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Knowing the Body

2004 Second Web Report

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Dangerous Logic: Deciphering Bush's Pro-Life Rhetoric

Jessica Payson

George W. Bush may have a better grasp of the English language than it seems. Though he admits that he misspeaks not uncommonly, he nevertheless shows a certain rhetorical skill when it comes to espousing his pro-life beliefs. He states his views in language that appeals to a wide audience, yet aligns him with a more extreme pro-life segment. His explicit stance on abortion seems moderate: he allows for abortion to save a woman's life or health or in the cases of rape or incest; he has also frequently stated that abortion would not be a "litmus test" for Supreme Court nominees. Throughout his political career he has adopted a degree of moderacy: "I've set the goal that every child born and unborn ought to be protected. But I recognize [that many] people don't necessarily agree with the goal. People appreciate somebody who sets a tone, a tone that values life, but recognizes that people disagree" (Skelton). Though Bush makes these nominal appeals to moderate voters, the way in which he argues his pro-life opinions align him with adamant anti-choice ideology: that fetuses are children, that good people of America have always been anti-abortion, and that abortion is an evil that society must and will overcome.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004 gave Bush an opportunity to show his anti-choice rhetoric. In Bush's statement before signing the bill, he recognized several families who had been invited to the bill-signing. Each had suffered a horrendous loss of a family member who was also pregnant. "This act of Congress addresses tragic losses such as Sharon and Ron have known. They have laid to rest their daughter, Laci, a beautiful young woman who was joyfully awaiting the arrival of a new son. They have also laid to rest that child, a boy named Conner, who was waiting to be born when his life, too, was taken. His little soul never saw light, but he was loved, and he is remembered" ("Unborn"). He emphasized the family's centrality to the act by mentioning its alternative name ("Laci and Conner's Law") and he noted the collection of families present with similar experiences. The choice to tell the families' stories was, more than simply a show compassion, a strategic rhetorical device. He utilized the individual families' personal experiences as an argument for social change in understanding of the "fetus."

Celeste Michelle Condit explains how this sort of "rhetorical narrative" works. "The repetition and restatement of any such story bearing strong emotional force may create a mythic commonplace. Social myths... generally capture and preserve important truths and portray them with emotional intensity" (Condit 28). Laci's family's story reflects common values of motherhood and retribution for crime. Of course anyone would want justice for this family, and punishment for the enormous loss they suffered. However, the catch is in the conclusion to the story that fetuses must be considered children in order for this retribution to occur. Though Bush's story relies on social concerns over harm of expectant mothers, Bush then justifies reconsidering the socially-accepted differentiation between children and fetuses. At the same time that Bush decries the villainy and tragedy of the murders, he interchanges what is technically termed as a fetus with "child," "boy," "Conner," and a "life." The families' stories, "because they were transferable into social myths, thus translated widely shared private experiences into a public concern by expressing those experiences through the dominant vocabulary, albeit with a new 'point' to the story. Careful manipulations of language (ie, 'rhetoric') in opportune social conditions thus materialized a new set of discourses in the public realm" (Condit 35).

The rhetorical narrative carries great political potential. By limiting the need for reclassification of fetuses to extreme, emotional situations such as murder, the reform seems acceptable to a wider audience. The real intent of the pro-lifers to define a fetus as a child in every situation including abortion is thus covered by a more socially acceptable/moderate justification. Generally, pro-life activists are motivated by a desire to ensure that every potential life becomes a life, not by criminal justice reform. The recategorization of the fetus conflicts with reigning legal and social definitions. However, this contradiction also works to the pro-life advantage: "as a sociopolitical tale is continually retold, the contradictions between new conditions and old beliefs may become more and more evident, eventually forcing some modifications in beliefs or conditions" (Condit 32). The new legal language created by the Unborn Victims of Violence Act necessitates the need to re-examine (and potentially overthrow) the existing logic of Roe v. Wade, that not every fetus should be considered a citizen.

Bush used rhetorical narrative to justify reclassifying the fetus. Another way that Bush utilizes rhetoric to promote pro-life ideology is through what Condit calls "The Heritage Tale." This is a "social myth constructed about a shared past, which gives that past a unified set of meanings, endorses the social formations represented as existing in that past, and thereby constructs a description of what the future should be" (Condit 226-27). In response to attacks on pro-life ideology, pro-lifers frequently rearticulate the story of our past and what America stands for in order to include a strain of anti-abortion sentiment throughout it. In Bush's Partial-Birth Abortion Ban statement, he asserted, "America stands for liberty, for the pursuit of happiness and for the unalienable right of life. And the most basic duty of government is to defend the life of the innocent" ("Partial-Birth"). Of course, what Bush is alluding to is the opening of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Nowhere does the Declaration say, however, that fetuses count as these endowed "men." Neither does the Constitution or Bill of Rights, for that matter. As Roe v. Wade noticed, "The Constitution does not define 'person' in so many words. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment contains three references to 'person'... But in nearly all these instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only post-natally" (Roe v. Wade IX A). Bush's version of the country's founding documents is based on pro-life ideology and is not historically or technically accurate.

The trouble with the heritage story is that it presumes a certain group of people that "we" are in the case of pro-lifers' preferred heritage, predominantly white, Western, Christian men. The story has to either delegitimize people who do not fit into the scheme or omit dissenting opinions entirely. Bush would have us believe that there have been no voices speaking against the partial-birth abortion ban act: "The wide agreement amongst men and women on this issue, regardless of political party, shows that bitterness in political debate can be overcome by compassion and the power of conscience" ("Partial-Birth"). In fact, the only gesture he makes towards a dissenting opinion is that "the executive branch will vigorously defend this law against any who would try to overturn it in the courts" ("Partial-Birth"). These "any"-persons are written out of the story, or rather, are cast, for lack of a better term, as evildoers. The reality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act is that it was highly contested in Congress and prompted enormous public outcry. The Senate approved the act 64-34, the House 281-142. This is hardly universal support, yet none of these 34 Senators', 142 Representatives' or other public authorities' voices are mentioned except as potential challengers who go against the "basic standard of humanity" affirmed by elected officials ("Partial-Birth").

However, simply because a story is technically inaccurate does not mean that it cannot be persuasive. Like the "rhetorical narrative" tactic, the "heritage tale" creates a social myth that appeals to most Americans by utilizing shared values. The ban supposedly stops a practice which is "not only cruel to the child, but harmful to the mother, and a violation of medical ethics" ("Partial-Birth"). In reality, the abortion procedure which involves "partial birth" is typically used only to save the life of the woman. Also, the act can apply to a variety of abortion procedures and effectively ban abortion after the first trimester. But by justifying political change with the most extreme example of "partial birth" when not medically necessary, the ban is framed in mainstream values meant to appeal to a broad base. The combination of a vague historical account with emotionally potent values makes for a persuasive justification of the ban.

Bush uses another skewed yet persuasive story of American heritage: one which places "Roe v. Wade within a strand of 'evil' in history one of a series of trials that Americans had always been able to overcome" (Condit 49). In this rendition of American heritage, significant historical events such as slavery and Nazism come to represent the battle of principles the winning side has always valued the "sanctity of life." In keeping with this connection, it is not uncommon for pro-life advocates to connect Roe v. Wade with the Dred Scott decision. Both denied citizenship, and all the human rights and legal protection that entails, to a class of people. Both described that class as property either the bought property of the slaveowner or the bodily property of the pregnant woman. Both prevent states from overriding this decision (outlawing slavery or criminalizing abortion outright). And both are simply immoral and need to be overturned, regardless of stare decisis, since the original decision was wrong (Pollitt).

Such significant figures as Alan Keyes, Ronald Reagan (in Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation) and Justice Scalia (in his dissent in Casey v. Planned Parenthood) have all referenced Dred Scott in relation to Roe v. Wade. And more recently, in the second presidential debate, Bush referenced Dred Scott in response to a question about a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. Falling right in line with pro-life (mis)interpretation of the case, Bush described the decision saying: "That's personal opinion. That's not what the Constitution says. The Constitution of the United States says we're all you know, it doesn't say that. It doesn't speak to the equality of America" ("Second Debate"). The problem is that the Constitution did allow slavery as Bush seemed to realize mid-sentence, the Constitution did not say we were all equal. Dred Scott was not exactly "personal opinion" but that is what pro-lifers describe Roe v. Wade as. Of course, there are similarities between Dred and Roe. Both involved Supreme Court decisions, and both are basically about human life. However, this is just enough similarity to make the connection plausible. "Consequently, the two events [appear] as a single line of 'villainy' to be overcome by Americans. As a result of this linkage, abortion [is] not only 'written out' of the American heritage, it [elicits] the same kind of passionate hatred stirred by a long-past Civil War" (Condit 50).

Even though Bush's quote puzzled political analysts, it aligns with common pro-life rhetoric, revealing his true litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. Moreover, Bush was able to reference this pro-life argument on public television without causing any pro-choice activists to stir. He was able to speak directly to the most extreme pro-life activists the same ones who ended up deciding the election while leaving more liberal voters baffled as to what he might mean. In a longer project, it would be appropriate to look at other aspects of Bush's rhetorical skill, for example, promoting a "culture of life." He implicitly links fetuses with the concept of "life," a concept which trumps any legal concern (property, equality, or otherwise). It would also be useful to delve into the rhetoric of his opponents' rebuttals. The point of such an extended discussion, however, would be the same: to avoid dismissing Bush's statements as benign or ignorant, and recognize their potential to activate pro-life issues. So long as his speeches are publicly legitimate, they can successfully justify pro-life activism.

Works Cited:
Commission on Presidential Debates. "The Second Bush-Kerry Presidential Debate." 8 Oct 2004.

Condit, Celeste Michelle. Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Pollitt, Katha. "Roe = Dred." The Nation. 13 Oct 2004.

"President Bush Signs Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003." White House press release. 5 Nov 2003.

"President Bush Signs Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004." White House press release. 1 Apr 2004.

Skelton, George. "California and the West; Talking Baseball and Politics with George W. Bush" Los Angeles Times. 5 June 2000.


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