Can Both Sides Be Pro-Woman? Female Framing and the Use of Feminist Rhetoric in the Abortion Debate by Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Political Organizations in Present Day America

Howard, Olivia [Browse]
Senior thesis
119 pages


Armstrong, Elizabeth [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Summary note
Abortion remains one the most divisive political issues in America several decades after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. In the wake of this landmark Supreme Court case, two polarized movements have rallied around abortion with opposing stances. Current research shows that the dichotomous pro-life and pro-choice movements have shifted their discussion—or ‘framing’—of abortion over time, with both sides of the debate increasingly employing arguments focused on women and their interests. This thesis more closely investigates the various framing strategies used by pro-life and prochoice political organizations in the current abortion debate. I am guided by two research questions: (1) To what extent is Female framing prevalent in the political abortion debate in present-day America?; (2) How do the pro-life and pro-choice movements differently define, construct, and employ feminism to advance their respective political causes? Here I define ‘Female framing’ as rhetoric which focuses on the woman and ‘feminism’ as arguments that center on advancing women’s standing in society and promoting gender equality. By conducting coding and content analysis on a sample of newsletters, press releases, and blog posts authored by 15 political abortion organizations, I qualitatively and quantitatively discuss the reliance on Female and Feminist framing by both sides of the abortion debate. I find that while Female and Feminist framing are prevalent across the debate, pro-choice organizations rely on both strategies more heavily than their prolife counterparts. Most significantly, pro-life organizations employ the Fetal frame more than any other individual framing strategy, therein challenging existing scholarship. Finally, this study distinguishes between feminist rhetoric and policies that are feminist in effect. I find that while pro-choice groups largely employ Feminist framing to argue for policies that advance women’s standing in society, there appears to be a gap between prolife groups’ use of Feminist framing and their promotion of policies that are actually feminist in effect. Defining ‘pro-woman’ as being feminist in effect, I answer my overarching question by concluding that only pro-choice organizations—not their pro-life counterparts—can actually be considered pro-woman in present-day America.

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