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Framing of abortion  
Posted by Brian D on March 26 2008, 11:24 » Uploaded 26/03/08 11:26  

Since the Independent has this issue splashed all over its front page this morning (26/3/08), it seems like a good time to comment. It's an issue which illustrates the "depth" and usefulness of George Lakoff's approach, imo.

It illustrates how language tends to program our thinking. To quote Lakoff: "The issue of the morality of abortion is settled once the words are chosen".

Abortion can be regarded as "murder" only if a "baby" (ie a human being) is aborted. "Embryo" and "foetus" are medical terms which don't denote a human person, and which keep discussion in the medical domain. It's only when the term "baby" (or equivalent) is used that discussion moves into the moral domain.

But it's not just about the semantic underpinning of morality. Why is there a correlation between conservative political stances and "pro-life" (anti-abortion) stances? Why would conservatives use a semantic grid which necessarily frames abortion as murder? The idea (common among non-conservatives) that conservatives are just selfish or apologists for the rich doesn't explain their opposition to abortion.

Why does opposition to abortion correlate with support for capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality - ie publicly-funded prenatal and postnatal care programmes for impoverished mothers? (America apparently has the highest rate of infant mortality in the industrialised world).

And what about support for wars (in which infants inevitably die or suffer horribly)?

It doesn't appear to be just "coincidence" that conservative politics correlates with "pro-life" stances. But it's not explained in any of the typical ways in which politics is dichotomised (eg "self-serving bastards" of the right versus "bleeding hearts" of the left).

Essentially, Lakoff argues that the moral categories which are primary in conservative political worldviews (eg self-discipline, self-reliance, "natural order as moral order", etc) lead to a view of the role of women (eg as mothers) in which abortion-as-immorality is the best fit. And once the semantic frame is "chosen", it necessarily reinforces the abortion-as-murder moral perspective.

Lakoff quotes Marvin Olasky, a prominent US conservative and advisor to Bush:

“unmarried lust and abortion go together like a horse and carriage…men and women who shack up are nine times more likely to engender abortion than their married counterparts…anything that increases promiscuity and discourages marriage…increases abortion”.*

In this way of framing the issue, abortion is seen as sanctioning immoral behaviour (where "unmarried lust", etc, is regarded as "immoral" according to the morality-as-self-discipline category). This is just one of the ways in which primary conservative moral categories apply to the issue - there are others. The point Lakoff makes is that different moral categories are applied to different issues in different ways, but that the hierarchy of moral categories is totally different for conservatives and liberals, leading to predictable outcomes. And it's not the case that rightwingers or conservatives are simply "immoral" or "amoral" (which is how they're often viewed by leftists or liberals).

(*I've written elsewhere about Marvin Olasky's bible-based "free-market" economics - BD).


COMMENTS Post comment


Comment 01 – Brigid March 26 2008, 12:17

Thanks, Brian. I found the following blog on the abortion issue which also contains the lakoff reference to the Olasky quote:[...]

Comment 02 – Pete Durham March 26 2008, 13:08

It helps to think about this issue, that's for sure. With the Iraq thing, it's too easy to get into the habit of seeing the pro-war side as insane or evil. I mean, how could anyone in their right mind support such a thing?

It's completely different with the abortion dilemma. You're forced to see the other side (assuming that you are pro-choice) as someone with an opinion that can't be reduced to either evil or insanity.

From my reading of Lakoff (not much) I found the "family" model a touch trite. But I probably need to read up on it more to do it justice.

Comment 03 – Several Famous Epidemiologists March 26 2008, 16:26

Indeed, this is interesting stuff. Have you thought of applying the various moral categories mentioned to the framing of Iraq mortality estimates and surrounding issues? At times it seems as emotional and controversial as the abortion issue, if not more so.

For example, the "morality" of scientific method as contrasted with the morality of human rights and prevention of suffering.

Comment 04 – Ged March 26 2008, 17:57

"Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate." (Monty Python, 'The Meaning of Life').

Comment 05 – Ged March 26 2008, 18:21

Forgot to post the link to the obligatory accompanying video. And it's WELL worth a watch:[...]

Comment 06 – Karl Watzlawick March 26 2008, 19:13

There's a long article by Lakoff which touches on abortion. He writes of the two stereotypical conservative views of woman who seek an abortion:

On the whole [in the conservative steretypes], there are two classes of women who want abortions: unmarried teenagers, whose pregnancies have resulted from lust and carelessness, and women who want to delay conception for the sake of a career, but have accidentally conceived. From the point of view of the strict father model, both classes of women violate the morality characterized by the model. The first class consists of young women who are immoral by virtue of having shown a lack of sexual self-control. The second class consists of women who want to control their own destinies, and who are therefore immoral for contesting the strict father model itself, since it is that model that defines what morality is. For these reasons, those who abide by Strict Father morality tend to oppose abortion.




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