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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Offensive? Maybe. Data? Hell yes.

In the wake of the murder of Dr. George Tiller I recently learned that Amanda Marcotte has gained access to a copy of a training manual* intended for activists who may be confronting, and arguing with, folks from the pro-choice side. The manual is the product of the organization "Justice For All," which many of you may be familiar with from their policy of displaying graphic photos on college campuses, including my own. And in a bitterly amusing note, while they routinely display pictures of bloody fetuses on placards that are bigger than my car,** they seem a bit more cagey about condemning violence against doctors and clinic personnel. From their front page... at the bottom:

But I digress...***

The training manual has earned all kinds of commentary from Marcotte, not to mention feministe, who sees it as proof of how deceptive the pro-life movement is and how little regard they have for women. I'm not going to comment on that, although I have my own personal opinions. What I think is really interesting about the manual- leaving aside my opinions of the quality of argumentation- are the narratives that it constructs. For example, the manual spends a great deal of time trying to explain why someone who is anti-choice might also be anti-contraception, given that contraception helps prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place:

We all want to curb teen pregnancy, but shouldn' t we work to solve the underlying problem, not just the surface symptoms? In order to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it is important to educate not about methods of avoiding pregnancy, but methods of avoiding sex and understanding sexual behavior in its intended context.

Promoting condoms and birth control, apart from self-control, promotes the view that people must have sex in order to be happy and content. And it promotes the idea that it's fine to have sex even if you are not ready to make the marriage commitment that gives everyone involved the assurance that the intimacy won't be squandered or treated in a cavalier way.

Isn't the real problem that we lack the self-control to be sexually intimate only within the marriage God designed to be the proper context for caring for children? So-called "unwanted pregnancy" is merely a symptom of this deeper underlying problem of self-control. Condoms and birth control may help us avoid that symptom, but they don't help us live fulfilled lives where the joy of sex is experienced in the safety of lifelong commitment.

And this framing is fascinating to me, because it attempts to locate the issues of contraception and abortion entirely within the context of pre-marital sex in general, and teen pre-marital sex in particular. Thing is, this is clearly not the only context within which contraception may be used- my wife and I, for example, aren't quite ready to start a family yet, so contraception remains a part of our lives. Since, you know, we choose not to be celibate within the context of our own marriage. So does that mean that we don't have adequate "self control"? Even more pressing, however, is the question of what married couples are to do when they already have enough children- or perhaps a few too many. Are they lacking in self control if they use contraception to avoid a pregnancy? Or to terminate an unintended pregnancy that they just can't afford? I suspect that last point could be argued either way, but treating the answer as obvious does a grave disservice to couples that have to face down such a heartbreaking decision.

In effect, the narrative constructed in this manual avoids some of the really difficult wrinkles in the abortion debate and tries to win by focusing on comparatively trivial ones. And this is hardly a shock because the manual is, after all, not meant to be a serious discussion of issues, but rather a sort of rhetorical playbook. It isn't trying to provide a serious consideration of the issues, pro and con, but rather to help its users win an argument with the assumption that they've already made up their minds. If you want to win an argument and you can get your opposition to let you frame the terms of the debate then you're one step closer to winning.

I wonder how much we could learn about social movements and framing if we had more of these manuals?

* I should note that the full 113 pages of the handbook have not been made available online. This .pdf is only an excerpt.

** They're also rather annoying for their habit of posting "warnings" about their graphic photos that are positioned in such a way as to make it impossible to avoid seeing those photos, even if the average college student were to be so inclined.

*** As yet another digression, the "Justice For All" folks are only slightly less fun when they come calling than the "Dikes on Bikes" protestors.

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