The great framing debate

This week, Nation columnist Katha Politt jumped into the fray in the debate over framing abortion -- or, more specifically, over George Lakoff's prescription for a progressive message on abortion.

The first salvo was delivered by Martha Burk who argued that all this fuss about reframing abortion was just another excuse to push women's issues off the Democratic agenda. Pollitt extends Burk's point with a detailed critique of Lakoff's response to Burk as published on AlterNet.

The essence of Pollitt's critique is that, one, "reframing misses the point, which is to speak clearly from a moral center -- precisely not to mince words and change the subject and turn the tables." And two:


There's a word that doesn't show up much in the new abortion frames: women. Maybe it doesn't poll well. "Reframing" abortion is actually a kind of deframing, a way of taking it out of its real-life context, which is the experience of women, their bodies, their healthcare, their struggles, the caring work our society expects them to do for free.
My problem with both Burk and Pollitt is that I agree with them, completely. We do need to be speaking about abortion in the context of women's lives. As Lynn Paltrow -- whom Pollitt quotes approvingly -- suggests, "the right to abortion would have more support if it were presented as just one of the things women need to care for their families, along with paid maternity leave, childcare, quality healthcare for all, economic and social support for mothers and children, strong environmental policies that protect fetuses and children."

But if women's concerns and issues extend far beyond the narrow lens of abortion, why do we continually judge any political idea or person strictly on that basis? Pollitt, for example, slammed Dennis Kucinich back in the day when he was still pro-life. It didn't matter that he had a wonderful track record on almost every other progressive issue, the fact that he was opposed to abortion made him unforgivable. It's the same problem with Lakoff. We can disagree with his specific suggestions as they relate to abortion but it is hardly a good enough reason to slam the entire concept of framing. Paltrow, in fact, is doing some reframing of her own -- a reframing of abortion that aims to put women front and center of the progressive agenda.

Lakoff is in some ways an ill-chosen target for the well-justified fear and anger of feminists at the Democratic Party -- and to a certain extent the progressive left. History has taught us that we are the proverbial baby -- the first to be thrown to the wolves at the sign of danger. The abortion debate invokes this deep-seated insecurity leading us to lash out at any suggestion that we move away from a strict pro-choice position, more so because it feels like a first step on that slippery slope of appeasement. Today abortion, tomorrow contraception.

While our fears are real, it maybe time as feminists to do some reevaluation of our own. Has our political strategy over the past three decades served us well? I for one think we've been the biggest losers in a national debate over women's rights framed entirely in terms of abortion. In focusing all our energy and resources on abortion, the issue has allowed the political establishment to undermine women's rights in almost every other way. Be it welfare policy or equal pay legislation or maternity leave, women have barely inched forward and in many cases lost serious ground.

So instead of slamming Lakoff let's ask ourselves what we need to be doing and, yes, even saying differently about abortion -- and more importantly, more broadly about women's needs -- to reverse this alarming trend. In this effort, let's use, adapt, reinterpret the wealth of ideas out there and employ them in our cause -- as opposed to being content to point out the ways in which they don't meet our feminist standards.

Part of this project must also be a well-targeted effort to ensure women's participation in decision-making on the left, be it within the party or without. We can make as much fun as we want of the Bush women, but progressive institutions have a fairly poor track record when it comes to appointing women to positions of leadership. If the discussions about the Democratic Party or the progressive movement seem geared to remove women from the picture -- or at least say very little about their concerns -- it's because few women are part of these conversations.

Will our future be determined by whether we say "abortion" or an "operation to terminate pregnancies"? I didn't think so. So let's do the hard work of figuring out how we're going to create the future that we want.

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