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Making a Statement: The Rhetoric about Roe v. Wade

January 24, 2011

Sunday marked the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, a case that is both cultural touchstone and controversy. Statements about Roe v. Wade abounded this weekend: from President Obama, from Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), and Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-IN). Several organizations, ranging from National Organization for Women to Planned Parenthood to Americans United for Life to Convocation of Anglicans in North America, also issued statements.

The partisan positions of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” that we’re familiar with today have only coalesced during the last half-century. This evolution of public opinion began when illegal abortions became “a public concern,” as rhetorical scholar Celeste Condit observes in Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change. But these positions are so familiar—and even stereotyped—that I bet you can easily identify who said what in these excerpted statements.

Here are the four statements:

These efforts—aimed at restoring the damage of the Roe decision—must continue. Americans love life as much as we love freedom.  These two founding principles are intertwined and form the basis of our national character. Without respect for life, freedom is in jeopardy.

I proudly support H.R. 212, the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which defines human life accordingly and affirms that each State has the authority to protect the lives of all human beings. We take up this charge because we are still dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. All possess the unalienable right to Life.

That is because decisions about whether to have a child do not and should not rest with the government. We believe a woman—in consultation with her family, her physician, and her faith—is best qualified to make that decision.

Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.  I am committed to protecting this constitutional right.

From these excerpts, we can tell which side each speaker is on. The first two are pro-life and the second two are pro-choice, so we can safely guess that the first two statements are by Republicans and the second two are by Democrats. (More specifically: Boehner, Stutzman, Pelosi, Obama.)

But something strange is going on here. Freedom and choice—specifically pro-choice—go together, right? And faith and pro-life skip together, hand in hand? These are our stereotyped two sides of the abortion debate. So why is Boehner talking about freedom and Stutzman about everyone being created equal? Why is Pelosi talking about faith and Obama about the government staying out of “private family matters”?

In short, both the pro-life and pro-choice positions are mixing their frames. We’ve talked about framing on The Silver Tongue before. Linguist George Lakoff’s concept of framing is that every word choice we make activates a “frame (or collection of frames)… in your brain.” Lakoff’s classic example of this is to tell someone not to think of an elephant, whereupon the person promptly thinks of an elephant. And then the person starts thinking about elephants, which “are large, have floppy ears and a trunk,” and so on.

We associate different frames with “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” When we hear the word “freedom” in the context of the abortion debate, we would expect “freedom to choose” or “freedom to decide”—except that this is John Boehner, a Republican, talking. When we hear that a woman should consult, among other resources, her faith in deciding whether to have a child, we would expect the outwardly religious conservatives to be doing the talking—except that this is Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. When we hear that government shouldn’t make this decision, we think of the “government is too big” argument—except that it’s a Democratic president saying this.

So what’s the purpose of mixing up the frames? After all, it goes against Lakoff’s cardinal rule of using frames: “Do not use [the other side’s] language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.” But you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And if you want to persuade people to listen to you talk about such a highly polarized issue—especially in an era when everyone wants to claim bipartisanship—you can carefully fold in the other side’s language to widen your audience.

If you want to know more:

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