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Erica Grossman Headshot

Don't Think of a Baby! Reframing the Birth Control Debate

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This year has been a politically volatile one as far as women's rights are concerned. From Susan G. Komen's funding faceoff with Planned Parenthood, to Rush Limbaugh's over-the-line (even for him) assault on Sandra Fluke, to this week's RNC Chairman Reince Priebus shocking comparison of the attack on women's rights to that of a war on caterpillars (Yes - caterpillars), it's obvious that we are witnessing yet another "war on women." That's the bad news.

Here's the better news: In this election year that actually involves debates over whether women's contraception should be covered under health insurance, liberals have the opportunity to reframe the century-old issue over women's reproductive rights once and for all. People are listening. Citizens are voting. Women are watching.

It's all about political "framing," a term that is familiar to anyone who has even occasionally channel-surfed through C-SPAN. In the case of women's rights, conservatives have historically excelled at cloaking their various agendas -- primarily, their fierce opposition to abortion -- in either sunny, feel-good terms ("pro-life" as opposed to "anti-abortion," for example) or in graphic and shocking terms ("partial-birth abortion" as opposed to "late-term abortion"). In the end, these emotionalized buzzwords have enabled them to perfect a kind of moral hijacking, hitting their base in the gut, and rallying them through anger and fear.

Liberals, meanwhile, have always been slow to catch up to the marketing genius of debate framing and Orwellian language ("death panels," anyone?). But if this bleak political season for women has shown us anything, it's that liberals may be able to play catch-up by November by giving the Old Boys Club a lesson in the female body. Liberals now have an opportunity to reclaim -- and recast -- one particular term to their benefit, and it's a term we're all guilty of using: "birth control."

Contraceptives do not actually control birth. They control the ability of a woman's eggs to become fertilized. This is not birth control -- it is pregnancy control. Furthermore, hormonal contraceptives are also used for a host of other female-centric health issues that have nothing to do with pregnancy, including cancer prevention, cyst reduction, mood stabilization, and clear skin. Yet by framing the contraceptive debate with that single word -- "birth" -- conservatives cannily conjure up images of babies. And who doesn't love -- or want to protect -- babies?

But, what's in a name? How harmful can it really be?

Very.

As cognitive linguist George Lakoff noted in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, selective word-choice can be a seductive mind-game. Lakoff's amusing example poses a scenario in which you are shown a picture of an elephant and then told to think of anything but one. That's impossible, of course. Now take the term "birth control" and try not to think of birth. Or control. And whatever you do -- don't think of a baby!

Conservatives didn't invent the term "birth control," of course. That honor goes to legendary social activist Margaret Sanger, who coined it in her newsletter, The Woman Rebel, 98 years ago. And yet, they have long recognized the sub-textual potency packed into those two words. Liberals need to do better. And the time is now. If they ever hope to compete with the elephant party on women's issues, they need to get a better grasp of this psychology and address the topic of contraceptives in positive, non-inflammatory terms.

How about a term as direct -- and honest -- as "women's health planning?" These words not only have the benefit of sounding neutral and caring, but they also checkmate conservatives from mounting a counterattack. After all, it's hard to imagine Mitt Romney railing against a woman's health and walking away from the podium intact. He may have to resort to the diversion tactic of 'Forget women. What about those poor caterpillars?'

Shifting the focus to "health planning" will also short-circuit conservatives' efforts to connect "birth control" with "religious freedom." Using ecumenical language helps to accomplish what conservatives do best: align groups with different interests. Call it "health planning" and suddenly we're not just tag-teaming religion and birth control -- we're talking about religion and medicine. Now we're not just discussing a sexually active woman's need for prescription drugs; we're inviting everyone else into the picture, from children to cancer patients to the elderly. Would any politician dare to suggest that God frowned on a senior citizen's dependence on government-paid drugs and she should instead accept the fact that her time was up? Not with our grandmothers, he wouldn't.

Liberals must be proactive, not just reactive. By invoking the concept of "health planning," they would bring the wellness of women -- rather than an image of an unborn fetus -- back into focus, just where it should be.

At the end of the day, liberals can still tune into The Daily Show, and wonder why nobody has yet to put Rick Santorum in a straitjacket. But during the day, they need to play the frame-game.

What's in a name? Everything.

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Erica Grossman is a civil rights attorney from Denver, Colorado; Vicky Kuperman is a comedian and writer from New York.

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