BY JOHN THOMPSON
The Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains Legislative Preview began with a discussion of the “Head” versus the “Heart.” Which is the better path to the voters’ and the lawmakers’ minds – intellectual, fact-based analyses or an emotional narrative?
Of course, the best path requires a combination of the two. Effective public policy must be reality-based, but political organizing is an act of creating stories. To improve our world, we must craft constructive stories that bring us together.
It had been more than a quarter century since I’d participated in Planned Parenthood board meetings in that room. As a young public affairs officer, I would prepare concise, readable memos on complex legal issues. It was also my job to brief Oklahomans on the national experts’ evaluation of the anti-choice public relations campaign that was being unleashed.
They were single-mindedly focusing on emotions. The anti-choice movement pioneered a spin based on personalizing issues and demonizing opponents. Their narrative created caricatures of the supposed type of women who would get an abortion.
We all know what happened next. The anti-abortion campaign methods were adopted by Lee Atwater, Dick Morris, Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and ALEC; the final victor was “alt facts.”
Abortion rights advocates, and other traditional conservatives, progressives and moderates weren’t nearly as effective in crafting an emotional message, and most of the anti-abortion rights agenda became law in Oklahoma. Much of the legislation could not withstand judicial review, but access to abortion was seriously restricted, teenagers’ rights were constrained by parental consent and parental notice laws, abortions after 20 months were outlawed, and unreasonable regulations were placed on medical providers.
As the 2019 legislative session begins, both state houses have strong anti-abortion majorities. Numerous bad and downright ugly bills have already been filed. The state could easily find itself in another series of expensive court battles as unconstitutional statutes are placed on hold, and litigated.
However, even if the new Justice Brett Kavanaugh joins the assault on Roe V. Wade and long-settled settled federal law is reversed, we must still fight for women’s rights in state courts. So it’s good that the Pro Choice movement remains skillful in using its Head in legal battles. But given the number of new legislators, women’s rights advocates must communicate with them through a public narrative. We must tell the stories of the victims of ideological legislation based on false narratives.
As was true in the late 1980s when I joined Planned Parenthood’s efforts to protect the constitutional rights of women so that it could advance the welfare of families, I was impressed by the values which informed the “stories of self” which are now being shared. Because the movement includes so many practitioners, especially those who provide services for poor families, it must describe the tragic outcomes of anti-abortion campaigns that have undermined the health, welfare, and rights of our most vulnerable neighbors. During the meeting, I found it difficult to tell my students. I’d rush through them in an effort to keep from crying.
So, I will write about one classroom experience that illustrates the brutality of the attacks on women and, especially, poor families, as well as the lessons we should learn from our kids.
When teaching government at the old John Marshall High School, I would reveal my biases and do my absolute best to ensure a fair and polite discussion. I told the students I was Pro Choice and I appreciated the opportunity to identify abortion opponents as “Pro Life,” as opposed to anti-choice. The big majority of my students were Pro Life.
Outside of class, however, pregnant students often volunteered the desire to terminate their unplanned pregnancies, despite what their families saw as the need to accept the consequences for having sex. Also, when it came to parental consent and notification legislation, they were strongly Pro Choice.
My students were especially disturbed by laws that required notice to both parents before they could have an abortion. They knew it would often be hard to contact both parents, and the resulting delays would be risky.
I explained the law’s judicial by-pass provision, which could protect a minor if her parents were incapable of – or an adversary to – protecting of her welfare. The only white female student, a transfer student who was a conservative who loved debate and who did not mind being in the minority, expressed outrage: “When my stepfather got me pregnant, why wasn’t I told that?”
Not asking me permission, the young women quietly moved from across the room to seats near her and a small circle of friendship was sparked. As the white newcomer and her new black friends conducted their own conversation, I moved over to the guys, and we continued with the lesson about the Bill of Rights.
Only afterwards when individual students brought the issue up in private conversations did I learn the gravity of their experiences that shaped their cross-racial solidarity.
So, as we move into a new cycle of using our Heads and our Hearts to share our stories, we must do more than remember that our youth are the prime victims of personalized attacks on constitutional rights. We must listen to our kids and let them teach us how to share our stories.
– John Thompson is an award-winning historian who became an inner-Oklahoma City teacher after the “Hoova” set of the Crips took over his neighborhood and he became attached to the kids in the drug houses. Now retired, he is the author of A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids.