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Abortion foes won by framing debate

THE FIGHT moves from Congress to the courts. Rage and rhetoric will spew from both sides. But there is no question that abortion opponents secured a major victory this week when the Senate overwhelmingly approved the first federal ban on a specific abortion procedure since the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion 30 years ago. This time, the country is led by a president who pledges to sign it into law.

There is also no question that abortion rights activists helped opponents get to this point. "Whoever frames an issue wins the debate," acknowledges Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

This is the victory achieved when one side in a raucous political battle successfully casts the other side as evil. It is the victory that is achieved when emotion prevails over logic, when fact is distorted as a matter of course, and the other side fails to counter the distortion. The battle was lost once the procedure in question was labeled "partial birth abortion." The vote to ban it was inevitable once the public accepted as truth the grotesque picture of a healthy, live infant pulled from a woman's womb in order to be killed.

If the public comes to accept that picture as representative of all abortions, abortion rights proponents are correct: The right to abortion will be weakened, maybe lost. Can they fight that picture? "Whenever we have had the chance to explain it in more than a soundbite, we have," says Feldt, pointing to the defeats of three ballot initiatives that would have put a similar ban in place in three states -- Washington, Colorado, and Maine.

It takes education to counter fear-mongering. It takes acknowledgment that choice is not pretty, but neither is the alternative -- medically risky pregnancies that threaten a woman's life, unwanted babies who will never know love, and an increased population of children with serious birth defects, living in a society less willing to pay for them. It takes reminding women, that, as Feldt puts it, "politicians shouldn't be practicing medicine. A decision about what method of surgery to use should be between a woman and her doctor."

No one, especially no mother, would try to argue that abortion is easy to explain, let alone embrace. Why does anyone, at any time want to terminate a pregnancy? Become pregnant, or just fear that you are, and the reason for choice becomes clear. It is the basic right to control your body and your destiny. Some women will conclude they could never terminate a pregnancy. That is their choice. But how many women really want to deny a sister or daughter the right to make that choice after private consultation with her doctor?

Some would. In getting lawmakers to go along with this ban, abortion opponents won a piece of the choice argument. Again, their victory comes with the failure of the other side to adequately explain how rarely it happens and under what circumstances -- say, for example, when it is determined that a developing fetus lacks a brain. Such realities of pregnancy and life are not pleasant to contemplate, but they occur.

It is sad to hear surgeon and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist celebrate the Senate vote with the bombast of antiabortion zealots. "We have just outlawed a procedure that is barbaric, that is brutal, that is offensive to our moral sensibilities, and it is out of the mainstream of the ethical practice of medicine today," he declared.

But it is also sad to hear Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, counter with equal bombast that "Congress has turned its back on America's women, their right to privacy, their right to choose. America's women are now second-class citizens."

Abortion foes will not change their rhetoric or argument, with good reason -- it works. Abortion proponents need to cool down the rhetoric and reframe the debate.

The nation's leading prochoice groups are working to organize a massive prochoice march on Washington on April 25. Advocates are going to college campuses to enlist support from young women born after Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right it guaranteed. "They don't really believe it can be taken away," says Liz Petersen, 22, a campus organizer for the Feminist Majority Foundation, which is working with other groups to organize the march on Washington.

Says Feldt: "It is time to march. It is time to demonstrate with our very selves that the majority of Americans are prochoice. The majority of Americans want to be able to have the human right to make their own child-bearing decisions." That is just another way of saying, whatever side frames the issue, wins the debate.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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