After “Pro-Choice:” What’s Next for Our Messaging?


VIDEO: Support for Abortion Rights at Record Levels, but Opposition Still Thrives

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s Diane Derzis talk to Alex Wagner about the continued fight for abortion rights 40 years after Roe v. Wade.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) recently announced that it would move away from “choice” language in its messaging. As PPFA President Cecile Richards argued, the term “pro-choice” no longer resonates with many younger advocates and voters, nor does it reflect the complexity of reproductive health decision making. But the move raises an important question that the movement now must answer: what’s next for our messaging?

During the recent media coverage surrounding Roe v. Wade’s 40th anniversary, the term “reproductive justice” was often cited as a framework that better appeals to young people since it encapsulates economics, race/ethnicity, environment, sexual orientation, and other contexts that affect access to reproductive rights. While many of us advocates welcome the opportunity to have a discussion about reproductive justice (RJ), it’s important to note that individuals in the media are often unclear about how to discuss RJ and may not fully grasp what it means.

A recent segment from MSNBC’s “Now With Alex” (see above) on the Roe v. Wade anniversary exemplifies many of the obstacles we face in having effective public conversations about RJ. In an interview with PPFA President Cecile Richards, host Alex Wagner quoted a Time magazine article that mentions RJ as an emerging framework for young people. But the description did not include mentions of race, ethnicity, or culture, which are central to why Black women and women of color created RJ in the first place. Furthermore, there was no one from the RJ community on the panel to make that distinction.

Richards then shifted the discussion back to her talking points: that attitudes about abortion have stayed largely the same over the last four decades, that abortion is a deeply personal decision, and that youth don’t relate to the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” However, “youth” are not a monolithic community. (The lack of youth voices in mainstream media panel discussions is a subject for another article.)

As communications strategist and full-spectrum doula Miriam Zoila Pérez noted in a recent post, “Reproductive justice isn’t a simple concept that can be explained in a sound bite. But because of that, it also better mirrors the complex world we live in than a label like pro-choice or pro-life ever could.” Furthermore, RJ isn’t an identity, so it isn’t a replacement for “pro-choice.”

The fact that Planned Parenthood, the biggest, most well-known reproductive health provider in the nation, is abandoning “pro-choice” terminology is a sign that the movement needs to find more relevant ways to talk about these issues—ways that better connect to people’s real-life experiences. When abortion access is under attack at the local, state, and federal levels, holding on to stigmatized messaging that doesn’t work inside or outside the Beltway is obstinate and myopic.

Later in that “Now With Alex” segment, former GOP Chairman Michael Steele raised an issue that concerns many fans of “pro-choice” terminology: that intersectional conversations about reproductive justice will diffuse discussions about abortion.

In fact, moving away from “pro-choice” language won’t mean that discussions about abortion will be displaced. Many vocal RJ leaders and advocates do significant work on the ground to promote abortion access. But an RJ framework is more inclusive than that; it allows us to deconstruct the conditions that limit access to abortion, contraception, comprehensive sex education, and more.

Eesha Pandit of Men Stopping Violence and the National Network of Abortion Funds points out that even if we drop the term “pro-choice,” mainstream reproductive rights organizers won’t suddenly adopt the RJ framework. “On one hand, there’s the co-opting of ‘reproductive justice’ within reproductive rights and reproductive health communities. That’s problematic because it makes the real point of reproductive justice and the work that women of color have done in creating the framework, completely invisible. Just using the term ‘reproductive justice’ does not mean that the framework or the perspective is in an intersectional frame,” she told RH Reality Check. Changing language is irrelevant if the reproductive rights community doesn’t shift its approach. But introducing RJ as a framework can help the media make these important connections.

Case in point: in that MSNBC clip, when Alex Wagner reads a (limited) definition of RJ, she then states that reproductive rights are connected to civil rights, and cites transvaginal ultrasound legislation as a violation of both. This illustrates how using an RJ framework to combine policy issues with storytelling could help bring more nuanced discussions of these issues to the media.

If we want politicians to create supportive reproductive health policies, then it’s our job to educate them—and the public, via the media—about why women need safe, legal access to abortion and the many barriers to access in our society. We must effectively connect abortion access to other issues so politicians can see how progressive reproductive health policies have positive effects for a greater group of constituents than just those who identify as “pro-choice.” An RJ framework makes connections across movements and opens the door to a larger group of voters and constituents.

The potential end to “pro-choice” language is an opportunity for our movements to rethink their overall strategies. As RJ advocate and Racialicious Associate Editor Andrea Plaid told RH Reality Check, “This is not the time to be selfish—protective, yes, but not selfish—with reproductive justice ideas and the framework, especially since other people are moving away from ‘pro-choice language.’ In fact, this is the perfect opportunity to get the ideas and issues of reproductive justice ‘out there.’”

It’s also worth noting that the conversation about dropping “pro-choice” language is largely missing a discussion about the real limitations that surround the concept of “choice.” An RJ framework addresses how “choice” doesn’t resonate for many people because many people’s “choices” are dictated by societal factors, such as the economy and the environment. A woman who cannot afford time off work to travel for hours, or even days, because of forced waiting periods does not have a real “choice,” for instance.

This debate reminds me of how liberals scoff at the irrelevance of the GOP, with its narrow platform that doesn’t represent our diversifying country. The reproductive rights, reproductive health, and “pro-choice” movements could take a note from that critique.

That said, a shift in language shouldn’t be the end goal here. According to RJ advocate Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, who’s the Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Advocates for Youth, it is not important for the media to use the term “reproductive justice”—it’s more about the work being done. “I don’t need RJ to be a message, I need it to be a movement led by people most affected by reproductive oppression,” she told RH Reality Check.

There’s much debate about whether labels matter. But the bottom line is that if we can’t connect our labels to something tangible, something that shows people how they are personally affected, then those labels won’t mean anything for our movement. It’s Marketing 101: “What’s in it for them?” The terms “pro-choice,” “pro-abortion”, “anti-choice,” “pro-life”—none of them matter as much as we sometimes think they do outside of our movements. So when we we waste the small amount of media coverage we get to debating them, we are automatically losing.

Change is scary, and it’s often much easier to hang onto old practices, even if they’re outdated and stifling. However, the future of our movement depends on us moving away from fear and territoriality and towards having more inclusive, nuanced discussions about the intersections of reproductive health, rights, and justice.

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  • http://SkyDancingBlog.com/ Minkoff Minx

    I have some problems with the message “Reproductive Justice” or RJ sends.

    When I think of the word justice, I think of a victim looking for justice…in my mind, the phrase “reproductive justice” victimizes the woman.

    Also, shortening the words to RJ is absolutely ridiculous. We can’t even be bothered with taking the time to say the words? RJ sounds like we are giving the “reproductive justice” slogan the ED or Low-T treatment, and that is f’d up. (Besides, RJ is slang for rim-job…look it up on urban dictionary.)

    The most important issue I have against this “re-branding” of our message from Pro-Choice to Reproductive Justice…is this…Reproductive Justice? What are women, victims?

    Really?

    That goes against the fundamental argument behind the phrase pro-choice. Women are not victims, we are individuals who have the right to choose what we do with our own bodies. Liberty, not justice is the essential aspect of the entire battle between those hypocritical anti-choice, Pro-Life-Until-Birth (PLUB) a-holes who want to control women…and make our decisions for us..as if we cannot make our own decisions regarding our own bodies.

    Pro-choice is a very simple but powerful statement. Women are empowered with rights as living human beings.

    I am not looking for reproductive justice. I am a woman. I am a person. I
    am a human being. I want to make my own choices about my own body.

    We do not need to seek justice for our reproductive rights….liberty over our reproductive health is what it is all about.

    We do not need to once again be put in that victimized role seeking justice.

    We are Pro-Choice.

    • Farah Diaz-Tello

      I can understand where you are coming from, but I disagree with your central premise that reproductive justice “victimizes women.” Victims aren’t the only ones who seek and deserve justice — heroes seek justice too. The titans of social justice –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Dolores Huerta, and so many more– may have faced oppression, but they can hardly be called victims. The promise of our nation is liberty and justice for *all*, not just victims.

      Reproductive justice is not, and never has been, about rebranding. It has been around for a long time before Planned Parenthood’s decision to drop the “pro-choice” moniker which was only ever a defensive response to the abortion recriminalization movement’s laying claim to the term “pro-life. It is about communities of color who have long been engaged in a movement for social justice forging a new way, which is more fully responsive to the questions “choice” leaves unanswered. For example, what about women who do not have power within their family to exercise choice even if there is a clinic and a free abortion next door? What about women who give birth only to face a system of laws and policies designed to destroy low-income families? Reproductive justice gives us the tools to address these issues not from a position of victimhood, but from strength and dignity.

      From what you say, it sounds like the term “choice” resonates and is meaningful for you. What I hear is that, through your lens, the primary oppression comes from “hypocritical anti-choice, Pro-Life-Until-Birth (PLUB) a-holes who want to control women…and make our decisions for us.” That is certainly the case for many women. But it is also *not* the case for many women. For many of us, those people aren’t the primary source of oppression keeping us from making reproductive decisions with dignity, but rather are part of an intersecting web that includes racism, poverty, mass incarceration, and barriers to health and health care. Neither choice nor liberty address this. “Choice” presumes power to choose between options, and implies consumer power (think “the choice of a new generation”). It is levied against us when we “choose” to carry to term. For me, “my body my choice” doesn’t capture the fullness of what I bring to the decision of whether, when, and under what circumstances to bring a child into my family and my community. The choice to have an abortion doesn’t do much for me if I will be punished for carrying to term, disrespected or abused in childbirth, or unsupported as a parent. It doesn’t resonate for me. I may support the right to choose, but I don’t identify as “pro-choice.”

      So ultimately, maybe it’s not “our” message –I’m not sure whose message you’re referring to above– and that’s okay. Not everyone is a reproductive justice advocate, and there is room for all of us. Maybe the labels ultimately don’t make that much of a difference. I think we fundamentally agree that being a person creates a human rights entitlement. But I want more than a choice, or more even than liberty. I don’t want to choose my choice in the imaginary vacuum of rights-bearing persons the that classical liberalism presumes. I want to create a just society in which people’s needs are met so that they have the power to make reproductive decisions and live their lives with dignity.

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  • bri most

    Reproductive justice means that women have the right to choose if and when they want to parent and that the resources to do so are available; socially, economically, environmentally. Being pro- choice is not enough when there is no access to the needed resources when making those decisions. Choosing abortion or parenthood is more than making a choice. What do you do after you choose abortion but the nearest abortion provider is out of state because of anti- choice legislation denies women access in their home state? What are the parents to do when their are no jobs to help them support their families? What about the parents who live in food deserts with no access to fresh fruits and vegetables? Or what about the women who are forced to carry a pregnancy to term because she can’t afford her abortion due to her -underpaying job. Yes I am pro-choice and very vocal about it. I have shared my abortion story from Chicago to D.C. and live television! However, I do realize the importance of reproductive justice and its movement. It doesn’t imply that women are victims. Instead it acknowledges and addresses the injustices that women face regarding their reproductive rights and health. Without ACCESS there is no CHOICE!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/zinzi Janna Zinzi

    Minkoff,

    You are fully entitled and encouraged to keep whatever labels resonate with you. I say that in my piece. However, for messaging purposes, “pro-choice” isn’t working.

    Your argument against reproductive justice is the same argument Phyllis Schlafly used in the documentary “The Makers”…that feminism makes women out to be victims. It’s both funny and frightening when people staunchly identifying as pro-choice are using the same talking points as conservatives. Pointing out injustices and making connections to the policies that create inequalities empowers and unites people, as Farah points out here. It highlights how our oppressions are connected, presses us to get to the root of these issues and opens the door for creating solutions. Do you reserve the same criticism for all social justice movements? Environmental justice? Educational justice? Are those all coming from a “victim” perspective?

    Your response to me using RJ as an abbreviation (which is movement lingo not media messaging) is silly, tangential, and ignores the purpose of the piece. No one here is confusing reproductive justice with rim job. The main point is that reproductive justice is not a catchphrase for mass consumption but rather a framework and an entry point to engage the media (and voters) in understanding how reproductive rights are a critical aspect of civil rights.

  • Mina

    The term reproductive justice became clear that it was the right message around the time of the March for Women’s Lives in DC circa 2003/4. Reproductive Justice is a exactly that a framework, it covers the myriad of issues affecting women and their healthcare. It is the freedom of choice in having or not having a child. This is what this stems from, it includes all the tools we need to reproduce another life and/or our own. It is the power to maintain our health in a way that is beyond fair or sufficient, but where we thrive as women and as leaders. Reproductive Justice is just that, about justice for women and their bodies. No debate needed nor explanation. It’s broad enough for us Broads.