Reflections on Pro-Life Protest Rhetoric

I teach first-year rhetoric and composition to freshmen at a fairly large university squarely in the center of the American Midwest. In September, as part of the introductory unit, we cover some basic rhetorical concepts, including the famous “triangle” of rhetorical appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos, I explain, is the appeal to reason: does the argument make sound logical sense? Ethos sounds like ethic and it’s a short jump from there to credibility: do the elements of composition suggest a levelheaded, trustworthy arguer? Pathos, the emotional appeal, is the easiest for my students to remember and deploy in their own writing. But, I caution them, it’s also the weakest of the three. Without the other two appeals, emotional rhetoric will do an argument more harm than good.

Lately it seems that my freshmen grasp these concepts better than the street-protest arm of the pro-life movement. The summer furor over Planned Parenthood’s traffic in fetal organs has impelled pro-life demonstration back into a relevance it rarely achieves. While some question the practical utility of crowds and posterboard signs, protest plays a crucial role as the first face of the movement visible to the general public, and for that reason, it is critical that their rhetoric be of the highest quality.

With the latest round of national protests against Planned Parenthood scheduled for this upcoming Saturday, the call for superior rhetoric is more urgent than ever. I attended two “#ProtestPP” rallies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the previous round of protests last August, the first outside the counseling center on Wisconsin Avenue, and the second at the clinic on Jackson Street. These demonstrations were slivers of the national whole: 354 events across the United States brought out an estimated 77,000 protesters. Press coverage and social media increased the visibility of the protesters even further. The numbers looked good, and pro-life leaders quickly declared the demonstrations a success—but if the Milwaukee rallies were representative of the initial muster for a revised street activism, it was a poor, even ominous, showing.

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The Wisconsin Avenue protest presented the standard scene: some 200 people were packed in front of the Planned Parenthood center and spilled up and down the block. Many held signs bearing the bog-standard slogans that turn up at pro-life rallies: “Abortion Kills Children”; “Jesus Forgives & Heals”; “Adoption: the Loving Option,” etc. About two thirds of the signs, some handmade, were directed against Planned Parenthood; most of these decried the organ trafficking. Some prayed the rosary quietly. Most just stood and chatted with the people beside them.

The first moment of dissonance arrived when the nominal leader of the protest started in on an invective about racial targeting in the abortion industry. He was right, of course—but he was still a tall, hefty white man standing with his loudspeaker in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Things really went off the rails when an elderly white woman set down her sign and turned to fling holy water at a young woman walking hurriedly into the clinic. At that point a few sympathetic locals who had turned up to check out the scene fled the rally. By and large, the demonstration was standard, but stale: generally inoffensive, but not singularly inspiring.

The Jackson Street rally was a disaster.

About 60 demonstrators lined the corners of a four-way intersection beside the Planned Parenthood clinic when I arrived. Most of the signs here were much larger and visibly older: five-foot boards backed with thick styrofoam and packing tape. The protesters were older too; the median age here hovered around 50, while the average Wisconsin Avenue protester was closer to 30. There were few references to Jesus or The Loving Option here. In their place stood forceps, and gore, and shredded limbs that hadn’t quite lost their ruddy translucence, and MURDER and HOLOCAUST and TORTURE in sharp black capitals. The centerpiece was a homemade easel sporting a chubby white font that read ABORTION CLINICS ARE BUTCHER SHOPS FROM HELL. Underneath, bolted to a white plywood panel, hung three dismembered, blood-smeared plastic dolls. Scattered amongst their limbs lay bits of plastic skeletons and rubber knives I recognized from the local Halloween store. I approached the owner and asked for a photo. “Sure,” he said. Someone nearby muttered, “the world needs to see this.”

I disagree. The need for superior rhetoric at street level is as great now as it ever has been. The organ-trafficking scandal has gifted the pro-life cause with a quantity of cultural capital it hasn’t enjoyed in a very long time. The videos of Planned Parenthood executives discussing Lamborghinis and crushing bodies punched through the accumulated crust of apathy, ignorance, and conflict-avoidance that blankets the public consciousness. Presented with such a rare opportunity, it is critical that we not squander the chance to effect real change. So why now, of all times, does our street rhetoric seem so inept?

A public demonstration is many things. On a practical level, it is a show of force, and it provides a forum for individuals bound by common cause to step forward and recognize each other. It fosters community and momentum. Its key function, however, is to be the public pro-life face, the initial membrane between the movement and the public. However, the dominant paradigm of pro-life rhetoric still proceeds from a mindset that is genuinely shocked and outraged at the concept of abortion. This made perfect sense in the 1970s, ’80s, and even the violent ’90s, decades when the majority of activists could remember a time when abortion was illegal. Shock and outrage are the natural expressions of a mindset that cannot fully process the violation of the fundamental fabric of reality.

Today, however, shock and outrage doesn’t serve so well as a rhetorical foundation. The old rhetorical saw “know your audience” applies here. The sooner we realize that the percentage of our target audience (and our movement!) who have never known anything other than legalized abortion is increasing, the better we’ll be able to communicate constructively. Warped as it may seem, for those who have only known a world where abortion is the norm, shock and horror don’t really add up. Of course, it is critical that our movement never loses its outrage, but it is also time to finally acknowledge that outrage can no longer serve as the dominant paradigm for our public street rhetoric. This is the time for the ethos and logos appeals: of both individual and movement-wide credibility, and of smart, reasonable argument. Today, public opinion is sculpted by the John Stewart/Stephen Colbert train-of-logic rant and the John Oliver thinkpiece. “Abortion Is Murder” stamped over the image of a broken fetal body is no longer an argument.

I am not opposed to graphic images. I’ve rescued tiny bodies from dumpsters and photographed the remains. I understand the emotional yank, the powerful iconography of a shattered limb or a delicate, disfigured face. I respect the tactical value of such images as well. Yet I would argue—as does Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller in her excellent article “Graphic Images: An Apologia”—that a higher quality of rhetoric is crucial to an effective public display. Though her article speaks specifically to abortion photography, its central lesson is applicable here: gross shock value commodifies the unborn victim, whereas a thoughtful, compassionate approach emphasizes the humanity of the victim. The appropriate reaction to shock value is disgust and avoidance. The natural reaction to compassion is sympathy. Which do we, who understand our victory not merely as the political overthrow of Roe v. Wade but as a fundamental change in our society, wish to cultivate?

It is worth emphasizing that the #ProtestPP events in August were not, on the whole, a bad thing. There is much good and much grace in 77,000 women, men, and children rising to witness against extraordinary injustice. It is equally important to stress that street demonstrations are hardly the sole locus of problematic rhetoric. However, with so much renewed attention and press coverage, protests are once again under scrutiny. To this end, I would like to offer a few basic principles for addressing the bad rhetoric, tone deafness, and counterproductive behaviors that worm into pro-life street demonstrations:

Address Problematic Rhetoric Directly
It’s tempting to simply plead: enough with the fake blood and the chunky-style doll parts! Leave the swastikas at home! The weakness of purely inflammatory pageantry is readily apparent: shock value, after all, has a shelf life. Rather than jolting a potentially receptive listener into gnosis, the gory commodification of the unborn victim is far more likely to elicit a shutdown response—and once a person can ignore a graphic image, productive communication becomes impossible. A potentially intriguing message (“Pro-Choice Is Anti-Woman,” for example) gets drowned out. Demonstrators have a profound obligation to challenge—with prudence and compassion—the owner of a grossly counterproductive display. Similarly, it is the responsibility of those who organize public demonstrations to publish and maintain a higher standard of signs and slogans at rallies.

Be Aware of Cultural Context
However I try to spin it, I still can’t talk myself into accepting the image of a large white man with a loudspeaker following a young black woman down the sidewalk and to the steps of the PP counseling center. The reality that we were all standing on the sidewalk of a predominantly African-American neighborhood (Milwaukee is easily one of the most segregated cities in the United States) seemed lost on most of the protesters. The abortion industry does target minority populations, but demonstrators who travel out of their own neighborhoods and cultural contexts must be aware that they are guests in other communities—especially in major cities. And we certainly cannot afford to risk even the appearance of piggybacking off of other equally valid social justice concerns. A sign with the slogan “Baby Lives Matter,” at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter response to police violence isn’t clever, nor is it merely weak copycat rhetoric. At best, it’s ham-handed cultural appropriation; at worst, it’s resonant of #AllLivesMatter, the ostensibly colorblind dismissal of #BlackLivesMatter as arrant self-importance.

Stay On Point
This is simple but crucial: if you are out to protest something specific, zero in on that specific thing. A consistent message is a force multiplier: we maximize our rhetorical impact by focusing our signs and slogans on a narrow target. This is particularly relevant during the present organ-trafficking scandal. If you’re demonstrating against Planned Parenthood, concentrate on Planned Parenthood. If you’re out in front of a clinic, address abortion and adoption. If your plan is to pray, then pray—and for heaven’s sake don’t compromise a respectful, professional ethos by tangling with security guards or clinic staff.

Better Signs & Slogans
This is the toughest: the call to greater creativity. The movement boasts its hope in the youth that flock to the cause—but that hope lies in their inventiveness and their imaginative vitality. A movement without art is already dead. Where is the kaleidoscopic energy, the color, and precision, and snark to engage the world in a language it understands? Our future turns on how well we cultivate—on personal, familial, organizational, and cultural levels—the sensitive playfulness that interrupts tired dialogue and repaints it with new splashes of dye and wit. What artistic heritage will we leave to the next generation?

My students, cultural benefactors of a great and endlessly mnemonic Internet, are aware of Sarah McLachlan’s old ads for the ASPCA. The ads have not aged well. Once tear-jerking pleas for help on behalf of abused animals, featuring pitifully sad eyes of dozens of puppies and kittens, the ads now draw sheepish chuckles in my classroom. “It’s just so over the top,” is the customary response. “It’s not actually funny. But it kind of is—they want your help, but they don’t really give you much of a reason besides just a bunch of sad animal pictures and a tote bag.”


Editor’s note: The picture above was taken at the Wisconsin Avenue Planned Parenthood protest in Milwaukee this past August.

  • John F. Brick

    John F. Brick is pursuing a doctorate in English literature in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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