People who don’t exist don’t have feelings.

2. It’s a baaaby.

It is a tragedy that Tarico killed her first-born because she wanted a “better baby.” (LifeNews)

These babies, and we all KNOW these are babies, have committed no crimes, yet you and yours sentence them to a horrible, painful death.

“Firstborn”? Uh, no. That was the whole point. My firstborn (who exists only because of my abortion) is now a junior in college and, although I’ve had my moments, I’ve never once tried to kill her. But the LifeNews writer’s slip perfectly reflects the anti-abortion movement’s inability to tell a fetus from a child. Zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus: To anti-choice advocates they’re all babies or pre-born children. They use these words over and over, as if repeating them often enough will somehow make us all decide that an acorn is actually an oak tree and having a carton of eggs in the fridge is the same as owning a dozen chickens.

3. If it’s human, it’s a person.

The fetus is alive and has human parents and human DNA so we know they are human. [After this people will come up with conflicting arbitrary definitions of what makes a human a person.]

The only definition that makes sense is that someone becomes a human at conception because that is the only meaningful change in someone’s life. (BennyW)

How could a human individual not be a human person? (Pope John Paul)

At one point, anti-choice activists co-opted the Dr. Seuss phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” from the book, Horton Hears a Who. Seuss’ widow Audrey Geisel, a long-time supporter of Planned Parenthood, was not pleased. In the book, the phrase refers to tiny people who sing and shout and live in community with each other and who value their own lives and world. That’s what makes them people—not sharing Horton the elephant’s species. Even children recognize that human and person are two different concepts. That is why we are able to imagine a Seuss character or fictional extra-terrestrial like Wall-E, or even an intelligent animal like a dolphin as a sort of person with moral standing. What makes personhood is the ability to feel; to have preferences, desires, and intentions; to be aware and even self-aware; to live in relation to others; and to value our own existence. Fetal “personhood” trivializes each of these.

4. If you’re capable of abortion, you’re capable of killing anyone.

Not sure why we need to put time limits on these things? 3 months … 3 years … judging by all the arguments listed above, we should be able to snuff out the kid whenever it becomes convenient.

If somebody is making things inconvenient for you just slaughter them. Kind of like ISIS. 

To quote Mother TeresaIf a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.

Look around you. Almost a third of the women you know over age 40 have had an abortion—and many of them have had several. How many of them do you think have killed an infant? Infanticide was practiced regularly on every continent by our ancestors who had no other means to control their fertility, but where people have access to modern contraceptives and abortion, infanticide becomes exceedingly rare. Most people have little trouble differentiating abortion from murder and they instinctively choose abortion over infanticide just as they choose contraception over abortion when both are freely available.

5. You must be a bad mom, and your kids would think differently of you if they knew about your abortion.

How does your daughter feel knowing that you killed her sibling?

One of my daughters wouldn’t exist without my abortion and the other one adores her. How do they feel about my abortion? Grateful. The Christian right constantly slurs women who have ended pregnancies by suggesting that we love our children less—or are incapable of loving children at all. In reality, the vast majority of women who have abortions either already are or go on to be devoted moms. Six in ten women who have an abortion already have a child. In fact, our commitment to mothering is why many of us choose to end an unsought or unhealthy pregnancy.

6. God loves each and every precious “snowflake.”

God doesn’t make mistakes. God makes miracles happen.

The Magisterium of the church has constantly proclaimed the sacred and inviolable character of every human life, from its conception to its natural end. (Pope John Paul)

If God doesn’t make mistakes, the existence of babies with no brain or no limbs or a teeny, slow-suffocation quantity of lung would suggest that He’s a rather big jerk. In these situations, prayers for healing fall on deaf ears. Miracles are on the rise, but only because compassionate doctors fix God’s mistakes by repairing defective infant hearts and palates and other incapacitating deformities. If every snowflake is precious in His sight, God has a peculiar way of showing it, because spontaneous abortion is a critical part of reproduction—one of the key mechanisms for producing healthy babies. Most fertilized eggs self-abort at some point before maturing into babies—billions to date. Why? Spontaneous abortion stacks the odds in favor of healthy babies being born to healthy moms who will be able to nurse them. Therapeutic abortion supplements spontaneous abortion when the natural “abortion mill” in a woman’s uterus fails to identify and expel an ill-conceived pregnancy.

7. If you abort a defective fetus, you can’t respect or value people with disabilities.

You aborted a baby that *might* have been blind? All the blind people in the world, and Helen Keller, spit at your selfishness. Shame on you. What on earth will you do if your child ever becomes disabled? Kill her? 

Valerie, I hope that someday you will know the kind of joy that my “bundle of risks” has brought to my life. Veronica will be 26 tomorrow. She will never walk, talk, see normally, feed herself, be toilet trained, etc. She has the mental ability of a nine-month-old. It is my privilege to care for her each day.

Anti-choice activists forget that to many of us, a fetus is a potential child like the countless potential children we have said “no” to by abstaining from sex or using birth control. For me and my husband, who see it this way, it would have violated our moral values to carry forward a fetus infested with parasites, as in our first pregnancy, or one with knowable genetic defects, which we ruled out in the second. Would we have loved and cared for a baby born blind or a child who got injured along the way? Of course! What a bizarre and insulting question! Fencing my yard and teaching my kid not to play in traffic doesn’t mean I would abandon her if she were to get hit by a car.

8. Women like you are naïve victims who need protection from your own ignorance.

[O]nce a father or a mother who are seeking an abortion see an ultrasound, it’s true that upwards of 90 percent of them decide not to have an abortion. (Rachel Campos-Duffy)

If abortion were not legal, I never would have chosen to have one. (Anti-abortion activist Hannah Rose Allen)

Forced ultrasounds, scripted warnings of (false) abortion risks, legally mandated descriptions of fetal development… According to the latest anti-abortion strategy, the only way to protect hapless females from physical and psychological harm is to take the choice out of our hands. How inconvenient that abortion is far, far safer than childbearing, which kills 800 American women each year. In other disappointing news for anti-choice individuals, women who have abortions don’t suffer increased rates of anxiety and depression. Also, in contrast with Campos-Duffy’s fabricated statistic, 98 percent of women who see the images from a mandatory ultrasound go through with their abortion, meaning they know their own minds. It’s true that deciding to end or carry forward a budding life is a big deal. And like any big decision, some women or men will regret their choice. But 90 percent of women report that the primary emotion after their abortion was relief and, even among those with mixed feelings, 80 percent still say that the choice was right for them.

9. Abortion is selfish.

There is no better example of selfishness leading to an even greater evil act; the destruction of an innocent human life. This selfishness is so obvious and disgusting that abortion proponents manufacture and inflate all sorts of ridiculous situations to make their case as though the only option is to kill.

Set aside the fact that on a planet denuded by human need, one on which almost 20,000 children starve to death each day, it can feel selfish to have a baby… Yes, choosing, instead, to finish high school is selfish. Choosing to save for a reliable car or first month’s rent is selfish. Choosing to join the military is selfish. Choosing to become a teacher or doctor or engineer or artist is selfish. Choosing to prioritize time with your husband is selfish. Choosing bubble baths and bedtime stories with the kids you already have is selfish. But choosing not to do these things can also be selfish! I could go on the offense here: Choosing to spend your time and money pursuing the (dubious) bliss of heaven is selfish. So is “letting go and letting God” manage decisions (like parenthood) that are your responsibility. So is trying to impose what seems best for you on everyone else. Everything we do is selfish to some degree. That doesn’t mean our decisions can’t also be wise, prudent, loving, brave, generous, or altruistic.

10. A child is the punishment you get for slutting around.

You should keep your legs together. 

Your lack of control over your own hormones, stupidity, carelessness, laziness, and inconsiderateness created another life within you.

[Better birth control would] turn our girls into whores [like you] who are as well versed in preventing pregnancy as any working girl.

She should have to deal with the consequences.

I confess, I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around this one. On the one hand we are told that every child is a blessing, no matter how ill-conceived. On the other, we are told that a child is what slutty sluts deserve for having sex outside of marriage. Even more twisted: If you got raped, the baby is a blessing. If you had sex of your own free will, it’s what you had coming. Can we at least pick one or the other?

11. God hates abortion even more than He hates fags.

God HATES those who shed innocent blood! (J. Melton)

Given that women have been ending ill-timed pregnancies for millennia, the Bible is remarkably quiet about abortion, with a few vague references that together can be interpreted in either direction. One writer even prescribes a rather nasty abortion potion. Mercifully, a growing percent of people, including many Christians, don’t think the Bible is the perfect word of God. More and more see human handprints all over it, especially in its demeaning passages about women.

Someday unintended pregnancy may be a thing of the past, and abortion may be largely obsolete. Until then, millions of us will be guided by our own moral values and life goals to end pregnancies we believe are ill-conceived, so that we can devote our lives to the people and dreams that we hold most dear. If God’s self-appointed messengers insist on arguing and insulting and shaming uswell, that’s their choice to make, just as we make ours.

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