How to Win Any Argument About Abortion
Master this one weird trick to shutting that guy the fuck up
Monday evening, I poured myself a drink that tasted like a swimming pool and decided to do a tweet about abortion messaging, and it kind of took off. (The tweet, not the drink. But the drink is kind of good, if you’re into swimming pools, which I am. The recipe: Equal parts Deep Eddy Ruby Red vodka and very old and flat tonic, with a splash of Sprite Zero, over ice. No garnish, because they were out of limes after Easter at HEB. Thank/curse me later.)
I wish I could embed my original tweet, but Our King High Liberator and Glorious Leader Elon the Master of Free Speech has banned Twitter embeds in Substack. So you’ll have to head on over to Twitter to read the whole, very long, thread.
The gist is this: while emphasizing the safety and efficacy of medication abortion and specifically mifepristone — the pill whose FDA approval is being challenged by a bunch of anti-abortion fuckos with no legal standing — is worthwhile and important, focusing on the pill’s safety talks right past the reasons the aforementioned anti-abortion fuckos are going after its FDA approval in the first place. I am concerned that the emphasis on mife’s safety alone or primarily does not give folks who want to be strong advocates for abortion access the best tools to be those advocates, and I think the emphasis on mife’s safety continues a long and losing tradition of trying to win arguments about medicine and science with people who believe in neither. I think safety-first messaging misses an opportunity to broaden the entire conversation about abortion, to coalition-build with other marginalized and targeted communities, and to give people timeless and expansive tools for supporting bodily autonomy wherever bodily autonomy is under attack.
I’ll pick on Planned Parenthood a little bit here, because I know they can take it. (Sorry, Planned Parenthood. Tell your affiliates to stop union-busting!) Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about:
This is a good and cute and smart and accessible Instagram post. I like (and already followed!) the creator they’re featuring. I have no substantial beef with this post or its contents, and I think it helps people understand what’s going on and what’s at stake.
HAVING SAID THAT. (You knew there was a having said that coming.)
Describing mifepristone as “the totally safe medication abortion pill” (which it is!) is not the strongest rejoinder to the root of the arguments that the anti-abortion fuckos are trying to make against mifepristone’s safety, which is that mifepristone, when used as part of a two-medication abortion regimen, is 100% fatal to the occupants of any given womb. Saying “but mifepristone is safe and effective” does not counter those arguments, but reinforces them.
“Mife is safe” is a fine statement to make in a pro-choice or pro-abortion echo chamber, but encouraging people to focus on it as a primary messaging apparatus — which is what these kinds of social media posts do — sets a lot of people up to flail or even fail outside of those kinds of spaces. I don’t think this is intentional, or ignorant, or malevolent. Folks who work in repro comms — the folks writing and gaming out the whens and wheres and whys of these posts, and of press statements and press releases and one-pagers and messaging guides — have hard fucking jobs and I count many of them among my dearest friends and most respected colleagues. But I think there’s a better way (and I think lots of folks are already on the better path, which we’ll get to).
Let me back up a little bit, because we’re about to get into the abortion nerd weeds: my professional background is not historically rooted in abortion messaging, or at least not in developing it. I was more often on the receiving end of it, at least early in my career, as a reporter and political writer covering feminist issues and reproductive rights for ten years before I began working full time in repro communications in 2018. I spent three and a half years working comms for a repro legal organization, and now take the odd freelance consulting gig for repro orgs, funders, and advocates on top of my usual journalistic work. (It’s why I call myself a movement or advocacy journalist.) I am not an important or influential part of the repro comms world, but I have done enough of this kind of work to be able to spot some weaknesses in the fence.
There are two key entities to consider when developing talking points and frameworks: the messenger and the audience. Messengers matter a whole lot. It’s almost always more impactful to hear how, for example, second-trimester abortion care works from an abortion provider or someone who’s had a second-trimester abortion than it is to hear from a politician who has no direct experience with either, even if they’re passionate about the issue. Audiences matter, too, in terms of which messages are selected for promotion, to and for whom, and what the originators of any given messaging want audiences to do with it.
I don’t have any secret intel on this, and I guess it’s possible I’m totally wrong, but my understanding is that Planned Parenthood is hoping that viewers of their Instagram post will learn, retain, and appreciate the information it imparts and that they will share the post with other folks who will, learn, retain, and appreciate that information — and share it themselves. Maybe that is too obvious a statement to make? Clearly social media is a medium built for sharing (and the dream: virality). But once you get a little way down the path from PP Instagram followers to PP Instagram followers’ friends and their followers and their social media circles, you’ll run into the inevitable result that anyone who’s ever posted about abortion on social media has experienced: somebody trying to say boo.
And when the premise starts with “mife is safe,” the boo-sayer has a straight line to: but it isn’t safe for ~ the unborn ~. Social media is a platform predicated on engagement, and safety-first messaging puts people in an engagement forum that sucks. It demands that pro-choice or pro-abortion folks be prepared to argue on bad-faith terms with, or at least endure bad-faith comments from, users who are knowingly dissembling about “safety” concerns around medication abortion (to them, there is no “safe” medication abortion, if it is an effective medication abortion). And that rabbit hole leads nowhere; no peer-reviewed academic or medical research showing that medication abortion is safe and effective, or that 23 years of FDA approval for mifepristone is legitimate, will adequately address the (ostensible) concerns of folks who think that the government should force people to stay pregnant against their will, by any means necessary.
To be clear: I don’t think, and I’m not arguing here, that sharing good information about the safety of medication abortion is prima facie a bad move, or that the legal and medical experts in the Texas mife case are dumb or wrong for countering the (bullshit, on purpose) arguments from the anti-abortion fuckos who started the whole dip-ass fight. I even think there’s value in performing arguments — it’s why I occasionally do so on Twitter and other social platforms, because modeling abortion advocacy and pro-science, pro-medicine talking points can be fortifying for the movement writ large, and edifying and galvanizing for people who feel cowed and silenced by the anti-abortion folks in their personal lives. But anyone who lives in the orbit of anti-abortion fuckos knows that you can spend hours, days, years, decades wearing yourself to the bone over arguments about abortion’s safety, or about fetus farms, or about baby parts, and get absolutely the fuck nowhere with your beardo brother-in-law who just wants to yell ABORTION IS GENOCIDE! at Thanksgiving.
The thing is, your beardo brother-in-law is sort of on to something.
The anti-abortion lobby is, and it pains me to say it, light years ahead of the repro rights and health movements in terms of setting their people up to talk coherently and convincingly about their beliefs. Anti-abortion folks owned the word “abortion” early and often; to this day, abortion rights movement members are still fighting to get mainstream Democrats and other ostensible “pro-choice” advocates to use the a-word, or to advocate for abortion as a social good. (See: dispensing with the stigmatizing framework of “safe, legal, and rare.”) This tide is shifting, but it’s late.
Anti-abortion folks also seized on a highly effective bait-and-switch: they have maintained a course heading toward their desired end goal (to criminalize abortion by any means necessary) while diverting and derailing mainstream conversations away from that goal by pretending that their primary interest is in making abortion safe or safer, in the service of “women’s health” and “informed consent.” They claimed that abortion clinics, which are regulated above and beyond other medical providers, needed to adhere to medically unnecessary hospital-like facility requirements, knowing full well that doing so would force clinics to close. They pretended to care about the wellbeing of young folks, for their ~ safety ~, manipulating “pro-choice” lawmakers into making terrible concessions about forced parental involvement laws that give abusive and absent parents the ability to force their own children into unwanted parenthood either by intent or default. They pretended that there were safety concerns around gestational limits, knowing full well that banning later abortions would foreclose care for folks who needed later access to abortion and force people to stay pregnant against their will. They demonized abortion providers as cruel and violent manipulators while their movement members, acting on the underlying messaging, threatened, harassed, and assassinated those same providers. Post-Roe, they have targeted safe (and often but not always self-managed) abortion with medication by fear-mongering and handwringing over even more ~ safety concerns ~ about mifepristone while demanding the policing, prosecution, and incarceration (and, where available, the execution) of people who have abortions and those who support them.
The anti-abortion lobby, which now owns a federal judge in Texas, and has long owned the Fifth Circuit and owns and enjoys the enthusiastic support of an anti-abortion Supreme Court majority thanks to Trump, knows precisely what the fuck it’s doing. The point is to reel well meaning but often under-informed and under-supported people (and often very well informed experts and abortion professionals) into debates about facility requirements, young people’s reproductive agency, the motivations of abortion providers, and/or the FDA approval process (among many other derail-debates) all the while knowing that those ~ debates ~ are not about medication or science or even politics, but about another opportunity to holler BUT TEH BAYBEEZ! at the end of everything, no matter what those conversations entail.
So you simply will not find me agreeing that the best rejoinder to the most urgent threat to nationwide abortion access is to argue for the ~ safety ~ of mifepristone, even and especially if the current question before the courts ostensibly concerns the ~ safety ~ of mifepristone.
Among many other ways in which primary safety messaging around mife falls short, it’s a limited-use case. I’m glad every time someone learns, knows, and appreciates that mifepristone is a safe medication and that the FDA is a competent and apolitical entity tasked with ensuring the things we eat and with which we medicate ourselves do what they purport to do, with a minimum of harm. But safety-first messaging doesn’t give folks the tools they need to counter the beardo brothers-in-law who know that, when everything else fails (and it will!), they can revert to BUT TEH BAYBEEZ!.
I can talk at length about how ambulatory surgical center requirements are unnecessary for clinical abortion provision, about how young people demonstrably are capable of choosing abortion, about how abortion providers offer compassionate care, and about the safety of medication abortion, and I can do it because I have been forced to develop this skill so over nearly 20 years of writing about and assisting in the provision of abortion care in a country where anyone who cares about reproductive freedom has been required to know these things in order to engage in nationwide conversations about abortion spurred by people who care solely and only about criminalizing abortion. I know the experts to call and the papers to cite. I know that people smarter and more talented and more experienced than me can do these same things in their sleep, and hate that they can and must do so. I know that we are right on the medicine and the science and the politics and that the anti-abortion crowd is wrong on same.
And I know that despite all of that knowledge-sharing and information-gathering, abortion is today illegal in a dozen states, with more to come. Because the end goal of anti-abortion politics has never been about conceding that abortion is safe, or acknowledging that the rule of law and decades of precedent protects people who have or provide or support abortion. It has always been about making busy-work for people who thought that making the best, most sound argument for abortion care’s necessity and legality would preserve its accessibility.
But Matt Kacsmaryk, the judge Trump appointed to do one thing and one thing only — pave a federal legal path for fetal personhood by sending the question to the anti-abortion Fifth Circuit and the anti-abortion Supreme Court — is not just not convinced by arguments about abortion’s necessity or its legality or in the possibility of decimating the FDA’s wider authority, but is actively hostile to it, by design. Ditto any anti-abortion politician you can name. Ditto your beardo brother-in-law. It can both be important for pro-choice and pro-abortion people to talk about the safety and efficacy of medication abortion, and also wholly inadequate to do so exclusively.
So here’s my pitch: Arguments for bodily autonomy are more meaningful and effective than conceding questions about safety to anti-abortion fuckos by debating or disproving them. They’re not mutually exclusive to talking about abortion’s safety — abortion is safer than childbirth, by far — but if you’re not the lawyer or legal expert tasked with responding to a particular court case about abortion, you are vastly better off talking about abortion as a social good, and bodily autonomy as a value you support, than you are trying to convince anyone that medicine or science says one thing or the other.
This is what your beardo brother-in-law is already doing for his own benefit when he baits you into some bullshit about ~ when does life begin, tho, what about teh baybeez ~ over the Christmas turkey, or in your Facebook comments, or on your “MIFE IS SAFE!” Instagram post. He is mirroring the folks who have filed suit trying to quash the FDA’s approval of mifepristone by side-stepping the obvious complication — that pregnant people are humans who deserve agency over their own lives, and that they are not obligated to stay pregnant at the behest of the government or anyone else — by trying to establish the premise that pregnancy itself is separate from the pregnant person. Arguing with that premise legitimizes it.
The better option is to counter anti-abortion values with pro-abortion values around bodily autonomy writ large. There are good models for this, and they can and should be used in tandem with statements about the safety of medication abortion. Avow Texas has a wonderful guide to talking about abortion in a values-forward way, centered on developing listening practices that both validate abortion concerns and expound on abortion rights. We Testify has a great guide for moving “pro-choice, but” folks further along the pro-abortion spectrum. Abortion On Our Own Terms offers abortion-positive, interactive ways to support and normalize medication abortion.
I was a douchebaggy anti-abortion fucko in my conservative teen years; I was convinced that abortion was killing “my generation.” The prospect of engaging and thrilling (and offending!) people who believed in abortion rights as an anti-abortion crusader remains affectively present to me decades later, and anti-abortion folks rely on this kind of under-developed, science-averse, fundamentally misogynist and selfish thinking to rally their forces. That kind of thinking can never be countered or argued against by scientific citations and medical arguments, but you will never truly lose this kind of fight by knowing why, and articulating why, access to abortion as a manifestation of bodily autonomy is essential to actual living, breathing folks’ right to life, liberty, and happiness.
Instead of digging for legitimizing content around the safety of medication abortion to make a point with folks who are going to crow about ~ the unborn ~ anyway, I think folks are better served by asserting what they believe — that a Trumpy judge or any given politician has no right to make medical decisions for strangers — and answering anti-abortion challenges with questions themselves: What do you hope or imagine will happen when medication abortion is made unavailable? What do you hope happens to people who access medication abortion outside of clinical care? How does making abortion care inaccessible, unavailable, or illegal preserve the safety of people who have abortions? What efforts should be made to prevent abortion, and what are you doing to support them? If people have abortions when and where it is outlawed, what should happen to those people, and to the people who provide or help them access abortions?
Anti-abortion folks don’t actually have great answers to those questions — or at least not popularly palatable answers to those questions — and I think it’s more interesting to turn the tables around to see what they have to say about them than to try to ~ prove ~ that abortion is medically or scientifically safe.
And, importantly, I don’t think it is productive to ask those questions as a gotcha, but to do so instead in the service of understanding where folks are coming from, and perhaps to introduce the obvious values-oriented conflicts that those questions invite for people who have been told that all of this is about ~ safety ~. And you can ask those questions without wanting the gotcha moment, if your goal is not to prove anything, but to establish the legitimacy of your own beliefs on your own terms.
Embracing abortion conversations as a process that serves a means to a pro-abortion, pro-bodily autonomy end, and not an argument to be won in the moment, is the only way for pro-choice and pro-abortion folks to actually win arguments about abortion. This is a kind of pro-abortion evangelism, and it is valuable in its own right but also as a broader defense against other kinds of incursions against bodily autonomy which are derived from right-wing and anti-abortion politics — against bans on gender-affirming care, or in favor of gun control. Diverting folks into niche debates about the nuances of the latest anti-abortion nonsense ill-equips them to make broader connections on attacks against personal freedoms writ large.
It’s enough to say that abortion is good and everyone who needs or wants abortions should have access to the care they need on their own terms. It’s okay that your beardo brother-in-law doesn’t agree with that. Because it shouldn’t be up to him, and the only thing he really needs to hear is that what he thinks doesn’t matter. Because it doesn’t!
Abortion will always be an essential part of people’s reproductive lives, and that’s not up for debate.