Media Framing and the Birth Control Movement: Reproductive Rights Struggle
Struggles Amplified: Media’s Role in Reproductive Rights Debates
In July 2018, Republican Congressman Jason Lewis’s inappropriate and sexist views about women were revealed in a CNN article. The congressman, who is known to be controversial, said that women who voted in favor of health insurance coverage for birth control “were not human beings and were without brains” (Kaczynski). In an even bolder set of comments, Lewis suggested that women who used birth control were sexually active and, therefore, “sluts” (Kaczynski). As a 21-year-old woman, the congressman’s blatant disregard for women’s reproductive rights created personal investment in the continued fight not only for contraception but to combat the stigma surrounding women’s sexuality.
Media is one of the most important tools for minorities and underprivileged groups to utilize. Headlines can be persuasive, articles can highlight injustice, and continued exposure can keep an issue fresh in the public’s mind. Earlier this month, the University of Notre Dame enlisted help from the Trump Administration to avoid providing health insurance coverage for birth control to students (Smith). Because Notre Dame is a Catholic university, representatives used the excuse that helping students buy birth control would “violate its religious beliefs” (Smith). In this circumstance, Jordan Smith’s article, whether intentionally or not, frames the university as the bad guy by showing that they are taking something vital away from their students.
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Quotes included within the article from angered students are powerful. The Trump Administration is shown in a negative light, and anyone who reads the article will understand that women, even nowadays, are still struggling to find accessible and affordable birth control. In September, Brett Kavanaugh referred to birth control — more specifically, emergency contraception and IUDs — as “abortion-inducing drugs” (Martinez). His words were beyond pro-life. They were “anti-scientific” (Martinez). This is concerning because Brett Kavanaugh was recently appointed as a Supreme Court justice. Because this article was published about Kavanaugh’s views, people may be more concerned about what type of people have power in our government.
Empowering Women’s Choices: Birth Control as a Catalyst for Social Change
They may try to find candidates that align with their views, i.e., supporting the use of contraceptives. Then, they will vote for those candidates in the coming November midterm election. Thus, knowledge of injustice would serve as motivation for action. The birth control movement has been so much more than just making contraception legal. Feminists of the 19th and 20th centuries had to battle moral and religious stigmas (Gordon 7). There was a dangerous societal “repression of female sexuality” that took power away from women and made them subordinate (Gordon 12). Even women themselves were refusing to support other women because they were afraid of the potential consequences of female sexual empowerment: promiscuity and adultery (Gordon 57).
It wasn’t until norms changed that strong opposition to birth control began to weaken (Gordon 9). The battle for accessible and affordable birth control also ties into women’s rights. Although religious groups believed that birth control was “immoral,” feminists argued that being able to purchase and use birth control was about “choice, freedom, and autonomy” for women (Gordon 1-4). Feminists framed the birth control movement as a “campaign for ‘voluntary motherhood’” (Gordon 1). They thought that women should have the opportunity to decide when and if they wanted to have kids. For America to be a true democracy with equality, freedom, and rights, women should be able to decide what they want to do with their bodies.
That includes sterilization, abortion, and birth control. In a 2016 article published online for The Federalist, feminists were called “shallow and manipulative” for panicking about the potential loss of birth control if Donald Trump were elected as president (Hasson). The author painted feminists as cowards who supposedly ran to their doctors to purchase birth control while they thought they still could (Hasson). Although Mary Hasson made fun of feminists throughout the course of her article, there is nothing funny about people genuinely fearing for the loss of their rights. The article was largely insensitive and took a stab at feminists instead of reassuring them that everything would be okay.
Media’s Impact: Shaping Perception and Fueling Division
Women were further concerned in 2017 when the Trump Administration gave employers the right to “opt out” of providing insurance coverage for birth control (Duane). The author suggested that women who used #Fight4BirthControl on social media and women who were fearful about the exemption were ignorant. “Birth control isn’t necessary for women’s health,” she says and shames women who think they deserve to have their birth control covered by their insurance (Duane). It’s largely disappointing to see one woman putting other women down. Sometimes, birth control is necessary to treat women’s health conditions, such as endometriosis. But even when birth control isn’t needed to save someone’s life, it’s important that women have the right to choose how they want to manage their own bodies.
Every day, members of oppositional media decide “what to emphasize and what to ignore or suppress” (Ashley and Olson 263). As seen in the last two articles, the authors attempted to make feminists and birth control users seem weak and powerless. They mocked them. Along the same lines, conservative websites typically find articles that minimize the achievements of feminists and incessantly talk about the disadvantages of using birth control. One article from Life Site News titled “100 years of Planned Parenthood: Celebrating what exactly?” compiles a list of Planned Parenthood horror stories, coupled with the supposed dark past of Margaret Sanger (Brumfield).
The author fails to highlight a single accomplishment that the organization has made over the last 100 years, thus remaining completely biased and showing its stance against birth control and abortion. Media outlets use “negative framing techniques” to undermine movements (Ashley and Olson 265). For example, conservative websites continually tout the supposed detrimental effects of birth control. One article from The Federalist states that hormonal birth control triples women’s risk of suicide” (Harkness). A second article claims that “hormonal birth control is too dangerous to dispense without a prescription” (Grossu and Livengood). And yet a third article from the same website says that there are links between “birth control and breast cancer” (Harkness).
Towards a Balanced Narrative: Challenging Fear-Based Messaging
The authors use vivid words like “suicide,” “dangerous,” and “cancer” to draw readers in through the use of fear tactics. There aren’t any articles published on the website that praise Planned Parenthood, explain the health advantages of birth control, or offer insight to help readers decide which form of birth control is right for them. Laura Ashley and Beth Olson hypothesize that “coverage of feminists” will be less harsh and negative as time goes on (265). While this isn’t necessarily a given, it makes sense. American society seems to become more accepting as the years go by and as norms break down. It never hurts to remain hopeful about a better world, where people will not have to fear the loss of their rights, not have to wonder how they’re going to pay for their next prescription, and not feel as though they are inferior to another group of people.
- “Constructing Reality: Print Media’s Framing Of The Women’s Movement, 1966 to 1986.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 2, 1998, pp. 263–277. Brumfield, Natalie. “100 Years of Planned Parenthood: Celebrating What Exactly?”
- Abortion, Contraception, LifeSiteNews, 14 Oct. 2016, www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/100-years-of-planned-parenthood-celebrating-what-exactly. Duane, Marguerite.
- “Stop Denying Science. Birth Control Isn’t Necessary For Women’s Health.” Health, The Federalist, 2 Nov. 2017, thefederalist.com/2017/11/02/stop-denying-science-birth-control-isnt-necessary-womens-health/.
- Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: a History of Birth Control Politics in America. University of Illinois Press, 2002. Grossu, Arina O, and Patricia Livengood. “Hormonal Birth Control Is Too Dangerous To Dispense Without A Prescription.” Health Care, The Federalist, 27 Nov. 2016, thefederalist.com/2016/11/10/hormonal-birth-control-dangerous-dispense-without-prescription/.
- Harkness, Kelsey. “New Study Finds Hormonal Birth Control Triples Women’s Risk Of Suicide.” Health, The Federalist, 4 Dec. 2017, thefederalist.com/2017/12/04/new-study-finds-hormonal-birth-control-triples-womens-risk-suicide/.
- Harkness, Kelsey. “Study Of 1.8 Million Women Links Birth Control And Breast Cancer.” Health, The Federalist, 12 Dec. 2017, thefederalist.com/2017/12/12/study-1-8-million-women-links-birth-control-breast-cancer/.
- “Feminists’ Post-Election Panic Over Birth Control Is Shallow, Manipulative.” Feminism, The Federalist, 18 Nov. 2016, thefederalist.com/2016/11/15/feminists-post-election-panic-birth-control-shallow-manipulative/.
- Kaczynski, Andrew. “A GOP Congressman Once Lamented Not Being Able to Call Women ‘Sluts’ Anymore.” CNN Politics: KFILE, Cable News Network, 18 July 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/07/18/politics/kfile-jason-lewis/index.html.
- Martinez, Gina. “Kavanaugh Calls Contraceptives ‘Abortion-Inducing Drugs.’” U.S. Politics, Time, 7 Sept. 2018, time.com/5389449/brett-kavanaugh-contraception-abortion-inducing-drugs/.
- Smith, Jordan. “Notre Dame Struck a Secret Deal With the Trump Administration to Deny Birth Control Coverage. Now Students Are Fighting Back.” Politics, The Intercept, 11 Oct. 2018, theintercept.com/2018/10/11/notre-dame-health-insurance-birth-control-trump/.