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

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Commentary Abortion

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

Janna Zinzi

A reproductive justice framework is critical—but it's not the same thing as "pro-choice."

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.)

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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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 Rewire. 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 Rewire, “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 Rewire.

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.