Reclaiming Abortion Narratives in America

Double take Sociology:

My contribution to Gender & Society’s blog.

Originally posted on :

By Deana A. Rohlinger

Feminist Gloria Steinem made headlines when journalists and pundits learned that she dedicated her new book, My Life on the Road, to Dr. Sharpe – the physician who performed her illegal abortion in 1957.

According to Steinem, Sharpe asked her to not reveal his identity and encouraged her to pursue her life’s passion. In response, Steinem writes:

Dear Dr. Sharpe,  

I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death:
I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.

Mass media exploded with commentary on the controversial dedication.

Opponents of legal abortion criticized Steinem for “killing” her baby and advancing women’s rights by “destroying” the rights of the unborn. Others praised Steinem for being “badass” enough to tell her story and remind readers…

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Informing Activists: What do I need to know about the media environment?

Double take Sociology:

Check out this video series by Jennifer Earl. These instructional videos are designed to help young activists affect social and political change. Here is mine on “What do I need to know about the media environment?”

Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas:

Deana Rohlinger

What do I need to know about the media environment?

Recommended Readings:


Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gamson, William A. and Gadi Wolfsfeld. 1993. “Movements and Media as Interacting Systems.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528:114-25.


Gamson, William A. 2007. “Bystanders, Public Opinion, and the Media.” Pp. 242-61 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule and H. Kriesi. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.


Amenta, Edwin, Beth Gharrity Gardner, Amber Celina Tierney, Anaid Yerena and Thomas Alan Elliott. 2012. “A Story-Centered Approach to the Newspaper Coverage of High-Profile Smos.” Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change 33:83-108.

We would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for their…

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Planned Parenthood: The Battle Continues

[This is a draft of a short article written for Contexts on Planned Parenthood.]

Planned Parenthood found itself caught in the middle of a political maelstrom this fall after the pro-life group, Center for Medical Progress, released a video that allegedly showed the organization selling fetal body parts for profit. Republicans called for the immediate defunding of the health organization and Republican presidential hopefuls chimed in, accusing Planned Parenthood of “profiting” off of the abortion procedure. Rick Perry argued that “The video showing a Planned Parenthood employee selling the body parts of aborted children is a disturbing reminder of the organization’s penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.” On the same day Carly Fiorina opined, “This latest news is tragic and outrageous. This isn’t about ‘choice.’ It’s about profiting on the death of the unborn while telling women it’s about empowerment.” Several states have made moves to defund (or have already defunded) the organization and, in September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings regarding tax payer funding of Planned Parenthood. More recently, the Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner appointed eight Republicans to a committee charged with investigating the practices of the group.

The attack on Planned Parenthood’s funding is not new. Republicans periodically seek to cut off the organization’s revenue, despite the fact that federal dollars are not used to pay for abortions. These efforts are, in part, an effort to appease pro-life activists and voters, who use a candidate’s commitment to the cause as a litmus test for their votes. As access to abortion has tightened at the local and state level, Republicans find it increasingly difficult to prove their commitment to pro-life loyalists.

Republicans are dealing with the consequences of their success.

The last frontiers of the war are making abortion virtually illegal – an idea that the recent debate over personhood legislation revealed is not universally popular even among Republicans – and dismantling Planned Parenthood.

The attack on Planned Parenthood reveals three troubling trends in American politics. First, there is a startling disconnect between knowledge and action. While politicians from both parties speak first and research later, the comments made by Republicans illustrate a clear lack of knowledge about women’s health issues and Planned Parenthood, particularly in terms of the services it provides and the services government reimburses. At the same, Republicans are willing to suspend Planned Parenthood’s funding for a year so that they can “investigate” the organization.

Sure. Didactic rhetoric and grand gestures makes for great news coverage, which is the second problem. Increasingly, journalists seem unwilling to bring clarity to the abortion issue beyond the editorial pages. While several newspaper editors took forceful positions from the “editor’s desk” on the video and Republicans’ responses to it, their coverage is remarkably shallow. No doubt, journalists’ reservations are partially motivated by the fact that activists and individuals can harass them for how they cover controversial issues in the virtual world. However, given that news media are considered the fourth leg of government, the reluctance to covering issues – as opposed to controversies about an issue – is problematic at best.

Finally, political calculation completely trumps party values. Notice that Democrats did not exactly run to Planned Parenthood’s aid this summer, even though they have publicly supported the organization’s focus on women’s health in the past. Look at Hilary Clinton’s response. Clinton maintained media-silence on the video for more than three weeks. When she finally commented on the organization in an interview with a reporter from the New Hampshire Union Leader she noted that some of the images were “disturbing” and that the video pointed to problems in “the process” rather than with Planned Parenthood itself. As I discuss in another Contexts piece, this should be understood as the new normal for Democratic politics. In the contemporary political environment women’s rights are pitted directly against religious rights, and Democrats don’t want to get caught on the least popular side of the debate.

What does this all mean for Planned Parenthood?

In the short term, it is unlikely to be defunded; at least by the federal government. States, however, are a different matter. Texas, which already defunded the organization, subpoenaed Planned Parenthood clinics for information regarding patients and employees as part of an investigation of its fetal tissue transactions. In the long term, Planned Parenthood should prepare itself for a public relations battle that, eventually, will have political and financial consequences. Sure, Planned Parenthood as faced other public controversies. The difference here is that an organizational representative looked bad in the context of the work Planned Parenthood conducts and this has costs. A recent Gallup Poll shows that only 59% of respondents view the organization favorably – down 22% from 1993. If these attacks continue, Planned Parenthood could find it has very few allies on Capitol Hill.

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How Do Individuals Use Their Identities in Claims-Making Aimed at Politicians?

Last week, I showed that individual claims-making on the Terri Schiavo case does not simply mirror those ideas discussed in mainstream media.

This, week I show how ideas are used in emails sent to Florida Governor Jeb Bush supporting and opposing his intervention.

Percentage of Frames Used to Support and Oppose Intervention in Emails to Bush

List of                                   Support Intervention                      Oppose Intervention
Frames                               (N of emailers = 1,533)                   (N of emailers = 976)    Total N
Death with Dignity                      24%                                               74%                            315***
Disability                                       91%                                                  7%                            407***
Right to Life                                  91%                                                  7%                            631***
Religious                                       63%                                                 35%                           211
Legal                                               74%                                                 24%                          851***
Medical                                          64%                                                 34%                          331
Political                                          47%                                                 51%                          958***

Note: Percentages do not equal 100% percent because 2% of the emails either did not mention a frame in their short email (e.g., “Save Terri!”) or the frame fell into the “other” category. Since the emails in the “other” category could not be meaningfully organized, they are excluded here.

* denotes p-value> .05   **denotes p-value> .01 ***denotes p-value>.001

 First, we see that frames are generally used to stake out different positions. Individuals supporting intervention are more likely to discuss the disability, right to life, and legal frames than individuals opposing it. Opponents of intervention are more likely to mention the death with dignity and political. Although some of the frames are clearly tailored to support a particular point of view and course of action (e.g., the death with dignity, disability, and right to life frames), this is not universally true. Political and legal frames are used to both support and oppose Bush’s intervention. In this case, individuals use these frames in more particularistic ways – a legal frame to support intervention and a political frame to oppose it.

Second, there are differences between supporters and opponents of intervention in terms of their use of identity. The tables below compares the frames used by individuals who do and do not deploy an identity in their emails. The tables also shows whether individuals supported or opposed intervention. This allows for more direct comparison.

Support Intervention
Identity Deployed Identity  not Deployed
Death with Dignity 4.1% 5.9%
Disability 23.8% 24.5%
Right to Life 52.8%*** 24.7%***
Religious 8.3% 8.8%
Legal 53.0%*** 31.2%***
Medical 10.3%*** 17.0%***
Political 20.9%*** 36.1%***
Oppose Intervention
Identity Deployed Identity  not Deployed
Death with Dignity 26.2% 26.1%
Disability 3.7% 2.7%
Right to Life 7.6%* 3.3%*
Religious 9.6% 7.3%
Legal 23.5% 22.8%
Medical 13.2% 11.2%
Political 59.6%* 51.0%*

* denotes p-value> .05   **denotes p-value> .01 ***denotes p-value>.001

Supporters of intervention who deployed one or more identities in their emails were more likely to frame their claims using rights language – i.e., the right to life and legal frames – than those who did not. Again, this largely can be explained by the “Thank You Bush” email campaign discussed last week.

The tables also indicate that individuals strategically use identity, particularly when individuals disagree with their political target. Opponents of intervention who deploy an identity in their claims-making are significantly more likely to discuss a political frame in their emails than individuals who do not deploy an identity. A closer analyses of the data confirms that individuals opposing intervention also are more likely to use a political identity in their emails – and that more than 75% of individuals opposing intervention identify as fellow Republicans; the party with which Bush is affiliated (analyses not shown).  In other words, some individuals strategically use an identity they share with their target in order to argue against a particular course of action.

Of course, individual experience shapes political engagement and claims-making, which means not all identities are used in such a clear cut fashion. Supporters and opponents of intervention use familial, occupational, religious, or person-with-disability identities in their emails to Jeb Bush.

Want to learn more?

Read our paper: Rohlinger, Deana, Christian Vaccaro, Miriam Sessions, and Heather Mauney. 2015. “Individual Claims-Making in the Terri Schiavo Case.” Social Currents. Available online (DOI: 10.1177/2329496515603726) and in print soon!

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Mainstream Media: Does It Affect Our Political Claims-Making?

Social scientists have long argued that mainstream media set the political agenda. It is not clear, however, if mass media affects how individuals make their claims. To explore this issue, myself, Christian Vaccaro, Miriam Sessions, and Heather Mauney, analyzed 2,509 emails sent to Jeb Bush about the Terri Schiavo case.

If you don’t remember the case, here is the overview:

Schiavo, who collapsed in 1990 as the result of unknown causes, became a touchstone for national debate in 2000 when a Pinellas County court granted her husband permission to withdrawal her hydration and nutrition. Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, opposed the decision and turned to the political system for recourse. With the help of conservative, Christian organizations, the Schindlers’ took to the airwaves and successfully organized a vigil outside of Terri’s hospice. Additionally, conservative Christian groups presented Bush a petition with 180,000 signatures asking him to prevent Schiavo’s death so that the Schindlers could try to get legal custody of their daughter. Their plea did not fall on deaf ears. At Jeb Bush’s urging the Florida legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” which allowed the governor to reinstate Schiavo’s hydration and nutrition; a move later deemed unconstitutional by the Florida State Supreme Court.

In the wake of the ruling, Judge Greer set the date for the removal of Schiavo’s hydration and nutrition in March. This spurred another wave of legislative activity in Florida and on Capitol Hill. The Florida legislature considered a bill that would make removing hydration and nutrition from an individual in a persistent vegetative state illegal without a living will. The bill was narrowly defeated in the Florida Senate, 21 to 18, twice in the month of March. The U.S. Congress also got involved. On March 17, 2005, Senators Bill First and Michael Enzi subpoenaed Terri Schiavo to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. While the Senators did not expect Schiavo to testify, the move extended witness protection to Terri and prohibited the removal of her hydration and nutrition. When Judge Greer struck down the subpoena, the US Congress quickly passed “Terri’s Law II” allowing Schiavo’s case to be moved from the state to a federal court; a bill which President George W. Bush signed into law. The Schindlers’ immediately requested an emergency injunction in the U.S. District Court and asked for the reinstatement of Terri’s hydration and nutrition. The request was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and to grant certiorari. Schiavo passed away on March 31, 2005.

Terri Schiavo became a touchstone for national and international debate. Thousands of news stories and opinion pieces discussed her medical diagnosis (a persistent vegetative state) and staked out the positions on whether she should be kept alive or permitted to “die with dignity.” Likewise, during 2004 and 2005, more than 250,000 emails were sent to Florida governor, Jeb Bush, regarding the matter. We analyzed 1% of the emails sent to Jeb Bush (N = 2,509) as well as 1,182 news stories and editorials appearing in local and regional newspapers across the country. A list of ideas (or frames) that we looked for in the emails and news stories is here:

Ideas (Frames) We Coded for in the Sample

Legal Frame: Discusses the implications of the Schiavo case to individual rights and/or the legal system.

Medical Frame: Discusses Terri’s diagnosis, condition, and/or treatments.

Political Frame: Discusses political issues and interventions or their implications for government, governing, or political parties.

Death with Dignity Frame: Argues that terminally ill, mentally competent adults have the right to choose the time, place, and circumstances of their death.

Disability Frame: Discusses the rights and interests of persons with disability or how persons with disabilities are treated in the U.S.

Right to Life Frame: Argues that society has a moral obligation to intervene and protect life from natural birth to natural death.

What did we find?

In newspapers, the legal, medical, death with dignity, and political frames were discussed most often (mentioned in at least 51% of the stories), while the religious and right to life frames were discussed the least often (mentioned in less than 10% of the stories). Individual use of the legal and political frames were similar to that of mass media insofar as individuals picked up on a larger political debate among Republicans and deploy it in their own claims-making. Social conservatives argued that Jeb Bush should intervene and ensure that the Schindlers received legal custody of Terri. Fiscal conservatives disagreed. They wanted Bush to quit abusing his political power and stay out of Schiavo case.

However, the pattern of individual claims-makings didn’t always line up with that of newspapers.
* The right to life frame is prominent in individual claims-making but receives very little media attention. A closer analysis of the emails shows that the prominence of this frame is almost completely explained by a social movement campaign. In May 2004, the pro-life group Operation Rescue with the help of Randall Terry, the former Operation Rescue president who lived in Florida, organized an email campaign to thank Jeb Bush for his efforts to save Terri. More than 35,000 individuals participated in the campaign, which explicitly referenced the right to life frame in the group’s proffered text. The email read, “Thanks for standing up for Terri Schiavo’s right to live. And thanks for having the courage to appeal her case to a higher court. And thanks for valuing human life.” While many participants introduced additional frames in their claims-making, the email campaign is responsible for the predominance of the right to life frame in the email sample.

* Individuals rarely included the death with dignity frame in their emails; a frame which appeared in 57% of the news stories. One explanation for the limited discussion of this frame by individuals is the absence of organizations (or individuals) visibly championing the idea in broader culture. As seen above, the presence of an interested actor with a clear message and goal can shape the content of individual claims-making – at least in the short term. We did find support for this interpretation. We noticed that Compassion & Choices, which specifically advocates that individuals with terminal illness should be allowed to die with dignity, did not publish or put out an official statement on the Schiavo case. This was surprising given the prominence of such an argument in media accounts. We contacted the group for an explanation and learned that the organization decided that the Schiavo case was “too controversial” since Terri’s end of life wishes were unclear. The spokesperson explained that the group focused on the importance of individuals’ communicating their end-of-life wishes for their loved ones. In short, Compassion & Choices distanced itself from the death with dignity frame and urged individuals to engage in personal – rather collective – action, which reduced the utility of the frame in individual claims-making around the Schiavo case. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to Compassion & Choices’ recent campaign with Brittany Maynard in which the organization actively pushed for legislation allowing individuals to die with dignity.

* The medical frame is mentioned in 70% of the media stories, but only 13% of individuals discussed it in their emails. Not surprisingly, mainstream media professionals, who rely on institutional sources for the news of the day looked to medical experts to assess Schiavo’s diagnosis and prognosis; both of which were controversial. Individuals without medical expertise likely found these debates difficult to follow and avoided medical arguments when it came to their own claims-making. Complex frames that require a specific skill set to leverage effectively, in other words, get media attention but are discussed by individuals at relatively low rates.

Frequency of Ideas (Frames) Mentioned in Mainstream Newspapers

Frames                             % of mentions in the sample      # of mentions in the sample

Death with Dignity                             57%                                        673
Disability                                              21%                                        250
Right to Life                                          7%                                         102
Religious                                                3%                                          32
Legal                                                     79%                                        930
Medical                                                70%                                        823
Political                                                51%                                        644

Total # of Frames = 3,454
Total # of Stories = 1,182

Note: Percentages do not equal 100% because typically more than one frame was discussed in the media story. The percentages reflect the frequency of each frame in the total number of media stories.

Percentage of Frames Used to Support and Oppose Intervention in Emails to Bush

List of                                   Support Intervention                      Oppose Intervention
Frames                               (N of emailers = 1,533)                   (N of emailers = 976)       Total N
Death with Dignity                         24%                                                  74%                            315
Disability                                          91%                                                    7%                            407
Right to Life                                     91%                                                    7%                            631
Religious                                           63%                                                 35%                            211
Legal                                                  74%                                                 24%                            851
Medical                                             64%                                                 34%                            331
Political                                             47%                                                 51%                            958

Note: Percentages do not equal 100% percent because 2% of the emails either did not mention a frame in their short email (e.g., “Save Terri!”) or the frame fell into the “other” category. Since the emails in the “other” category could not be meaningfully organized, they are excluded here.

Want to learn more?

Read our paper: Rohlinger, Deana, Christian Vaccaro, Miriam Sessions, and Heather Mauney. 2015. “Individual Claims-Making in the Terri Schiavo Case.” Social Currents. Available online (DOI: 10.1177/2329496515603726) and in print soon!

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Why You Should Be Watching ABC’s Blackish

If you missed last night’s season premiere of ABC’s family comedy Black-ish, than this is an oversight you want to correct ASAP.

Last night’s episode reminded me that network TV occasionally produces programs that are thought-provoking and hilarious – a balance not easily achieved.

If you avoided the show because of its content, than you missed insightful (and, yes, funny) dialogue about the use of the N-word in America. Here are just a few issues the show gets you thinking about:

* Generational differences in how words are used. The Johnson family has very different
perspectives on how the N-word should be used – and who can use it. Pops Johnson
(Laurence Fishburne) argues that the term is derogatory, while Dre claims that his
generation has reclaimed it for their own purposes. Not unlike the B-word, Dre
contends that it the N-word can be empowering – a point with which his parents
vigorously disagree. Dre gets caught off guard when his daughter, Zoey, mentions that
(presumably white) boys at school use the term all the time but that they are not
using it in a derogatory way.

* This fits with the second thought-provoking point; what terms should white people
use? In a hilarious meeting at work, Dre debates the N-word with his black
colleagues. When his white colleagues and boss weigh in on the conversation, other
terminology including African-American enter the terminology mix. While the exchange
is very funny, it pinpoints cultural tensions over terminology.

* The episode also points to the role of social status in the use of controversial
words. At the center of the episode is whether young Jack should be expelled for
dropping the N-word during his talent show performance. As Dre points out at the end
of episode, the consequences associated with using language varies dramatically by
social status. Paula Deen drops the N-word and suffers virtually no consequences,
while a child trying to navigate the mixed messages of language is facing expulsion.
This scene is excellent.

As with life, there are no easy answer. But, if you want to laugh and think, this is an episode you really must see.

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The Attack on Planned Parenthood, Why Now?

This week antiabortion advocates gathered in Washington D.C. to urge Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. The controversy ignited this summer when the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a video that allegedly provides evidence that the organization sells fetal body parts for profit.  Pundits are already predicting that government funding for Planned Parenthood will be at the center of a political maelstrom this fall, and conservatives are voicing their willingness to shut down the government over the issue.

Yes, legal abortion is tied up with partisan politics. But, the question that begs an answer is, why are we seeing these attacks on Planned Parenthood now?

Here’s an answer in a nutshell: Decades of work by the antiabortion movement came to fruition just as the war over whose-rights-matter-more collided with the election cycle.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion activists have been working to defund Planned Parenthood for decades. American Life League’s STOPP (which stands for Stop Planned Parenthood) was founded in the 1980s and has dedicated itself to delegitimizing the organization and undercutting the group’s public and funding support. Even antiabortion groups that do not particularly care for American Life League’s approach to politics agree that Planned Parenthood is enemy #1, the behemoth standing between them and victory. While there are plenty of hardliners, most antiabortion activists agree that closing Planned Parenthood’s doors would make abortion legal, but almost completely inaccessible. An enormous win for the movement.

Planned Parenthood truly is the thorn in the side of the antiabortion movement. If you don’t follow abortion politics, than you might have missed the antiabortion movement’s election strategy, which focuses on getting opponents of legal abortion elected to offices in every level of government. The results are zoning laws that make it difficult for clinics to set up in cities and Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws that make it very expensive for clinics to operate. Planned Parenthood is among the few that has weathered these attacks decade after decade.

The timing of the “gotcha video,” which allegedly shows a Planned Parenthood big wig selling fetal body parts for profit, was perfectly timed. The Center for Medical Progress hit the media sweet spot, creating a controversy when the news media didn’t have a lot of other political news to cover. Antiabortion groups kept the controversy alive with additional videos, protests around the country, and with a little help from their friends. Republican presidential hopefuls fanned the flame of controversy largely by displaying extreme naiveté about women’s issues and the range (and frequency) of Planned Parenthood’s services. Elected politicians picked up where the hopefuls left off, holding a Congressional hearing last week and scheduling another one for this week. The result is a cascade of media attention, most of it shaking a finger at Planned Parenthood.

The relative silence by Democrats has helped fuel the attacks on Planned Parenthood as well. Over the last year, lots of Democrats have gone silent on the issue of women’s rights. This is, at least in part, a function of a political climate where the rights of women are directly pitted against religious freedom. This is clear in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. After spending decades trying to prove that Democrats support and, even, embrace religious traditions, this is not a fight progressive politicians with (re)election aspirations are looking to have. From their perspective, staying out of the political fray as long as possible is the best course of action.

Of course, with conservatives already threatening to shut down the federal government over the issue their time on the sidelines is almost at an end.

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