Inside the anti-abortion movement’s successful messaging campaign

The language and imagery of the anti-abortion movement is pervasive in American life.

From legislation called “fetal heartbeat” bills to a constitutional amendment called “Value Them Both” to references to “abortors” and “fetal pain” in the draft notice of the leaked Supreme Court majority, they have permeated American political life.

But the message was not limited to the community of policymakers and activists who debate these issues.

“Every American has come into contact with anti-abortion messages and fetal images at some point in their lives,” said Jennifer Holland, assistant professor of United States history at the University of Oklahoma, at the University of Oklahoma. TPM.

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This discipline of messaging, often bolstered by pseudoscientific half-truths or outright lies, is the hallmark of a movement on the verge of its greatest success yet: ending the constitutional right to abortion.

Anti-abortion movement as rights

In its early days, anti-abortion leaders were trying to figure out how to position themselves in the national dialogue, how to present their mission in a sympathetic and convincing way to a population which, at the time, was wary of the group imposing its religious opinions on others. .

Some compared themselves to white Southerners, trying to deflect “lost cause” and reconstruction rhetoric from the federal government’s intrusion into a way of life, Holland said. But they struck gold in the early ’70s, when they looked to the civil rights movement for inspiration.

“The anti-abortion movement was born at a time when the civil rights movement was being reimagined and placed in the tradition of American progress and the expansion of rights,” Holland said.

Anti-abortion activists might present themselves as abolitionists, crusaders for a new kind of human right. It also made the movement attractive to young conservatives, eager to join what could be presented as a social justice movement.

Around the same time, the Holocaust was beginning to enter American consciousness in a new way. It was departure be taught in schools, and became, like Peter Novick, author of “The Holocaust in American Life,” Put the: “a shocking, massive and distinctive thing.

The anti-abortion movement saw it as another helpful narrative.

“They immediately picked up on that and really leaned heavily on the idea that America has turned away from its commitment to rights and is also on a slippery slope to Hitler’s Germany,” said Holland. “They said when you devalue a certain life, it devalues ​​all life, like murdering old people or anyone you consider inferior.”

The Comparison of Abortion to the Holocaust and Black Lynchings Became a Mainstay of the Movement in the ’70s and ’80s, and Still Hasn’t Completely Gone Away: A 2009 Ohio State Student Newspaper Article describe the “Genocide Awareness Project” placing bloody images of fetuses on campus next to posters of racial lynching, Holocaust victims and the 9/11 attacks. In 2011, anti-abortion protesters in Princeton handed over literature depicting nooses, claiming that “in the new Klan, lynching is for amateurs”.

While they compare abortion to these historic atrocities, they also argued that abortion is worse because it “killed” more people, and inherently valuable people.

“Unborn babies are innocent like no one else can be,” Holland said.

As this language built over time and became embedded in the movement, it contributed to the eruption of extreme violence in abortion clinics in the mid-1980s and 1990s. lifesaving movement,” activists physically blocked access to clinics, preventing patients and providers from entering the facilities. A successful day, activists explained, was one when no abortions took place.

This escalated into murders of abortion providers, clinic workers and security guards, as well as shootings, bombings, kidnappings and arson.

During confirmation hearings for awaiting judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Democratic senators recalled this time in response to criticism that Jackson pejoratively portrayed anti-abortion protesters who yelled at women as they walked to the interior for the procedure.

“It was an atmosphere of guns, terror, screaming, murder – it was a dark time,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The violence led to the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994 – one of the few abortion laws passed at the federal level. .

But that did not demolish the movement. Many anti-abortion activists feel just as strongly today as then that abortion is murder, and have racked up legislative and legal victories based on and infused with this “pro-life” belief.

Reinforced by the pseudoscientist

In addition to presenting itself as a critical civil rights movement, the anti-abortion movement from the start clung to pseudoscientific claims to wrap itself in the terminology of biology and medicine rather than religion.

This effort involved a stable of anti-abortion doctors who backed up the movement’s claims, even when they were outside the medical mainstream. It also presented a difficulty for the abortion rights movement that persists today: it’s much easier to put “life begins at conception” on a sticker than its medically valid rebuttal.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization seeking to advance reproductive rights, is considered the industry’s gold standard. So the anti-abortion movement created the Charlotte Lozier Institute to try to fight back.

“They want to be scientists, but they are discredited again and again,” Carole Joffe, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis Center for Global Reproductive Health, told TPM. She added that the institute has helped perpetuate the lie that abortion increases a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer.

There has also been an effort in the movement to bolster claims that abortion poses widespread and lasting harm to women’s mental health – something major medical associations have repeated repeatedly. demystified.

In some states, local laws require providers to regurgitate these lies, taken directly from the anti-abortion movement, to pregnant patients.

“I was interviewing a clinic director from Texas who was telling us what it’s like to tell lies to patients,” Joffe recalls. “‘I was telling her that you could get breast cancer and never conceive a child if you have an abortion,’ the director said. The patient broke down crying saying, ‘if not true, why are you telling me this?”

About Michael S. Montanez

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