The Power of Language in the Campaign for Reproductive Choice


Emma Beck -By Emma Beck, Account Executive, LEVICK

From the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing birth control for married couples to India’s recent introduction of an injectable contraceptive, the road map to enabling women to her reproductive rights has been, and continues to be, a long and winding path. Introducing family planning as a solution to global economic woes helped position a woman to where developed countries view her as today: an independent being with a right to her body, her sexual health and, as a work in progress, her reproductive choice.

With the global population numbering more than 3 billion in the 1960s—a 1 billion increase from the 1930s—experts believed rapid population growth would lead to economic turmoil and natural resource depletion. It was within this climate that government-led family planning policies emerged in the international political arena. Reproductive choice offered a viable counter to overpopulation in a solutions-based dialogue centered on assuaging societal vulnerabilities.

The first United Nations Population Conference in 1954 convened experts touting the benefits of “contraception” in offsetting overpopulation’s looming threat. Reference to the controversial “birth control” was dropped; “women’s rights” had yet to enter the fold. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement had gained widespread momentum across developed countries. The rise of mainstream feminist thinking served an important backdrop amidst the urgency among international players to respond to rising population numbers. Together, these factors would reconfigure the platform in which solutions were presented. For the first time, the 1974 UN World Population Conference in Bucharest addressed family planning as a “woman’s choice” critical to “women’s health.” By the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, reference to “family planning” as part of “female empowerment” transformed the dialogue from an academic lens to activist approach.

Over the past sixty years, family planning efforts have nimbly skirted religious undertones and cultural sensitivities by softening the semantics grounding the messaging. Abortion rights, for one, have historically reflected a point of contention. (The 1994 Cairo conference would formally exclude abortion from its definition of family planning.) “Choice” and “empowerment”—and even today’s accepted “birth control”— would have missed the mark in the movement’s early days; through the series of UN Population Health conferences, terminology such as “safe motherhood” and “women’s health” overrode references to “birth control” and “abortion” to unite those who agreed on the broader benefits even if they disagreed on the specific means to achieve them. The messaging established a flexible baseline—acknowledging the norms of the time while offering room to evolve as cultural beliefs also shifted.

The population health conferences from the 1950s onward cemented a broad consensus we have since reached on the value of reproductive choice; family planning allows a woman to safely time and space her pregnancies. It supports female empowerment by giving her the tools to make her own decisions, and it lays a ripe foundation that encourages education, promotes gender equality, and supports workplace participation. The gains are not only for her. They support us all.

Continued efforts to expand family planning resources remain underway around the world. In Nigeria—Africa’s largest democracy in which abortion access remains heavily restricted—women’s reproductive health organization Ipas has partnered with the Nigerian police force to train officers to serve as allies for women seeking pre- and post-abortion care. Niger has launched “schools for husbands,” in which spouses learn about family planning options, a means to both debunk the myths and leave husbands with the factual information as they, per their culture, assess their wife’s options. In India, the nonprofit Pathfinders International is working alongside local Indian health providers to introduce injectable contraceptives as an alternative to the traditional mass sterilization processes. In the U.S., advocacy groups maintain active challenges to policy proposals threatening women’s abortion rights. Yet despite the progress, 225 million women and girls lack access to modern contraceptive methods and 47,000 die annually from unsafe abortions. The movement has come too far to slow down now.

The campaign for reproductive choice played to the times to arise to a place where we can address women’s rights outside of the strict dynamic of economic benefits. The movement’s evolution underscores the importance of understanding the climate in which you operate to establish messaging that resonates. As change makers within the communications field, we dig into these emotional chords to create language that connects will to heart. We dexterously challenge the status quo while heeding the line between revolutionary and extreme. Language has a powerful ability to influence public opinion and shape policy direction. With the evidence of a movement that ultimately established family planning as a fundamental human right, we understand that it’s not only the advocates that incite change, but the semantics behind the platform that work in tandem to make the difference.

About the Author: Emma Beck is an account executive at LEVICK, a global strategic communications agency. 



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