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Reframing the debate: How language changes hearts & minds

IPPF is changing the way it talks about sexual and reproductive health and rights. The use of language to reflect an approach that is urgent, consistent, and inclusive is critical to the success of our mission.

Conveying the moral urgency

In recent years, we have seen an increasing rise of coercive movements across the globe, threatening gender equality, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. They use powerful, emotive and very simple slogans and language to reinforce their agenda. Yet the language we use is often not grounded in an urgent, moral response to these dangers. This leaves us vulnerable to being drowned out by the opposition.

To ensure our voice is heard it is vital we strengthen our communications and messaging to convey a moral urgency to the values we uphold. There are serious human consequences when sexual and reproductive health and rights are denied; women forced through an unwanted pregnancy, while access to the internet leaves young people vulnerable to misinformation and worse on matters to do with sexuality and relationships.

The vocabulary of sexual and reproductive health and rights is not only medical and technical; it is also intimate, sensitive, complex, political, and emotive. It is vital that we understand and use words with care.

What is values-based reframing?

IPPF has undergone a process of reframing its messaging in all communications across advocacy, resource mobilization and programmes. We are restructuring the debate around shared values through positive storytelling, which demonstrates the impact that our work has on individuals and communities.

A reframing approach takes time, engagement and commitment supported by strategic communications and an understanding of cultural contexts and nuances.

“Reframing is not easy or simple. It is not a matter of finding some magic words. Frames are ideas, not slogans. Reframing is more a matter of accessing what we and like-minded others already believe unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it till it enters the public discourse. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process. It requires repetition and focus and dedication.” George Lakoff

Applying a moral urgency to our reframed messages will enable us to communicate our values, and shape progressive and influential winning narratives on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Speaking to shared values

Sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates and activists must message in a way that is true to ourselves, but which will also be heard by people whose values may not be exactly the same as ours.

A simple example of a frame is focusing on the fact we care, which immediately shifts our message from technical to empathetic and urgent, and more likely to reach people in the ‘middle’. Replacing the word ‘service/s’ with ‘care’ — contraceptive care, abortion care, healthcare — is a simple but effective frame.

“We care about the women, and men, the children families in our communities. We recognize their rights to be free, to remain unharmed, and to live a life in dignity and safety.”

The Together for Yes campaign, ran by The National Campaign to Remove the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, is a perfect example of effective vales based language. The campaign put care and compassion at the heart of its messaging, creating support for these shared values and the momentum needed for change. Consequently, in May 2018, people voted for a more caring and compassionate Ireland; where women can access abortion care in their own country.

Life is a powerful frame. People care about life. If we pitch life against freedom and justice, people will care more about the first and less about the latter. It is instantly a more compelling storyline that conveys urgency.

“We stand for the right to a free reproductive life.”

It takes time to establish a new way of thinking about something, and the more you repeat the frames, the more they will begin to sound like the norm and start to ‘stick’.

Appropriate use of language respects the dignity, choices, bodily integrity and rights of all concerned, and avoids adding to stigmatization and rejection. It helps create the social change needed to assert sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is important that our words are clear and accurate while being empowering and engaging.

Further reading:

George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling: The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic and The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics

George Lakoff: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

The New Yorker: Why facts don’t change our minds

We are not the only organization changing how language is used. The Guardian, for example, has made six changes to language referenced in their style guide for use across the environment and climate crisis coverage.

Words by Laura Feeney & Cosmina Marian | IPPF

Written by

Around the world, International Planned Parenthood Federation provides healthcare & protects people's health and lives from sexual and reproductive coercion.

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